The Indian Express‘s front-page, full page, three-deck, four-byline, eight-column banner story in 2012—hinting at an attempted “coup” against the Manmohan Singh government, but without using the C-word—has come back to haunt the newspaper five years on, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemingly raising the issue in his last address to Parliament.
Modi hinted at a report in The Sunday Guardian of February 3 (above) which claimed that “the top leadership of the UPA-II government had informally indicated to the Intelligence Bureau” to implicate the then Army chief General V.K. Singh for the alleged coup attempt, to take attention away from the corruption scandals dogging the government.
“A few months later, despite the IB categorically reporting that there was absolutely no chance that Gen Singh would carry out any coup, this fiction was “leaked” to the media [Indian Express], which carried the story as was narrated to it by the political leadership, which also included a leader who occupied a top Constitutional post later in his career,” The Sunday Guardian reported quoting anonymous sources.
On Wednesday, BJP MP G.V.L. Narasimha Rao picked up The Sunday Guardian story and detected an attempt to “defame the Indian Army”. His press conference was reported by the Hindustan Times (below), among others, but not The Indian Express.
On Thursday, Gen Singh said he had written to Modi, seeking an investigation into a false story about an “attempted military coup” that had been allegedly planted in the media.
“Yesterday, I wrote to the PM that this was treason and such people need to be exposed by a high-level inquiry,” Gen Singh said.
In the Lok Sabha, without naming The Sunday Guardian, Modi referred to the C-report in his general harangue against the Congress, in his last speech before the general elections of 2019, saying it was a “sin to accuse the Army”.
But that was enough for The Sunday Guardian to claim validation.
The Sunday Guardian was launched by Ram Jethmalani with M.J. Akbar as its founding editor. The paper later passed into the hands of Kartikeya Sharma, who owns the NewsX channel and whose brother Manu Sharma was jailed for the murder of Jessica Lal. (Their father Venod Sharma, a former Congress MP, flirted with the BJP in 2014.)
M.D. Nalapat, the editorial director of The Sunday Guardian, said after the PM’s speech, on NewsX:
“We all know who the politician referred to by the paper is. A very senior minister who held very important portfolios.”
The former Union minister P. Chidambaram is a constant target of The Sunday Guardian and NewsX, on which BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy is a regular.
Chidambaram, more than The Indian Express, appears to be The Sunday Guardian‘s immediate target, although NewsX panelists blithely referred to “arms agents” and the “arms lobby” targeting Gen Singh with the coup allegation.
Astonishingly, this week’s Sunday Guardian report is no more than a rehash of a news item carried by it in the week after The Indian Express report in 2012.
Seven years ago, too, it had suggested the same thing about the story and the source:
“Sources involved in tracking sensitive developments claim that a senior minister of the UPA government was the mastermind of the April 4 front page item in a daily newspaper about a suspected coup attempt.
“The sources claim that the minister is connected – through his close relative – with the defense procurement lobbies gunning for Chief of Army Staff General V K Singh, and that the decision to “trick the newspaper into running a baseless report was to drain away support for General Singh within the political class”, who could be expected to unite against any effort at creating a Pakistan-style situation in India….
“According to these sources,the minister in question “is well-known to senior journalistic levels of the publication” that ran the coup report.
“A military source was “surprised that the newspaper in question ran such a story,in view of the high level of competence of its senior staff”, but added that ” a senior minister being the source of the initial information would explain their belief in the truth of the report”.
The Indian Express story—authored by its then Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, with reporting from Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dhal Samanta and Ajmer Singh—was denied by the defence ministry the very day it was published, but the paper stuck to it saying it had been six weeks in the reporting.
Gupta now edits The Print website; Samanta and Singh are with The Economic Times.
The Army itself held an official briefing on the manoeuvre two days after that—on March 15, 2012—in Agra.
“India’s elite Parachute Brigade, based in Agra, has of late practised two quick manoeuvres designed to test its readiness for quick armed intervention in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
“According to top sources, the 50 Independent Para Brigade played out two different scenarios depicting the need for a quick operation almost akin to the situations that obtained in Maldives last month and the consequences of the mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (now Border Guards, Bangladesh) two years ago.
“During the exercise, elements of the brigade travelled by road from Agra to Delhi to link up with the Indian Air Force base at Hindon on the outskirts of the capital, since the recently acquired medium lift transport aircraft, the C-130 Js are stationed there.”
In September 2013—five days after Gen Singh had shared the dais with Narendra Modi—The Indian Express once again front-paged an eight-column, double-decker, half-page story, by Ritu Sarin, that a unit set up by Gen Singh had, among other things, tried to topple the Jammu & Kashmir government headed by Omar Abdullah.
In effect, a “C” minor.
General Singh then called Shekhar Gupta a “UPA stooge” and gave oxygen to a number of unsubstantiated charges on his assets and income-tax returns, even drawing Gupta’s spouse, Neelam Jolly, into the picture.
“This paper first accuses me of trying to topple the government in Delhi, now it accuses me of trying to topple the government in J&K…. How did Indian Express know about it? If there is a leak (of the Army report) to a paper, why can’t it be made available to me?
“I don’t consider Indian Express a newspaper which can be believed. Sorry. A paper which can dub a movement of two units on simple mobilization as a ‘coup’ should be thrown out into the wastepaper basket.”
It was against this backdrop that Gen V.K. Singh made his biggest contribution to the public discourse: the sexist slur “presstitute” to describe media personnel.
Gen Singh is now a “junior minister” in the Modi ministry.
Chidambaram writes a weekly column in The Sunday Express.
Shekhar Gupta is president of the Editors Guild of India.