The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Modern-day mutiny

New Delhi, June 5: An officer has been charged with mutiny in an army outfit in the 150th year of the 1857 rebellion.

The 1857 revolt in the colonial Indian Army made the word “mutiny” an indispensable part of the vocabulary of Indian history, evoking images of soldiers running amok and slaughtering their superiors.

The officer, who is to be punished on the recommendations of his superior, has done little of that order. But he has upset military protocol and angered the top brass who still follow many traditions that are a legacy of the British Indian Army.

The army-run Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) civilian chief engineer, who is not a uniformed officer, has allegedly appropriated for himself the rank and stature of an army general. He has also apparently asked similarly placed colleagues to do likewise.

The chief engineer, B.B. Lal, wants to wear two stars on his epaulettes — the marks of a major general — and also wants due protocol to be accorded to him, according to the complaint.

The BRO head, Lt Gen. K.S. Rao, has sent a report to the defence ministry on the developments that he describes as “subversive activity which may lead to mutiny”.

According to Rao’s report, the chief engineer issued an order asking all civilian officers in the BRO to be treated on a par with army officers and authorised himself to wear ranks equivalent to a major general in the regular army.

Rao has suspended Lal. But the sensitive nature of the allegation has prompted defence minister A.K. Antony to order an investigation.

Lal, who heads a BRO project called Hirak that oversees road-building through central India’s Naxalite-influenced districts, has been asked by the defence ministry to explain why action should not be taken against him.

The BRO works on some of India’s most sensitive infrastructure projects, not only in the frontiers but also in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has a staff strength of 51,000 with 1,400 officers, half of whom are drawn from the army. The organisation is run on army rules.

Rao is a Madras Sapper, the regiment of engineers with its origins in the Madras Presidency of the British. Lal belongs to the civilian staff in the BRO and is part of the General Reserve Engineer Force.

The last time the grave charge of mutiny was levelled in the military was in 1984. That year a handful of Sikh soldiers and officers rebelled. The soldiers then threw in their lot with the Khalistan movement.

It is mere coincidence but the historical parallel in the sesquicentenary of the 1857 revolt is breathtaking.

The word “mutiny” has so far been associated mostly with an historical event. But the development in the BRO has breathed new life into it, bringing with it an immediacy that is here and now.

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