Air Chief Marshal(Retd) Satish Kumar Sareen, more2, Indian Airforce

Check on Sareen's antecedents: A military intelligence goof-up

Defence Minister George Fernandes with (from left) Vice-Chief of the Army Staff Lt. Gen. Chandra Shekhar, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen.

October 5, 1998: The office of the Director-General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) had forwarded the name of Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen to the Deputy Commissioner of Police (PM Security) for the check on his antecedents in connection with the Commandersí Conference beginning October 26 here.

An independent inquiry conducted by the Defence Ministry has established that the name of Air Chief Marshal Sareen was forwarded, along with the names of some other senior officers for obtaining security clearance for "special security passes" for the Commandersí Conference to be held in the high security South Block, in a letter written from the office of DGMI. The first name on the list forwarded to DCP(PM Security) was that of Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen.

Sources in the Defence Ministry disclosed that the letter was written by an officer of MI-9, which was the office of DGMI, on August 8, 1998, and had the approval of the Vice-Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Chandrashekhar. The letter written by the office of the DGMI was a follow up to an earlier letter written by the office of Joint Secretary (Military), who represents the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, who incidentally is Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen himself.

According to sources, the government was also now upset with the Air Chief Marshal for the manner in which attempts had been made to publicise the issue. The manner in which he had made attempts to involve the Chiefs of the other two wings of the Armed Forces to project that deliberate attempts had been made by the bureaucracy to run down the office of the chiefs had also apparently greatly angered the government.

The government has already ordered an inquiry into the goof-up. The inquiry is being conducted by Additional Secretary (Home) R.D. Kapoor.

Intriguingly, not only did the office of DGMI realise that the name heading the list was that of Air Chief Marshal Sareen, but even the office of DCP(PM Security) did not realise the importance of the man and forwarded the name to the intelligence unit of Uttar Pradesh for the checking of his antecedents.

Sources said the MI-9 officer who had sent the letter bearing No. A/33015/MI-9, gave details like his present address, which was the Air House located on Akbar Road in New Delhi and his permanent address which was of Dehradun. Subsequently, DCP (PM, Security) informed the Uttar Pradesh state intelligence unit to check on the address of Dehradun.

The inquiry conducted by a lady Sub-inspector of the Uttar Pradesh police on September 28, which was blamed on the PMO, had sent shock waves in defence circles.

Sources disclosed that it was the joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, of which Air Chief Marshal Sareen is the Chairman, was the nodal agency for organising the Combined Commandersí Conference.

The Chief of Staff Committee office was represented by Rear Admiral Sanjiv Kapoor who was also the Joint Secretary (Military). On behalf of Rear Admiral Kapoor, from his office, Group Captain J. Narohna wrote to the DCP, PMís security on July 23 (letter No. DMW/35119/CCC), requesting the DCP to obtain clearance for officers attending the Prime Ministerís address during the conference so that special security passes could be issued.

The letter also said that the Service Headquarters and other agencies would forward the details of officers attending the PMís address and the nominal role of personnel employed for various arrangements so that passes could be made for them.

This letter further said that Service HQ and other agencies would forward the details to MI-9 who would then send it to DCP (PM Security) for necessary action.

It was after that, MI-9 sent the letter to PMís security which had Air Chief Marshal Sareenís name right on the top.

The subsequent inquiry at the Air Chiefís private house in Dehradun, where his father lives, brought protests from politicians and bureaucrats. According to reports, the three Service Chiefs were even trying to meet the Prime Minister to express their displeasure on the issue.

Incident of 3rd October, 1998

An extract from former Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat's book: Defence Minister George Fernandes encouraged anarchy in the Armed Forces, says Admiral Bhagwat.

Ved Malik, Satish Sareen and I met at Air House at about 5 p.m. Air Chief Marshal Sareen related the incident in the following manner:

When Satish Sareen received a call from his octogenarian father in the night from Dehra Dun about the Intelligence people visiting his house for a verification check, for the forthcoming Senior Officers Conference where the PM would be present, the implication being that there was some question about the loyalty and character of a Head of the Service, he rang up Shri George Fernandes at about 11 p.m. and told him about the incident, adding,

"That he did not wish to serve this Government for a minute more.

First you (RM), Defence Secretary and the MoD tried to character assassinate me and now you are doing it to the Navy Chief...

You are trying to break the Armed Forces".

George Fernandes listened to him and blandly said "Maybe there's some mistake, we will find out".

The Air Chief Marshal then rang up Home Minister L.K. Advani, his daughter first took the telephone, then called the Home Minister and Sareen repeated to him the words, which he had earlier told the Defence Minister. L.K. Advani said "There is some mistake, we will get back to you". Sareen also rang up Prabhat Kumar, the Cabinet Secretary and received the said standard response. After some 30 minutes or so Rajiv Gauba the Private Secretary to Defence Minister rang up "we have spoken to the Chief Secretary, UP who says "Nothing of the kind happened, must be somebody else. We have posted a Security man at your father's place". There was no apology or even a 'sorry' from anyone.

Next morning the Air Chief met the Defence Minister and told him; "all this 'nonsense' must stop. You have got 31 cases of Air Force Officers to be discharged pending with MoD. Yet after creating all the trouble in the Air Force, you are sitting with all the records and evidence. Why?"

The response of Gen. Malik was nonchalant as usual. He said he read about the incident in Hindustan Times while he was at Alwar. Army officers in Alwar asked him about it "but I didn't know the facts".

Earlier Defence Ministers were, Fernandes believed, all namby-pamby softies. What did they know, compared to a man who had hands-on experience of the LTTE, the Northeast and the Burmese rebels.

Defence Minister George Fernandes

According to Gen. Malik, a King's Commission Indian Officer (Retd.) rang him (COAS) and said "Don't back down ..... It is an attack on the Armed Forces as an Institution". Malik said "I'm ready to go to the PM with you (Sareen) and the Chief of Naval Staff".

The PM never met the three of us, even as a formality. "Lots of Press people are ringing up. Our response should be we are upset as it casts aspersions on the Armed Forces and it is not an individual matter" Ved Malik said. Malik had also spoken to S. Narendra to say Swagat Ghosh, Director Public Relations, Ministry of Defence should be removed.

Ved Malik added that "...He had asked for a separate meeting with PM on Bhutan and LOC with Pakistan following PM-Nawaz Sharif talks. He had asked the PM--"No firing" order to the Army? Meaning the infiltrators can cross?"

Satish Sareen also related the story of the Air Force's procurement of a comprehensive avionics package. Messers Sagem had made a bid which was the most competitive on technical and commercial grounds. A later bid by Secant had been brought into the PNC (Price Negotiating Committee). Ashok Mehta's article in the Sunday 20-26 September 98 issue, was a tie-up with Ajit Kumar, to give a character Certificate to Ajit Kumar with the photograph caption "Let's be above board". Secant bid was 25% above Sagem. Secant was brought in by Ajit Kumar.

A so-called, one man enquiry was ordered on the IB investigation of Sareen. Matters were allowed to cool down. Later Press leaks stated that Sareen had "invented" the story to put a red herring across the trail. What a way to treat a Head of a Defence Service! Earlier at the same meeting on 3rd October, Ved Malik and I recalled the 26th January 1998 incident; when tanks were told not to swing their turrets towards the saluting dais and dip their guns in salute; and Ved Malik had to intervene with a threat that "tanks will then not participate".

Breach blocks of rifles of the armed forces guards in Rashtrapati Bhawan were already being removed. Now they were ordered to be removed for the Republic Day Parade. Were BN Mullik's ghosts being resurrected?

Sareen summed up our discussions, or a tete-a-tete if you like to call it, by saying "What had happened between the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Secretary and the Air Force can fill four volumes!!"

Retired defence officers ask PM to apologise

CHANDIGARH, Oct 5, 1998 ó An apology by the Prime Minister and an enquiry by a serving Judge of the Supreme Court have been demanded by several senior retired defence personnel residing in the city and adjoining areas to express their resentment against the verification into the antecedents of Air Chief Marshal S K Sareen, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Addressing a Press conference here today, Air Marshal Randhir Singh, Air Marshal R.S. Bedi, Lt-Gen K.S. Gill, Maj-Gen Rajinder Nath, Maj-Gen A.S. Gill and other senior officers said the morale of the defence forces had been dealt a severe blow by this action. "What would have been the outcome if the police official(in this case a sub inspector) had in his or her wisdom or perception given an unfavourable report", they questioned.

This kind of episode gave the impression that senior defence officers in the country were under police surveillance. The Prime Minister should realise that it is a very serious matter. Such checks, they asserted , were never carried out in any enlightened democracy.

It was "scandalous" that a lowly placed police functionaries are sent to verify the antecedents of senior officers who between them were responsible for the security of the nation, commanded lakhs of troops and managed resources worth billions. The incident, according to them, was a deep rooted conspiracy to sow the seeds of mistrust in the minds of the politicians by bureaucrats without taking into account the morale of troops laying down their lives fighting insurgency and terrorism in various parts of the country.

The gathering was of the view that the Supreme Commander, the President, should also take up the matter with the government and ensure that the persons responsible for the lapse, like so many lapses in the past, did not go scotfree.

At the outset, Air Marshal Singh declared that the forces were not going to take over the country as was being projected by people with vested interests. The forces had always displayed courage and valour but had been given short shrift by the powers that be.

It was in view of such episodes that they have been demanding that the Ministry of Defence(MoD) should be staffed by uniformed officers who knew the working of the forces. Civilians with little knowledge of defence matters were misleading the government, they added.