Civilian slip puts army on sticky ground in Himachal

Shimla, April 17: When a public relations officer of the Indian Army issued a routine official press note on the strategic significance of the Annandale ground in Shimla, little did he realise that an attachment, which he inadvertently sent along with the e-mail, would explode into a major controversy.

The three page attachment, an unsigned note on plain paper, in the possession of IANS says the Himachal Pradesh government ‘seems to be hell-bent on destroying the meagre existing forest cover, all at the behest of land mafia, eyeing phenomenal profits, which the (proposed) cricket stadium project would bring’.

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has taken strong exception to the army’s assertions in the unsigned note.

He raised the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi Monday even as Army chief Gen V.K. Singh said he would speak to the chief minister to resolve the issue.

The issue hovers around the prime chunk of 121-bigha (one bigha is 0.4 hectare), Annandale ground, surrounded by thick forests and situated 4.5 km from Shimla’s ridge, which has been under the Army’s control since World War II. The Himachal Cricket Association, which is headed by Dhumal’s son and Hamirpur MP Anurag Thakur, has begun a campaign to have it restored to the state for constructing a multipurpose stadium.

The army statement was released just two days before the routine disaster preparedness exercise was to be carried out by the armed forces in Annandale ground.

The attachment, which was not meant for distribution to the media but only for internal circulation, titled ‘Cricket stadium at Annandale: A disaster in the making’ says: ‘The Annandale ground, one of the last green bastions remaining in Shimla, is at the centre of a needless controversy and a misinformation campaign fanned by parties having vested interests.’

It further says ‘the (government) proposal to construct a cricket stadium at Annandale is fraught with the danger of destroying one of the last green preserves of Shimla…Rather than initiating measures to bring additional areas under forest cover, the state seems to be hell-bent on destroying the meagre existing forest cover, all at the behest of land mafia, eyeing phenomenal profits, which the cricket stadium project would bring.’

‘Ironically, it was Prof P.K. Dhumal only who had launched the revival of deodar afforestation project for Shimla town in Aug 2009 by giving a clarion call to the people of the state, and specially Shimla town, to revive the faded glory of the capital town by actively participating in the afforestation drive. And now it is the same Prof Dhumal who is towing an entirely different line,’ says the note, adding ‘Will better sense prevail?’

Reacting to this note, Dhumal Sunday threatened to file a defamation suit if the army did not apologise for alleging that the government wanted to grab the ground.

‘A news item appearing in a section of the press today (Sunday), quoting Western Command that the government of Himachal Pradesh and Prof. Prem Kumar Dhumal, chief minister, were acting under the influence of so called, forest mafia, for putting on the army authorities to return the Annandale ground, which actually belonged to the government of

Himachal Pradesh and is under unlawful occupation of the army,’ said the government official statement.

In a bid to justify its decision to take back the ground from the army, the statement said ‘Recently the High Court of Himachal Pradesh passed directions to the government of Himachal Pradesh to provide suitable space to give boost to sports activities amongst the young and youth residing’.

Interestingly, the official army statement on Annandale, under its masthead, says ‘national security perspective can never be ignored in favour of any game and gimmicks being played’.

The army headquarters in Delhi has already ordered a probe into the press release issued by its Chandimandir-based Western Command.

‘With regards to Annandale land issues, the army has instituted an inquiry into the press release issued by Western Command headquarters, which was derogatory against the state government and chief minister of Himachal Pradesh,’ army spokesperson Col. Jagdeep Dahiya said in a statement in New Delhi Monday.

Officials of the Western Command told IANS, requesting anonymity, that the attachment along with the official note was not meant for distribution to the media.

‘It was a faux pas by a civilian public relations officer under the information and broadcasting ministry attached with the army,’ an army official said, adding ‘The officer concerned is not very computer savvy’.

He said even usage of some words in the official note like ‘game and gimmicks’ was in itself a departure from norms and an embarrassment for the army.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

IANS