Defence correspondents who were taken to Pokhran to witness a slice of Exercise Brazen Chariots were lied to. Two Army havildars and a gunner were killed when the lower barrel of their 120mm mortar exploded during a range portion of the exercise. It happened just kilometres from where the correspondents stood at about 2pm on March 19.
But instead of informing the press at least that the incident had taken place, the Army systematically covered up the incident. It is a gross violation of professional conduct to hide such an incident. Yet, what the Army's well-oiled publicity machinery did was just oversee bullsh!t, obtuse reports on an exercise nobody really understood. As one correspondent who I spoke to said, the Army had the duty to inform people about the incident. "They insulted the honour of those jawans who were killed by not making an announcement about the incident to the public," he said.
What makes my blood boil even more are the Army's reasons for concealing facts. There were too many foreign dignitaries, and the Army did not want to "rock the boat" of an otherwise well-executed exercise. They thought it was better to let it slide for now. Let all these journalists write about the exercise. They'll get to know about our three dead jawans in the next few days. Why screw up coverage of the exercise by revealing something like this. That was the thought process behind what happened.
The news, incidentally, flashed first on Headlines Today only last evening -- over 24 hours after the incident first took place. I provided a brief phone-in after speaking to Maj Gen Vijay Narula, the ADG Public Information at Army HQ. After the flash of course, everyone else called in to get the facts. All of us had it a day too late. There wasn't even a customary press release informing the country that three of its honourable Army soldiers had died in a dreadful accident in the name of better defence preparedness. They just had a regular crap press release about the stupid exercise. Not one goddamned line about the deceased or the accident. No names. They were de-humanised by the infuriating off-the-record Army version that "they were all Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBORs)".
Army PRO Colonel SK Sakhuja, who was on the trip to Pokhran was contacted yesterday. He had this to say. "I am no longer the Army PRO, as I have relinquished my position. So I do not have any information." When I apprised him that Maj Gen Narula had confirmed the facts to me, this was his response: "Ok, so he has told you. Then it's alright."
I can imagine constraints stopping the Army from announcing deaths in operations, or in sensitive areas. But an exercise in peacetime? Truly, truly shameful. The Army chief should find out how this happened and severely reprimand those who decided on such deceit. According to one journalist, who did a report on his paper's front page today, it was the Army chief himself who ordered that the news be suppressed. What a shame, if that's true.
Rest in peace, Havildar SK Bagh, Havildar Mangu Singh and Gunner Ram Mehar.
Labels: Army, Columns, Controversy, Exercises