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Navy chief tipped overboard
Joshi resigns after fire on submarine

New Delhi, Feb 26: Hours after a fire in a submarine at sea in which two officers are still missing, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, this evening resigned from office taking “moral responsibility for the accidents and incidents which have taken place during the past few months”.

Defence minister A.K. Antony and the government accepted his resignation faster than the INS Sindhuratna could surface off the coast of Bombay this morning. Smoke was detected in a forward compartment of the submarine from which seven sailors were heli-lifted to the naval hospital.

Joshi has quit office 17 months before his tenure was to end. This throws senior appointments in the navy into disarray. If Joshi had completed his term, the next-in-line to be chief would be Vice Admiral Satish Soni, currently Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command.

A military source said “Joshi found his position made very awkward” and that left him with little choice but to resign. This puts pressure, too, on the FOC-in-C, Westm V Admiral Shekhar Sinha, and also on defence minister A K Antony himself.

The defence ministry also named the Vice Chief, Vice Admiral Robin Dhowan as interim chief of naval staff even though he is junior to at least one Flag Officer Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, chief of the Western Naval Command.

This puts a question mark on the career of V Adm Sinha because most of the mishaps including the sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak submarine on August 14 last year that is the navy’s biggest peacetime loss of a warship have happened under his charge. V.Adm Sinha is also known as the “Grey Eagle”, a title conferred on the senior-most naval aviator. In 2011, V Adm Sinha was involved in a row over the post of Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. V. Adm Sinha is of the same batch to which Admiral Joshi belonged.

The manner of Joshi’s resignation has revived memories of high ethical standards. But it has also raised questions in the armed forces and among military veterans on the moral responsibility that the defence minister, A K Antony, should be taking.

“I am proud of Admiral Joshi,” said Vice Admiral K K Nayyar, who also headed the National Maritime Foundation. “We have Capt Mulla in our naval tradition and he (Joshi) has acted in keeping with that tradition”.

Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla was commanding the frigate INS Khukri on December 9 1971 when it was torpedoed by Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor off Diu during the war that year. According to naval folklore, Mulla passed-up his life jacket for a junior and opted to go down with his ship, cigarette in mouth.

“Having said that,” wondered Adm Nayyar, “I wonder how come a government that takes months to decide on the smallest of military acquisitions accepted his resignation in such a hurry. This is a government that regularly interferes in senior appointments and rarely gives the armed forces to decide on its own operational issues”.

Former navy chief, Admiral (retired) Sushil Kumar, who was appointed after Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked by then defence minister George Fernandes in 1998, however, found little amiss in Joshi’s resignation. “These things happen in a navy”, he said.

But Joshi’s tenure has also seen a series of accidents that are still being investigated. In January, A frisson of fear went down the officer cadre of the navy after a senior commander was marched-up by Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha in a rare reprimand. Rear Admiral Anil Chawla, the western fleet commander, was asked to present himself in his superior’s office in ceremonial dress in a symbol of the seriousness of the punishment and given a talking-to.

The reason for that punishment has not been officially stated but the number of times that navy, particularly its western command, has attracted undue attention frames a scenario in which the officers and sailors of the service have got unnerved.

Though Joshi is going out in the backdrop of events that have taken a toll on the navy, he had promised to plug loopholes while taking over in September 2012. He had said “for the Navy to fulfil its mandate as a maritime power for national prosperity, 24 x 7 attention would need to be paid at all levels to ensure that there are no gaps in our security preparedness”.

He said: “to achieve security-related objectives, the man-machine interface is crucial and the Navy would need to professionally re-audit, train and consolidate its preparedness to optimize the existing capabilities as well as harness the full potential of the transformational new capabilities being inducted”.

A specialist in anti-submarine warfare, it is ironical that it was the sinking of a submarine in August last year and a fire in the Sindhuratna this morning has forced him to call it a day after nearly 40 years in the service.