[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

From MIZZIMA News Group (r)

Leech: Fernandes said cool it, Bhagwat said don't meddle

>From the Indian Express newspaper
10th May 1999

OPERATION Leech would have remained pretty much out of public view had it
not been for the war of words between George Fernandes and former Naval
Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. It was During this exchange of charges and
counter-charges that a note dated July 27, 1998, came to light.

Issued by then Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar - under instructions from
Fernandes who had taken charge just a few months earlier - the note asked
all three service chiefs to exercise "utmost restraint" in launching
operations in the Andamans area "in view of the objections likely to be
raised by Myanmar and Thailand."

And that "service HQ is not to act on any intelligence relating to
gun-running and other illegal activities in Andamans seas without the
approval of the Government."

The timing of the note raised several questions. It came after the NUPA
had complained to Fernandes about the plight of its rebels in the Port
Blair prison alleging that they had been assured safe passage and were now
being held as gun-runners.

In a taped interview with The Indian Express, Bhagwat recalled how the
three chiefs protested against the order in a meeting with the Defence
Minister on August 8, 1998. "We told him these are routine and mandated
operations and there will be no prior information or approval...the same
evening we got another note saying the operations could  be only carried
out in an exclusive economic zone. Basically, the earlier order was
modified in a clever manner to make it appear to be a relaxation without
it being a relaxation and still tying our feet."

However, Fernandes claims that one, the July 27 order was issued on advice
from the Indian Ambassador in Yangon and two, the next operation
(Operation Poorab in which 22 Myanmarese rebels were captured but no FIR
was lodged) was cleared by a Committee of Secretaries. So there was no
question of any let-up in the campaign against gun-running. Operation
Poorab was precisely conducted 30 miles East of the Narcodum Islands. Once
the rebels realised the Indian Navy was tailing them, they sunk their
vessels, arms and allegedly a consignment of narcotics. 22 of them were
rescued by divers, detained in Port Blair for a few days and then

After Bhagwat's exit, Fernandes admitted, in a TV interview, to having
received "inputs" from the Indian Embassy in Yangon and that the July 27
order had been issued by him since he was dealing with the "experience" of
Operation Leech.

And what was this experience? "We got six people killed. Seventy three
persons are today in jail of whom 37 are fisherfolk whose fishing boats
were hijacked and who had nothing to do with any operation at all. We have
not been able to file a charge-sheet more than a year after this
particular incident, the various agencies of the Government, the CBI and a
whole lot of other agencies are involved and concerned..." Fernandes said.

Bagwat attacked this as a needless obsession with human rights and one
that jeopardised the Navy's operations in tackling militancy. He now says
that even if some inputs had been received from Yangon, the restraint
order was uncalled for. "I am sorry, but our mission in Myanmar cannot
control routine and mandated operations of the armed forces. The
Ambassador is not the supreme commander of the armed forces sitting in
Yangon. As far as the Committee of Secretaries is concerned, no Secretary
of Cabinet Secretary can give orders without the Cabinet Ministers
approval...there is a lot more to Operation Leech then what meets the
eye...and the George Fernandes is a the centre of it."

Another aspect of the Operation Leech controversy is the role of then Vice
Admiral Harinder Singh who was the Fortress Commander. Bhagwat cited
Harinder Singh's absence from Port Blair during Operation Leech on
February 11, 1998, as an example of his callous approach. Harinder Singh
was on leave since February 2 and claimed - in a Redressal of Grievance -
that he had applied for leave much in advance and that the Naval
authorities were informed about the operation only on February 9, just two
days before it occurred. He also said that once he knew the Operation was
on, he "monitored" it closely from New Delhi.

Once Harinder was back in Port Blair, he and Bhagwat began to disagree on
what should be done with the prisoners. Harinder Singh is known to have
advocated immediate release of the fishermen and blamed Bhagwat for
blocking any Army official involved in the operation from giving evidence
to the CBI. However, Bhagwat says he did not allow his officers to give
evidence since he was concerned about their security. "The men involved in
the Operation do not have SPG cover. Their identity has to be protected
and it was my duty to protect them. Since the country does not have
maritime courts and the situation created after Operation Leech was
unprecedented, the recording of evidence in the Port Blair case became a
ticklish problem."

"37 declared innocent"

Four days before the deadline of May 11, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of
Port Blair has declared as "innocent" the 37 Thai and Myanmarese fishermen
who have spent the last 15th months behind bars. The May 7 order follows
the CBI's filing of a "final report" in the Operation Leech case, stating
that they now had confirmations from Interpot and through diplomatic
channels about the nationalities of the 37 men and their nature of work.

The order says that while investigations against the "militants" were
continuing, those against the accused fishermen have been completed.
"There is no charge against them and as such no charge can be levelled
against them," and that they could be immediately released. The order is
silent about what will happen to the remaining 36 "militants" belonging to
the Arakan Army and Karen National Army and CBI sources say their
detention would continue as would the investigations of the Operation
Leech case.

MIZZIMA News Group
H3/15 , Vikas Puri,
New Delhi-110018