26 December 2016

Ex-air chief marshal SP Tyagi seems to have wandered into a minefield

Arun Prakash

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a part of the main....... never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ There is no doubt that these words of poet John Donne echoed subliminally in the mind of every soldier, sailor and airman as he watched TV footage of a man, who once headed the world’s fourth largest air force, being led into a Black Maria to be lodged in the company of criminals in jail. Given the position he held, the arrest of Air Chief Marshal (ACM) SP Tyagi by the Central Bureau of Investigation and his detention for “custodial interrogation” has shaken the armed forces’ community to the core and it should also stir our collective conscience. 

This piece is not being written in defence of the man, but as an expression of anguish by a senior citizen and a cry of dismay by a veteran at this insensitive act of the State. 

Investigations into allegations of corruption relating to the purchase of VVIP helicopters from M/S AugustaWestland of Italy have been going on since early 2013, with bursts of sporadic activity and publicity being triggered by the actions of Italian courts. The manner in which investigations have suddenly acquired urgency is an indication of the high political stakes involved. 

In the steadily worsening relationship between the two national political entities, the helicopter scam may well become the deus ex machina that not only serves to settle high-level political scores, but may also tilt crucial electoral balances in the 0 2017 state elections and 2019 general elections. 

It is this complex web that ACM Tyagi seems to have wandered into, inadvertently or otherwise. The two main charges against him relate to ‘manipulation’ of the helicopter’s specifications to favour a particular company and the alleged subsequent quid pro quo. The procedure in the case of acquisitions by the ministry of defence (MoD) is clear. The specifications, proposed by the concerned (user) Service, require approval of the MoD and once approved can be changed only with express sanction of the defence minister. 

The case of the VVIP helicopter acquisition was unique. The machines were to be operated and maintained by the Indian Air Force, but the end user was the PMO; with the National Security Adviser and the Special Protection Group having a major say in drawing up and/or changing specifications on its behalf. 

Even if the IAF did suggest changes in the specifications, they would have required approval of the MoD and the PMO. The bottom line is that the three Service Chiefs have not been invested with any responsibility, authority or financial powers by the ‘Rules of Business 1962’, which guide the conduct of the Government of India. Under these rules, it is the defence secretary who has the responsibility for the department of defence – to which the Service Chiefs are adjuncts and, occasionally, advisers. So why try to pin all blame on a former Air Force Chief? 

From all accounts, ACM Tyagi has, so far, promptly responded to summons and cooperated fully with the investigating agencies, spending days under interrogation. Surely three years are long enough for the CBI and other agencies to have taken all concerned documents into their possession and examined his financial affairs with a fine toothcomb. There must also be adequate legal provisions, available, to restrict his movements and to ensure his continuing availability for further questioning – for as long as required. 

Against this background, the invocation of ‘custodial interrogation’ makes no sense, unless some medieval methodology is being contemplated. On the other hand, a respectable citizen who is incarcerated in jail, even for a few days, is publicly branded and mentally scarred for life. Whether he is eventually convicted or not, a jail term is punishment enough. 

This piece is not just about the fate of ACM Tyagi, it is about a much larger issue; the self-esteem of the armed forces fraternity, which has received several blows of late. Every time Tyagi’s name or photograph appears in the media or he is paraded as a detainee, every serviceman will feel diminished and demoralised. 

Is this what we want to inflict on our gallant armed forces at this juncture? 

At the same time, it is vital for the nation that the armed forces remain shining exemplars of ethical conduct and moral rectitude; their good name unblemished by any allegations of corruption. This requires that, setting aside, political considerations, ACM Tyagi be given bail and brought to trial at the very earliest. 

Let him prove his innocence or the State his guilt, without delay, in a court of law. 

Admiral Arun Prakash is a former Navy chief

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