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NEW DELHI — India’s government and the army denied on Wednesday an “alarmist” front-page newspaper report detailing how troop movements towards the capital in January had spooked the cabinet.
The Indian Express claimed the unnotified night-time deployments had sparked concern about a possible coup at a time when relations between the head of the 1.13-million-strong army and the government are strained.
“These are alarmist reports and should not be taken at face value,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told journalists at parliament.
The newspaper said the government had taken measures as a precaution on January 16-17, including asking lookouts to identify the soldiers involved and ordering police to slow traffic on the highways into the capital.
“Absolutely baseless,” Defence Minister A.K. Antony told reporters in response to the claim the government had been worried, adding: “They (the army) will not do anything against Indian democracy. They are true patriots.”
He said the deployments by a column of mechanized infantry travelling in armoured personnel carriers and a separate column of paratroopers were “usual, natural activities”.
Indian Army spokesman Colonel Jagdeep Dahiya told AFP that the story in the respected broadsheet was “baseless and incorrect”.
“Certain troops’ movements which have been reported were part of routine training as per standard operating procedures,” he said.
The Express cleared its front-page for the report under a dramatic three-line headline stating: “The January night Raisina Hill (the political establishment) was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt.”
Quoting several unnamed sources, it said that the defence minister and the prime minister were informed and the troops were ordered to halt. They were then sent back to their bases in states neighbouring the capital area.
The army explained afterwards that the deployments were to test the capabilities of the infantry to operate in fog and for the paratroopers to link up with their transports.
While these were initially “viewed with skepticism”, the Express reported, the defence ministry had since come to the conclusion it was “a false alarm caused by some non-adherence to standard operating procedures by the army.”
The incident was important because it underlined the distrust between the army and the government, the paper stressed in the story which was jointly written by its high-profile editor Shekhar Gupta.
India’s army chief V.K. Singh has had a public falling out with his civilian bosses sparked by his bid to stay in office for an extra year.
In January, the same day as the manoeuvres detailed in the Express, he took his case to the Supreme Court, asking for his birth date registered in army records to be changed. He claimed the birth date had been wrongly recorded.
The army chief faces mandatory retirement this May at the age of 62.
Since this dispute, he has embarrassed Antony by detailing how he was offered a $2.8 million bribe in 2010 to fix a supply contract, a complaint which was not followed up by the government.
Last week, a letter he wrote to the prime minister complaining how India’s tank fleet lacks ammunition, its air defences are “97 per cent obsolete” and its elite forces need essential weapons was leaked to the media.
General Singh denounced the leak as treason and urged “ruthless” treatment of any persons found responsible.