When former union minister Manish Tewari claims that the Indian Express' infamous "coup story" was correct, it's hard to understand just exactly what he is affirming. On Sunday, speaking at a book launch, Tewari said that the story which made waves when it was first published in April 2012, was "unfortunate but... true."
Here's the thing, the way most people remember and talk about the Indian Express story isn't quite the same as what the story actually said. This starts with the very name that the story immediately earned.
In April 2012, the newspaper devoted its entire front page to a special story about two army units that had in January that year moved towards Delhi, on the same night that the then-Army Chief Gen VK Singh was battling the government in the Supreme Court. While the story questioned the army's decision-making, the bulk of the piece – written by two of the paper's top reporters as well as then-editor Shekhar Gupta – focused on the government's panicked response to the unplanned movement from the army units.The story didn't include the word coup, aside from a too-precious-by-half reference to the "c-word", yet it came to be known as the "coup story".
On television that evening, as well as across the rest of the media, the story was interpreted as outrageously suggesting that VK Singh had been planning a coup. Consider the way Mail Today described it on the next day: "A livid government was joined by the opposition parties on Wednesday to strongly trash a newspaper report that fell just short of describing a routine mid- January movement of army troops towards Delhi as a coup attempt."
Yet other than that "c-word" reference, as well as the headline, the bulk of the story was not about the army's plans at all. Instead, the Express' story said the unplanned, un-notified movement of two army units towards Delhi had caused alarm bells to ring in government. It's gist suggested that government-military relations had gotten so bad, that New Delhi implemented a contingency plant that would prevent the army from entering the capital.
It wasn't alleging that VK Singh had planned a coup. Instead, it was suggesting that the civilian government had interpreted certain unplanned movements as potentially being subversive. The story was not what the army did, but how the government panicked.
Now go back and look at Tewari's latest comments. "In so far that particular story you are referring to, that time I used to serve in the Standing Committee on Defence and it is unfortunate but the story was true. Story was correct," Tewari said. He later clarified that privately officials from the defence ministry told him that the story "may just be true."
Yet again, this is being interpreted as an allegation that VK Singh, now a minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party-run government, had been planning a coup at the time. Singh in response said that Tewari was "jobless" while Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi also rubbished Tewari's comments, saying he wasn't an official spokesperson and not a member of a decision-making body on defence at the time.
"It was also clarified [at the time] that some troop movements are necessary, inbuilt and inevitable part of a defence mechanism. But to read into it all the other elements is completely wrong," Singhvi said.
Indeed, since then the army has had further clarifications about that evening, explaining the movements of the units as being because of fog. More importantly, confirmation that the real story was not about a coup but about the breakdown in government-military relations leading to panic was given by none other than then-Director General of Military Operations AK Choudhary.
Speaking in February 2014, Choudhary told the Express that the real problem that evening was the government's response.
"I think the [defence] ministry and the IB [Intelligence Bureau] got excited and made their impression as the last five to six months things had gone to a level where there had been a distrust among people – two individuals."