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On April 11, more than 150 armed forces veterans – including three former Army chiefs, four former Navy chiefs and a former Air Force chief – wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind, who is also the Supreme Commander of armed forces of India, complaining about the way political parties have been continuously using armed forces for political gains ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections.

The letter requests the President “to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas.”

“We hearby respectfully urge you to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas,” the 156 veterans said in the letter dated April 11.

April 11 was the first phase of the general election and the final phase falls on May 19. Counting of votes will take place on May 23.

The veterans referred to the “unusual and totally unacceptable practice” of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes and even being called “Modi ki sena” referring to recent comments by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

The veterans also referred to photographs of the election campaign in which “party workers are seen wearing military uniforms; and posters and images with pictures of soldiers and especially of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, displayed”.

They expressed concern that the EC directive did not appear to have “resulted in any substantive change of behaviour and practice on the ground.”

They also say in the letter that political parties are disregarding the model code of conduct and expressed apprehensions that “such incidents may only increase as polling day draws near”.

They stated that such ‘misuse’ of the armed forces “would impinge adversely on the morale and fighting efficiency of the serving man and woman in uniform.”

“We therefore appeal to you to ensure the secular and apolitical character of our armed forces is preserved,” they said.

The 156 signatories include eight former service chiefs — General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, Shankar Roy Chowdhury Deepak Kapoor, Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, Vishnu Bhagwat, Arun Prakash, Suresh Mehta and Air Chief Marshal NC Suri.

However, as per media reports, some veterans, among them Air Chief Marshal NC Suri and former Indian Army chief General SF Rodrigues, denied endorsing any such letter. Some said that the letter is fake. Initially, at least, Rashtrapati Bhavan also denied having received the letter that was e-mailed to the President.

One of the former army chiefs General SF Rodrigues, whose name figured in the letter, was reported by news agency ANI as saying: “Don’t know what it (purported letter written by armed forces veterans to Pres) is all about. All my life, we’ve been apolitical.Aftr,42 yrs as officer, it’s a little late to change. Always put India first. Don’t know who these ppl are, classic manifestation of fake news.”

Air Chief Marshal Suri told ANI the letter was “coming on WhatsApp and emails. To put an end to it I wrote that armed forces are apolitical and support the politically elected government. My consent has not been taken for any such letter. And I do not agree with whatever has been written in that letter.”

About Rashtrapati Bhavan, ANI reported: “Rashtrapati Bhavan Source denies receiving any letter supposedly written by armed forces veterans to the President which is circulating in the media.”

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Later, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the press she found the letter “condemnable” and dismissed it as “fake” propaganda issued by “vested interests”.

However, on Saturday, Major Priyadarshi Chowdhury, a retired infantryman of the Sikh Regiment and the officer who sent the letter, countered these statements. Meanwhile, veteran Major General Sudhir Vombatkere also responded to the controversy with a letter of his own, in which he noted having “meticulously recorded the email responses” the veterans sent.

Noting that “the letter to the President was also termed “fake news” by a senior minister of the central government”, Maj Gen Vombatkere said, “The writer had meticulously recorded the email responses of Veterans who had endorsed the letter to the President, in the time-sequence of their receipt, and the responses of all three senior Veterans who had denied having endorsed the letter are on record. Some of these are already in the public domain.

As regards the regrettable comment of this letter being “fake news”, it is necessary to state that the letter is neither news nor is it fake. The letter is an appeal to the President of India to uphold the a-political character of the Armed Forces, of which he is the supreme commander.”

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Before this, Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd.), whose name features in the list, told The Hindu: “The letter was sent by email and endorsement was also given over email.”

He said he fully endorsed the contents of the letter. “I am surprised that Rashtrapati Bhawan is not aware of the letter,” he added.

Major Priyadarshi Chowdhury, a retired infantryman of the Sikh Regiment and the officer who sent the letter from “a group of senior veterans” to President Ram Nath Kovind protesting the “use of the armed forces for political purposes”, countered statements made by two senior servicemen who denied signing the document.

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Major Chowdhury, the national coordinator of the joint jawans and kisan movement, tweeted screenshots of these emails on 12 April. He also responded to a statement issued by the president’s office denying receiving such a letter. Major Chowdhury, in his tweet, included a screenshot of his email to the president’s office.

This email was sent to three mailboxes in Rashtrapati Bhavan. An official at the president’s home told news portal Firstpost he could confirm two of these IDs existed, but not that the veterans’ letter reached them.

Major Chowdhury told Firstpost he was in no doubt the message contained in the letter represented the sentiments of the veterans who he said endorsed it. “I don’t wish to speculate on the reasons why two of my senior officers have issued denials or what pressured them to do so,” he added.

Many responded in support of Major Chowdhury’s tweet. One took a dig at Defence Minister Sitharaman: “When the soldiers did not mention any party how is Nirmala so sure that they referred their concern on the BJP’s conduct”

More officers came out to extend support the letter.

Following the publication of the report, the Congress reacted to the veterans’ letter by saying that it was clear that the soldiers were with India.

“Modi may try to use soldiers for votes, but it’s clear that soldiers stand with India and not the BJP. 156 Veterans of the Indian Armed Forces including 8 former Chiefs of Staff write to the President of India urging him to act against Modi for trying to use soldiers for votes,” said a tweet from the Congress’ official Twitter handle.

Full text of Maj Gen SG Vombatkere’s letter:

Veterans’ concerns for a secular military Neither news nor fake!

By Maj Gen SG Vombatkere**

A group of over 150 Indian military Veterans wrote a letter to the President of India in his capacity as Supreme Commander of India Armed Forces, expressing their serious concern at the recent rather blatant use by politicians of different parties, of the military, military uniforms or symbols, and actions by military formations or personnel, in the election campaigns.

The Veterans’ concern was that such misuse may affect the secular character of the armed forces which, as is well known, is Government of India’s instrument of last resort for both internal and external security. India’s armed forces have been effective in the service of the nation largely because of its a-political character and its control under the civil authority. Thus, politicization of the armed forces could reflect adversely on national security.

However, two former service chiefs and a former vice-chief of army staff, informed the media that they had not endorsed the letter and their permission to add their names as signatories had not been taken. The letter to the President was also termed “fake news” by a senior minister of the central government.

The writer had meticulously recorded the email responses of Veterans who had endorsed the letter to the President, in the time-sequence of their receipt, and the responses of all three senior Veterans who had denied having endorsed the letter are on record. Some of these are already in the public domain.

As regards the regrettable comment of this letter being “fake news”, it is necessary to state that the letter is neither news nor is it fake. The letter is an appeal to the President of India to uphold the a-political character of the Armed Forces, of which he is the supreme commander.

Those who have denied having endorsed it possibly had second thoughts after having endorsed it like any good soldier would have done. Speaking of good soldiers and politics, it is apt to quote the advice of Field Marshal Philip Chetwode to the first batch of Indian cadets, when he inaugurated the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun in 1932. He spoke thus: “The young Indian man of education seems very attracted by politics. May I urge you to remember that politics do and cannot find any place in army life. An army can have no place in politics. It is the paid servant of the people and is at the disposal of the Government of the day, whatever may be the political complexion of that Government. Once there is any suspicion that an Army, or any part of it, is biased politically, from that moment that Army has lost the confidence of the nation that pays for it. It is no longer impartial, and that way lies chaos and civil war.”

Nothwithstanding the controversy created by three very senior Veterans denying that they endorsed the letter to the President, the fact is that the content of the letter remains the view of the veterans who endorsed it. Indeed, there are other Veterans who have called in asking why they were not given opportunity to endorse the letter. This writer invites them to send in their endorsements to the letter and its contents, since opinion on such a matter is not time-bound.

Full text of the letter from armed forces veterans:

FROM A GROUP OF VETERANS TO OUR SUPREME COMMANDER

April 11, 2019

Honourable Shri Ram Nath Kovind

President of India and Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces

Rashtrapati Bhavan,

New Delhi

Dear Shri Ram Nath Kovind Ji,

We, the signatories, are Armed Forces Veterans who have served in the defence of our nation in various appointments, in peacetime and in operational and war zones over the past several decades.

The apolitical and secular nature of India’s Armed Forces has been an article of faith for every soldier, sailor and airman. India’s Armed Forces have loyally upheld the democratic principle of civil control over the military. Their military professionalism on and off the field, combined with the devotion to duty in protecting India’s territorial sovereignty and national integrity, remains widely appreciated.

The soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Armed Forces owe allegiance to the Constitution of India, of which you, as President of the Indian Union, are the legal custodian. It is for this reason that the President is also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and we serve and execute orders at the will of the President and as decided from time to time by the Executive – that is, the Government of the day.

You would be aware that those in active service (men and women of all ranks in the Army, Navy and Air Force) cannot speak out, even on matters which might affect their interests adversely, since they are subject to military law and are governed by the parliamentary Acts of their respective Service.

However, we Veterans being in continuous touch with our own military fraternity, as also with serving personnel at all levels, have a ‘finger on the pulse’, so to speak. And it is for this reason that we write to bring to your attention, as the Supreme Commander of India’s Armed Forces, some concerns which have caused considerable alarm and disquiet among both the serving and the retired personnel of our Forces.

We refer, Sir, to the unusual and completely unacceptable practice of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes, and even going so far as to claim the Armed Forces to be “Modi ji ki Sena”. This is in addition to media pictures of election platforms and campaigns in which party workers are seen wearing military uniforms; and posters and images with pictures of soldiers and especially of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, displayed.

We do appreciate that complaints by some senior retired personnel, including a written submission from a former Chief of the Naval Staff to the Chief Election Commissioner, have elicited a prompt response. Indeed a notification has been issued asking for an explanation from those responsible for these statements, including from the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. However we regret to state that these do not appear to have resulted in any substantive change of behaviour and practice on the ground.

With the General Elections round the corner, and given the prevailing environment where political parties and candidates seem to be acting in total disregard of the declaration of the ‘model code of conduct’, we fear that such incidents may only increase as polling day draws near.

We believe that you will surely agree that any such misuse of the Armed Forces established under the Constitution of India and under the supreme command of the President of India, would impinge adversely on the morale and fighting efficiency of the serving man or woman in uniform. It could therefore directly affect national security and national integrity.

We therefore appeal to you to ensure that the secular and a-political character of our Armed Forces is preserved.

We hereby respectfully urge you to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas.

This communication is copied to the Chief Election Commissioner of the Election Commission of India for information and action.

We, the undersigned, endorse the above.

Yours Faithfully

1 Gen SF Rodrigues, PVSM,VSM

2 Gen Shankar Roy Chowdhury, PVSM,ADC

3 Gen Deepak Kapoor, PVSM, AVSM,SM,VSM,ADC

4 Adm Laxminarayan Ramdas, PVSM,AVSM,VrC, VSM,ADC

5 Adm Vishnu Bhagwat,PVSM,AVSM

6 Adm Arun Prakash, PVSM,AVSM,VrC,VSM,ADC

7 Adm Sureesh Mehta, PVSM,AVSM

8 Air Chief Marshal NC Suri,PVSM,AVSM,VM,ADC

9 Lt Gen Sanjeev Anand

10 Lt General KS Rao, PVSM, SC, SM, Arjuna Awardee

11 Lt General Mohan Ramdas

12 Lt General YN Sharma

13 Lt General Vinay Shankar

14 Lt General Prakash Gokarn

15 Lt General Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM

16 Lt General MA Gurbaxani, PVSM, AVSM

17 Lt General RK Nanavatty, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM

18 Lt General R K Gaur, PVSM

19 Lt General CA Barretto, PVSM

20 Lt General ML Naidu, PVSM, AVSM, YSM

21 Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh

22 Vice Admiral DB Kapila, PVSM, AVSM, VSM

23 Vice Admiral A Britto, PVSM, AVSM, VSM

24 Air Marshal Vir Narain, PVSM

25 Maj Gen A K Shukla

26 Maj Gen PC Panjikar, VSM

27 Maj General KM Bhimaya

28 Maj General Jose Manavalan, AVSM

29 Maj General Shiv Dev Singh

30 Maj General Mohan Singh

31 Maj General Harsha Kakar

32 Maj General Rajendra Prakash, VSM

33 Maj General GH Israni

34 Maj General Anil Sawhny, AVSM

35 Maj General IJS Dhillon

36 Maj General Kshitin Pandya, AVSM

37 Maj General TK Kaul, PVSM, AVSM, VSM

38 Maj General ML Malik

39 Maj General SG Pitre

40 Maj General SG Vombatkere, VSM

41 Rear Admiral Shankar Mathur

42 Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai, NM

43 Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak

44 Brig A. A Ramchandani

45 Brig UPS Pathania

46 Brig Vinod Raizada

47 Brigadier VHM Prasad

48 Commodore C Jayaraj

49 Commodore Rajan Mathew, VSM

50 Commodore R Rahmathullah

51 Commodore G Kailath, AVSM, NM, VSM

52 Commodore Dinabandhu Jena

53 Commodore Jal Postwalla

54 Commodore PC Gulati, NM

55 Commodore MS Chahal

56 Air Cmde Sanjay Sharma’

57 Colonel Bharat Haladi

58 Col Sanjeev Choudhary

59 Col Krishna Prasad N G

60 Col Mukesh Trehan

61 Col RP Suhag

62 Col Pankaj Fotedar, VSM

63 Col Vivek Mathur

64 Col Arun Hariharan

65 Col K N Singh

66 Col DM Sharma

67 Col Shantanu Majumdar,

68 Col Gurpinder Singh

69 Col Ramnik Khanna

70 Col Abhay Prasad

71 Col Abhi Chatterjee,

72 Col Manmohan Singh

73 Col. Rajiv Kanwar

74 Col Bharat Kumar

75 Col Jayadev P I

76 Col. Sujit Dutta

77 Col. Lal Kesavan

78 Col. Melwyn D’Souza

79 Col Sanjay Dilwaria

80 Col. K S Kamboj

81 Col Shashi Thoomas Kilo

82 Col K Kataria, SM

83 Col MK Keshwar

84 Col Maniish D Kachhy

85 Col. Aparjeet Nakai

86 Col CMS Babu

87 Col RS Singh

88 Capt (IN) HPS Sodhi

89 Capt (IN) Rakesh Kumar Prabhakar

90 Captain (IN) S Prabhala, VSM

91 Capt(IN) Sandeep Kapoor

92 Group Captain Ashutosh Srivastav (Retd)

93 Gp Capt Rajinder Abrol

94 Gp Capt D. V. Shukla,

95 Gp Capt Philips Jacob, VM

96 Gp Capt Satvinder Singh

97 Gp Capt Deepak Mundade

98 Gp Capt MS Sadanand

99 Lt col Arvind Kumar Singh,

100 Lt Col MS Kanwal, VSM

101 Lt Col Sajan Moideen,

102 Lt Col Muruganantham

103 Lt Col Ved Prakash Sharma

104 Lt Col R Pankaj

105 Lt Col Shantanu Rishi

106 Lt Col Sanjeev Kumar Gupta

107 Lt Col SPS Panwar

108 Lt Col Neeraj Sharma

109 Lt Col Shantnu Rishi

110 Lt. Col. Gagan Khanna, DE

111 Lt Col Satish Chari

112 Lt. Col Akash Sachan

113 Lt. Col PP Singh

114 Lt Col Sandeep Chandorkar

115 Lt. Col. SS Nath

116 Lt Col JS Patil

117 Lt Col Amit P Mathur

118 Lt Col Jagjit Singh Judge

119 Lt Col RP Shankar

120 Lt Col NM Saksena

121 Lt Col Raghawendra Singh

122 Lt Col Shamsher Manhas

123 Lt Col DN Yadav

124 Lt Col Janak Raj Vatsa

125 Lt Col Rakesh Mehrotra

126 Lt Col Rajeev Rattan Kotwal

127 Cdr MCV Jose

128 Cdr KC Mahesh Giri

129 Cdr Sam T Samuel

130 Cdr Joji Tom Mundakel

131 Cdr S Manrai

132 Cdr P Pattanath

133 Cdr HS Dabas

134 Cdr Soumya Datta

135 Cdr SA Rawool

136 Cdr Sandeep Kumar

137 Cdr RK Srivastava

138 Cdr Shailesh Jain

139 Cdr Sati Taneja

140 Wg Cdr Gopal Taneja

141 Wg Cdr Sanjay Bishnoi

142 Wg Cdr Nilesh Gandhi

143 Wg Cdr Rajiv Gupta

144 Wg Cdr Sudhir Kumar Virulkar

145 Wg Cdr SK Chopra

146 Wg Cdr Sanjay Nijai

147 Wg Cdr Kuldeep Mathur

148 Wg Cdr SK Nair

149 Wg Cdr Prashant Karde

150 Maj K J Singh

151 Maj P Sirur

152 Maj Priyadarshi Chowdhury, SC

153 Sqn Ldr Narendra Prasad Uniyal

154 Capt Sandeep Shekhawat

155 S/ Lt. (IN) RC Jain

156 Lt HS Ahlawat

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