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Assam delay glare on army
- Four-day gap between appeal and deployment, CM speaks out

New Delhi, July 27: Ministers and generals dithered in Delhi as bodies fell in Assam before the army was deployed to quell the communal clashes in Kokrajhar that have claimed at least 48 lives.

No one is calling it so yet but what the army is being accused of in the state that has sent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Parliament falls into the category of “command failure”.

The ministry of home affairs, the ministry of defence and Army Headquarters are now locked in a blame game after Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi exposed the costly procrastination.

“We wanted the army from Day One of the crisis and now when it is there, the situation is gradually limping back to normal,” Gogoi told a news conference in Guwahati, adding that it took time for the army to be deployed because certain procedures had to be followed.

The army, that already had boots on the ground in lower Assam, took as many as four days to get into riot-control mode after the local administration, with the Union home ministry’s consent, requested the deployment.

The district commissioners of Kokrajhar and Chirang requested the deployment. But 4 Corps headquarters in Tezpur and Eastern Command Headquarters in Calcutta asked for ministerial consent from A.K. Antony.

“Since the 1990s, we are extra-cautious about deploying in communal situations,” an officer in Army Headquarters said. “So, we referred the request to the ministry of defence. The clearance from the ministry came only on July 25 (Wednesday) and that is when we started deploying.”

This explanation does not wash.

First, the army already has a presence in Kokrajhar. The field intelligence units of the 4 Corps would have been feeding information up the chain of command. Such information should have been assessed and the trend noted by the corps headquarters in Tezpur, the Eastern Command Headquarters in Calcutta and Army Headquarters in Delhi. If they did not do the exercise, they failed in their job.

Second, the Union home ministry says that it requested the army to deploy on July 23 (Monday). More than 24 hours later, when asked by The Telegraph on Tuesday night, a senior officer at Army Headquarters said: “We are there. If we are asked to deploy to control the clashes, we will do so. We have not got any such command yet.” This was after nine on Tuesday evening.

Another officer texted on Tuesday night: “Let me clarify. So far, no army deployed in Assam. Maybe later, if required”.

Reports from the ground suggested that local administrative requirements, such as magisterial presence, accounted for delays of around 2 hours. But that was after the deployment, not before.

Third, the generals were dithering even when the local administration was willing to assist the army, unlike, for example, the situation in Gujarat in 2002 when army units freshly inducted from Secunderabad were not given maps by police to find their way in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.

Fourth, in a peace-enforcement role — essentially that is what riot-control mode for the army means — generals were actually thinking like bureaucrats, asking for files to be cleared while lives were being lost in Kokrajhar.

Not till Assam chief secretary Naba Kumar Das sent separate letters to Union home secretary R.K. Singh and defence secretary Shashikant Sharma, did they stir.

“Finally, the troops were deployed two days later -- on July 25. Had the army personnel been deployed earlier, many lives could have been saved,” an official said.

Army troops could have reached the trouble spots within three to four hours as two major army stations are located within a distance of 150km from both Kokrajhar and Chirang.

Today, of course, the army said it was moving into the violence-hit tract in force. Seven additional columns — about 600 troops — were ordered to move into Baska district “on requisition by DC Baska”. The columns would be deployed in Saudar Dhita, Mochalpur, Sarbhog, Pihu, Dumduma, Kumarighata and Goreshwar.

Cabinet secretary Ajit Seth also reviewed the relief and medical arrangements today. Two teams of physicians, gynaecologists, paediatricians, public health specialists, were flown from Delhi on Friday evening, an official statement said.