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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

L’affaire Viraat

Sunday 19 May 2019, by S G Vombatkere

Prime Minister Modi’s electoral campaign “expose” of misuse of naval assets by the late ex-PM, Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia Gandhi and a host of others with them in 1987 during a visit to Lakshwadeep Islands aboard INS Viraat, has naval circles buzzing.

This is not in defence of what the then PM Rajiv Gandhi did or did not do, but to rue the continuing politicisation of our military, with the Indian Navy also now dragged into the on-going electoral political slugfest. It is also to put a perspective on l’affaire Viraat, and think aloud some disturbing thoughts on what Veterans, triggered by electoral campaigns, are speaking.


Retired Lt Cdr Harinder Sikka is reported as having said: “Prime Minister in INS Viraat is ok but his wife was a foreign national and sensitive information was at stake. No one, even Navy officers, was allowed inside but here they were holidaying.” [<> ] He had voiced his objection to his Commanding Officer, he says, and was asked to “shut up”.

In 1987, Sonia Gandhi was an Indian national, having obtained Indian citizenship in 1983. [<> ] The “sensitive information” bit appears far fetched, because foreign military officers on study courses in India (like at the National Defence College) used to and still do go out to sea on board Indian warships including aircraft carriers. According to security standing orders and normal practice, places which are sensitive or critical from operational and intelligence angles are barred even to serving Indian naval officers who are not immediately concerned with operations or intelligence.

The official visit of the then PM Rajiv Gandhi to Lakshadweep Islands was just three years after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi. At that time, even as today, he was remembered for insensitively justifying the riots by reportedly saying: “When a big tree falls, the ground is bound to shake.” The antipathy to the then PM Rajiv Gandhi of a sailor of INS Viraat who may have been a direct or indirect victim of the 1984 riots, is perhaps understandable, although that may not indicate the accuracy or veracity of his statement.

Visitors on board Warships

Warships at anchor sometimes invite the public to come on board as a part of public relations and to enthuse youngsters to join the Navy. For example, aircraft carrier INS Vikrant had visited Madras (now Chennai) in 1983. The general public of the city was allowed on board and conducted in orderly batches around the warship. It is highly unlikely that any sailor of the crew would have found such an event objectionable from the security point of view to bring it to the notice of his Commanding Officer.

Also, during international joint naval exercises, officers of foreign navies sail on board Indian warships and our naval officers reciprocally sail on board foreign warships, but naturally they do not have access to certain areas of the warship like the operations room. This is rigorously followed especially in present times when almost everybody has a mobile phone with recording devices.

Experiencing the Military

Important persons are sometimes taken out to sea in warships simply to provide them the experience. This is like flying special persons in fighter aircraft simply for the experience—the late President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, flew in an Indian Air Force fighter aircraft and most recently, the Indian Air Force took Defence Minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman aloft. There are no information security or intelligence concerns in these outings although the physical security of the VIP passenger is certainly involved.

Similarly in 2005, Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, accompanied by his personal staff members, sailed from Porbandar in an Indian Navy warship for the unforgettable experience of time out at sea. In contrast, according to IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah, Administrator of Lakshadweep Islands in 1987, the then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s travel to Lakshadweep Islands in INS Viraat was for an official visit.

Thirtytwo years ago

The newspaper, The Indian Express, published the following on January 24, 1988, in connection with the then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Lakshadweep Islands: “The Prime Minister’s party which holidayed at Lakshadweep consisted of Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka, Ajitabh Bachchan’s three daughters,... Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya, their children, Sweta and Abhishek,... Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s mother Mrs P. Maino, her sister, Nadia Valdimero, and her child, G Valdimero, Sonia’s brother-in-law, Walter Winci..., a German friend of Sonia’s called Sabina...”. This is perhaps the basis for PM Modi’s “taxi service” accusation.

For information and/or physical security reasons, and as a matter of course, any person, military or civilian, Indian or foreigner, who is not a member of the crew, cannot sail in a warship without official sanction. If, as reported, the then PM Rajiv Gandhi had holidayed in Lakshadweep Islands with a party, there would surely be documents which authorised their boarding INS Viraat or any other accompanying warship. The MoD would surely have access to the relevant documents in this connection.

Military Divisions

The foregoing is not to claim or to support the view that military resources or military assets are never misused or misappropriated. It is also not to argue that such misuse should not be brought to the notice of the public, because only the public glare provided by the media can be a brake on misuse of public resources. But it is an attempt to undo the damage of dragging India’s armed forces into electoral campaigns, thus politicising and dividing its personnel.

Whatsoever be the 32-year-old “facts”, the present INS Viraat controversy has politicised serving military personnel and Veterans by dividing them into “opinion camps”. One believes PM Modi’s “taxi service” accusation made during his election campaign, with some Veterans viciously attacking their erstwhile comrades. The other believes the senior naval officers who were personally present on INS Viraat along with the then PM Rajiv Gandhi or in the accompanying support warships, and who state unequivocally that the then PM Rajiv Gandhi was on an official visit on board INS Viraat with Sonia Gandhi and their son Rahul Gandhi, and no others were on board.

A divided, politicised military is the worst nightmare for any military leader at any level, from the command, control and discipline angles. Today, India’s armed forces could well be at a crossroads, dangerous for national integrity and national security.

L’affaire Viraat leaves us with troubling thoughts in these changing times. US-based TIME magazine, which in earlier years declared PM Modi to be among the world’s most influential persons, has caricatured PM Modi on its cover with the caption “India’s divider in chief”. Is this justified?

Major General S.G. Vombatkere was commissioned as an officer into the Corps of Engineers (Madras Sappers) in 1962, and retired in 1996. In 1993, he was awarded the Visishta Seva Medal for distinguished services rendered during military service in the high-altitude region of Ladakh.

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