Why would an Army Chief, who retired two-and-a-half years ago be posted to an island country that has gained strategic importance for India?

 

Chandigarh: Last Thursday the government named former Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag as the next high commissioner to Seychelles, a 459 sq km archipelago comprising 115 islands in the Indian Ocean and located 1,500 km from Somalia and Kenya on the mainland of East Africa.

General Suhag will be the seventh retired Army Chief and 16th Service Chief to be assigned the responsibility of heading an Indian diplomatic mission. In all, a total 18 retired defence officers have been posted as India’s ambassador or high commissioner overseas. While 16 of these 18 officers are retired Service Chiefs, the two other retired defence officers include one lieutenant general (Srinivas Kumar Sinha) and one brigadier (Bhiwani Singh). The service-wise break-up of these 16 retired Chiefs comprise seven Army Chiefs, five Air Force Chiefs and four Navy Chiefs.

Interestingly, it is after 38 years that the government has appointed a retired Army Chief as a head of a foreign mission. Former Army Chief General Om Prakash Malhotra was the last Chief of Army Staff to be given a diplomatic assignment (to Indonesia from 1981-1984). Otherwise the last Army officer to be posted on a diplomatic assignment overseas was Brigadier Bhiwani Singh as High Commissioner to Brunei from 1994 to 1997 and, shortly before that, Lt General S.K. Sinha, a former Vice Chief of Army Staff, to Nepal in 1990.

However, the last former Service Chief as such to be assigned a diplomatic posting was Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne as ambassador to Norway. Although he held this post from August 2014 to April 2016, he was named ambassador by the then outgoing Congress-led UPA-2 government. General Suhag is the first former service officer to be assigned a diplomatic posting by the present and also an outgoing government.

But these facts and statistics apart, the appointment gives rise to two moot questions: One, why would an Army Chief, who retired two-and-a-half years ago in December 2016 with a fairly routine professional record, be posted to an island country that has gained strategic importance for India? Second, is there a criterion which determines such appointments or is it based on politics, proximity or, possibly, even a quid quo pro?

If at all a retired defence officer was to be posted as the High Commissioner to Seychelles, it may have made more sense to appoint a former Navy Chief, considering that India has been keen to develop a naval and air base in Seychelles’ Assumption Island located not far from the Mozambique Channel and otherwise located 1,135 km south west of Victoria, the country’s capital.

Since 2003, India has maintained a military cooperation agreement with Seychelles. India has helped create a coastal radar surveillance system and extended a $100 million defence related Line of Credit to augment the nation’s defence capabilities to boost its maritime capabilities. In addition, India has donated three patrol vessels and two Dornier aircraft to assist Victoria’s maritime security.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Victoria in March 2015, the two countries signed a landmark agreement to jointly work on a $550 million defence project in Assumption Islands that would include developing an airstrip, a jetty and a housing infrastructure for the Seychelles Coast Guard, all to be funded by New Delhi.

Unfortunately, following a regime change in Victoria soon after, the agreement was stonewalled by Seychelles’ 33-member National Assembly, which was opposed to according India permission to establish a military facility in their country. Attempts have since been made to revive the agreement. During Seychelles’ President Danny Faure’s State visit to India in June last year, the two countries agreed to work together on the joint military project in Assumption Islands. It was as part of this agreement that India extended a $100 million defence related Line of Credit to Seychelles and also agreed to provide a second Dornier-228 aircraft for maritime patrol.

In every Summit during the Cold War era, the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) passed resolutions demanding that the Indian Ocean be declared a zone of peace to keep the then two superpowers (US and the former Soviet Union) out of this near land locked ocean. NAM was specifically opposed to the significant American military presence on the British-leased Diego Garcia islands located south of the Maldives archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The islands are claimed by Mauritius.

However, for the last decade-and-a-half, China has been making forays into the Indian Ocean, with the PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army Navy) regularly plying its ships and submarines in the ocean. In August 2017, China established its first military outpost overseas by establishing a naval base in Djibouti where the US, France and Japan already have military bases. Incidentally, India is also engaged in similar discussions with this tiny East African country in the Horn of Africa located next to one of the world’s busiest shopping lanes that controls access to the southern entrance to the Red Sea and thence onwards to the Suez Canal.

Thus Seychelles, once considered too small and insignificant, has gained an important stature for India, which is saddled with countering China’s political, economic, military and soft power influence in the Indian Ocean littoral states. India thus needs more astute and appropriate diplomatic representation in these countries and, for that matter, the world over.

Unfortunately, successive governments have been appointing Service Chiefs with not so distinguished records. General Pran Nath Thapar, who led the Army into defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, was posted as ambassador to Afghanistan (1964 to 1969). General Joyanto Nath Chaudhuri, who nearly caused a debacle in Punjab during the 1965 India-Pakistan War, was posted as high commissioner to Canada while General Gopal Gurunath Bewoor, who was given an extension by Indira Gandhi’s government in order to be made Army Chief, was later sent as ambassador to Denmark. Admiral Sureesh Mehta, during whose tenure India’s maritime security was breached in the 26/11 terror attacks, was posted to New Zealand as high commissioner. The list of more distinguished officers being assigned diplomatic assignments is comparatively shorter, while far more deserving retired defence officers have been simply not considered. This naturally raises the question of criteria and merit.

It is of course also both ironical and interesting that General Suhag, who was appointed Army Chief by the Congress-led UPA-2 government on 14 May 2014, just two days before the Lok Sabha election results were announced and a full two months and 17 days before his predecessor’s retirement, was once seriously opposed for appointment by the BJP and placed under a “disciplinary and vigilance ban” by General Vijay Kumar Singh, then Army Chief and currently a Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs. How times change!

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