India's top leaders on Wednesday denied a rift between the country's civilian government and its military brass after an article in a leading national newspaper described a tense episode in January in which civilian leaders became deeply unnerved when two army units advanced on the capital in an unannounced night-time drill.
The Indian Express, an English-language daily, reported on Wednesday that on the evening of January 16 and the next morning, detachments of mechanized infantry and other troops began rolling toward New Delhi from two directions without notifying the Defense Ministry, as protocol requires. Uncertain what was happening, civilian authorities "raised an alert" and eventually ordered the army to return the units to their bases, the newspaper reported.
The article, splashed across the front page, created a sensation in the Indian news media, stirring a discussion on the country's all-news channels and on Twitter, where many criticized The Express for, they said, sensationalizing the episode when relations between civilian and military leaders are already fraught.
"These are alarmist reports and should not be taken at face value," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters.
The Defense Ministry denied that any communication breakdown had occurred, and described the exercises as routine. "This is baseless," Defense Minister A. K. Antony said after appearing at a ceremony in southern India. "There is no communication gap between the army and the Ministry of Defense."
For three months, India's military and civilian leaders have struggled to maintain a unified front amid a very public dispute between the Indian Army chief, General Vijay Kumar Singh, and the government. In January, General Singh sued the government in the country's Supreme Court over the conflicting years of his birth date in military records - an issue linked to the timing of his mandatory retirement. The court sided with the government.
Last month, General Singh set off another controversy when he told another newspaper, The Hindu, that he had been offered a large bribe by a lobbyist working for a military contractor. He said he had reported the bribe to Mr. Antony, but neither man apparently acted on the issue. Also last month, Indian news media reported on a leaked letter in which the general warned the prime minister that the Indian military was poorly equipped and woefully unprepared to address challenges posed by China.
Defense Ministry and military officials have said the episode described by The Express was a routine drill to test the mobility of army units at night in foggy conditions. But The Express reported that the army had not notified the ministry, and that the defense minister and prime minister had learned of the movement from intelligence agencies.
At one point, the Defense Ministry put in effect "a contingency plan" meant to impede the units: a false terrorism alert to prompt the police to set up roadblocks and slow traffic into the capital. Eventually, defense officials spoke to a general who assured them that the movements were a routine drill. Regardless, the army was told to end the drill and send the units back.
In a statement, The Express defended its reporting as "meticulous" and said the government had still not explained the underlying questions raised by the episode.
"Neither side explained why the Ministry of Defense wasn't notified, why the troops were suddenly asked to go back and what explanation was offered, if any, by the army to the government," the statement said.
Shekhar Gupta, the editor in chief and the lead writer of the article, said The Express was not insinuating that military leaders had been moving against the government. Instead, Mr. Gupta said, the episode revealed the depth of mistrust between civilian and military leaders.
Uday Bhaskar, a retired Indian Navy commodore, said the military's allegiance to upholding the Indian Constitution and India's democracy was unshakable. But he agreed that mistrust between military and civilian leaders had deepened, partly because of the poisonous political environment in New Delhi, which he said was fueled by an increasingly sensationalistic media.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said: "The relationship between the army and the political leadership is at an all-time low. This is a matter of deep concern."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service