After Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off a controversy on Wednesday, 8 May, claiming that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi used INS Viraat a ‘personal taxi’ in 1988, several senior naval officers and experts, who were in the know at the time, have weighed in and are divided on the matter.
Several officers who were commanding and aboard the INS Viraat at the time, including then Chief of Southern Naval Command Admiral L Ramdas (Retd), have refuted PM Modi’s claims of Rajiv Gandhi having used INS Viraat for his personal use.
The Claim That Sparked the Controversy
PM Modi had on Wednesday levelled a scathing attack on not just Congress President Rahul Gandhi, but his father Rajiv Gandhi, accusing the late prime minister of having used INS Viraat as his 'personal taxi.'
Speaking at a rally in Delhi, PM Modi had said:
"“INS Viraat was insulted by using it as a personal taxi. This happened when Rajiv Gandhi and his family were out for a 10-day vacation. INS Viraat was deployed for securing our maritime boundary. But it was diverted to take the Gandhi family which was out for a vacation.”"
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Modi had also claimed that after picking up the Gandhi family, INS Viraat halted at an island for 10 days.
“Rajiv Gandhi was accompanied by his in-laws who had come from Italy. Question is whether the security of the country was not compromised by taking foreigners onboard a warship," he asked.
Now, where did PM Modi get this information from?
Ever imagined that a premier warship of the Indian armed forces could be used as a taxi for a personal holiday?— Chowkidar Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 8, 2019
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A 1988 news report by Anita Pratap of India Today details the Gandhi family's vacation on the Lakshadweep islands at the start of that year. The article mentions that the INS Viraat was "used to transport the Gandhis and moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days."
The article further states that also present at the private holiday were Sonia Gandhi's sister, brother-in-law and their daughter, her widowed mother R Maino, her brother and a maternal uncle – which is presumably what PM Modi meant by when he said that the Gandhis were accompanied by foreigners on their holiday aboard the INS Viraat.
Was INS Viraat Indeed Used as a ‘Personal Taxi’?
Responding to PM Modi’s claims, then Flag officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Naval Command Admiral L Ramdas (retd) issued a statement, confirming that there were no foreigners present on board and only three members from the Gandhi family were on the carrier.
Ramdas, who later went on to become the Navy Chief, further reiterated that there were no parties held on the carrier, apart from the dinner that was hosted for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the crew on his last day aboard INS Viraat. On claims that the carrier was diverted for the personal use of the family, Admiral Ramdas wrote:
"“The western fleet had planned its naval exercises with the aircraft carrier much in advance in the yearly exercise programme to be held in that part of the Arabian Sea.... No ships were specially diverted for the personal use of the Gandhi family.”"
Concurring with Ramdas’s version, Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha (Retd), who was then the Captain of INS Viraat, spoke to Mirror Now and confirmed that while the Gandhis were indeed aboard the aircraft carrier for two to three days, they did not have any foreigners with them.
“They (the Gandhis) embarked from Trivandrum and we sailed to the Lakshadweep, as has been done by practically every prime minister. They did not have any foreigners with them,” he said.
He added that after reaching Lakshadweep, Rajiv and Sonia took a chopper to meet the civilians on land.
"Everyday, by helicopter, they went to the islands to talk to the civilians and to meet the people there, along with a home ministry official. They didn't spend a night ashore, they didn't have any guests, and they did not enjoy any hospitality on board Viraat, other than the routine eating and drinking," Pasricha told the channel.
He further added that though Rahul Gandhi was also aboard the ship, he never ventured ashore since Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were visiting the island for political reasons.
Similarly, Wajahat Habibullah, then Lakshadweep administrator, refuted PM Modi's claims of the Gandhis having used the INS Viraat for their 'holiday'. Speaking to The Quint, he said that the Gandhis had arrived in the Lakshadweep islands by air, and were first on an official visit, which they extended to have a personal holiday.
"Rajiv Gandhi had come to the Lakshadweep islands on an official visit, which was to attend the first-ever Island Development Authority meeting. He arrived by a chopper with his wife, there are photos of the reception at the islands to show this," he said.
He then added that the meeting was attended by several other Cabinet ministers, some of whom might have been aboard INS Viraat as well.
Admiral Raja Menon (Retd) told The Quint that PM Modi’s comments on INS Viraat had blown the issue “out of proportion.” He said,
"“This has been blown out of proportion. The navy does these exercises with every leader for familiarisation with their functioning, and it is quite normal for prime ministers and their families to be aboard aircraft carriers like the INS Viraat.”"
Meanwhile, speaking to The Quint, Commodore Uday Bhaskar (retd), who served in the Navy at the time, said several naval officers, both serving and retired, were dismayed with PM Modi’s comment.
"We are dismayed that he (PM Modi) referred to the carrier as a taxi. The politicians can slug it out, but please don't drag the forces into this," he said.
He further stated that if one took Pasricha's statement into account, then Modi's claim of Rajiv Gandhi's in-laws being on board would be counter-factual.
'INS Viraat Misused'
However, some naval officers who had then served aboard the INS Viraat took to social media to confirm PM Modi's claims.
Commander VK Jaitly, who was a member of the commissioning crew of INS Viraat at the time, said:
Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi used INS Viraat for travel to celebrate their holidays at Bangaram island. Indian Navy resources were used extensively. I am a witness. I was posted on INS Viraat that time. Commander VK Jaitly— Commander VK Jaitly (@vkjaitly) May 9, 2019
Similarly, one Prafulla Kumar Patra, in response to Republic TV's Facebook post on the controversy, claimed he was a serving crew member on board INS Viraat when the Gandhis holidayed in Lakshadweep.
Senior journalist Rahul Kanwal too said several naval officers who were onboard INS Viraat in 1987 confirmed that the carrier was moved from Mumbai to Lakshadweep while the Gandhis were in Lakshadweep.
Naval officers who were on board INS Viraat in 1987 confirm that aircraft carrier was ordered to move from Mumbai to Lakshwadeep and was deployed offshore while Rajeev Gandhi was holidaying with his family. Officers remember frequent chopper sorties which would carry refreshments— Rahul Kanwal (@rahulkanwal) May 9, 2019
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