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Indian papers May 10

Operation Leech - George vs
Bhagwat, the inside story 

Ritu Sarin   

NEW DELHI, May 9: 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 the 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, "in view of the objections likely to be raised
by Myanmar and Thailand."

It added, "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 Narcondum Islands. Once ther ebels realised
the Indian Navy was tailing them, they sunk their vessels, arms and
allegedly a consignment of narcotics. Twenty-two of them were rescued by
divers, detained in Port Blair for a few days and then released. 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

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.

Bhagwat 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 Mynamar 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 or Cabinet Secretary
can give orders without the Cabinet Minister's approval... there is a lot
more to Operation Leech than what meets the eye... and George Fernandes is
at the centre of it."

Another aspect of 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 well 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 to do with the prisoners. Harinder Singh is known to have advocated
the fishermen's immediate release and blamed Bhagwat for blocking any Army
official involved in the operation from giving evidence to 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 prisoners declared innocent

Four days before the deadline of May 11, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of
Port Blair hasdeclared as ``innocent'', the 37 Thai and Myanmarese
fishermen who have spent the last 15 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 Interpol 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 on 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.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. 

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