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The notion of the armed forces is inextricably linked to an impression of order. The abrupt resignation of the navy chief, D.K. Joshi, long before his retirement in August 2015, has exposed — and further caused — unexpected disarray instead. The government’s rapid acceptance of Admiral Joshi’s resignation and its immediate nomination of the vice-chief in an officiating capacity show an eagerness that is being perceived as somehow not decorous and also demoralizing for the forces.

The really disturbing aspect of the events leading up to the navy chief’s resignation are the reports of growing hostility between him and the defence ministry, almost personalized into tension between the Union defence minister and the admiral. Both sides have their arguments. The ministry was critical of the number of accidents that navy vessels were involved in for the last six months, and the minister more or less made the navy chief responsible for “frittering away” the nation’s resources. On its side, the navy claims that only three of these accidents were truly serious, and in each case the officers in charge were relieved of their duties. The admiral has also raised questions about the defence ministry’s failure to replenish a diminishing force, especially since India’s submarine strength will be reduced to five or six by 2015. This historic low would make India’s underwater force just equal to Pakistan’s and far inferior to China’s. The navy chief’s point is that India’s vessels are overworked. He also expressed unhappiness with the way one of the defence minister’s strictures to the navy became public. Even the event that impelled Admiral Joshi to resign, the fire abroad the INS Sindhuratna that killed two officers and injured many others, was apparently known through unofficial channels before official dissemination. The story is far from simple. Admiral Joshi straightened it out by his resignation, thus making himself accountable for all the mishaps. That, of course, has thrown the entire line of succession to the chief’s chair into disarray. Yet, in a country where passing the buck has been refined into high art, the admiral’s action is outstanding enough to have left a few gaping questions. For example, is the government carrying out its own responsibility to the navy? And, more broadly, has the navy chief’s resignation conveyed any exemplary message to India’s political leaders?