NEW DELHI-- A front-page article in the Indian Express on Wednesday had all the hallmarks of a juicy scoop, but appears to have been more theater than truth.
The story claimed that two units of mechanized infantry and paratroopers marched towards the Indian capital through thick night fog in January without informing the government. The troop movement “spooked” top officials, the newspaper said.
The report was immediately dismissed by officials as baseless, who pointed out that the story of the troop movement had already been reported— 20 days earlier, on the Indian news site Rediff, which described it as a routine training procedure.
Still, Wednesday’s story re-kindled a hot debate in India about the deepening rift between the military and the government. Army chief, V. K. Singh and the government have been locked in a series of rows over his tenure, an offer of a bribe and his letter saying India’s military defense lacked weapons and equipment critical to fighting a war.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said this week that the “relationship between the army and the government is at an all-time low.” He said the government of Prime Minister Singh has “messed a whole lot of things in governance, the army is a victim of that.”
The prime minister dismissed Wednesday’s newspaper report as “alarmist,” while deputy defense minister Pallam Raju called the report “irresponsible and anti-national.”
The army said in a statement on Wednesday that the troop movement was part of routine training, designed to measure its effectiveness in adverse weather conditions. The military exercise had first been discussed in mid-March on Rediff, which said the army was testing “readiness for quick armed intervention in India's immediate neighborhood.” Nearly three weeks later, the Express reported on its front page that the troops reached the suburbs of New Delhi before being ordered back by alarmed senior officials.
In a coincidence that fueled suspicion, the event took place on the same day that Singh petitioned the Supreme Court to issue an order changing his recorded date of birth, which would allow him to extend his tenure another year. Singh, who is scheduled to retire in May, is currently in Nepal to attend a seminar on natural disaster management.
India-based journalists and media watchers denounced the Indian Express story on Twitter. “Indian Express scoop recipe: two parts hearsay, one part speculation, one part imagination. Garnish with famous byline and serve cold,” wrote Sadanand Dhume, the South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Retired army officers and military analysts appeared on Indian television to say the possibility of a coup was unthinkable and warn that journalists must not carry articles that malign the army.
In response to a Hindustan Times poll asking whether a coup was possible in India, 65 percent of readers said no, 32 percent said yes, and 3 percent responded “can’t say.”