Former Lok Sabha MP and Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit may have apologised and withdrawn his unsavoury comment on Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, but the development has its roots in the flurry of remarks made by the Army Chief recently on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Comparing the Army Chief to a ‘sadak ka goonda’ was a clear overstepping of the limits of decorum and Dikshit rightly found himself facing condemnation not only from the ruling party but also from fellow Congressmen, who distanced the party from his remarks. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also tried to do damage control and pointed out that politicians should not be commenting on the Army Chief.
Needless to say, the office of the Chief of Army Staff is an exalted one and that which should be kept away from the hurly burly of political oneupmanship. However, General Rawat has been thrust into the limelight in the past few weeks due to certain actions and comments on his part which have opened him for criticism. And the criticism has been unprecedented. It has been accentuated by the snowballing effect of the social media, something which his immediate predecessors did not have to contend with on this scale.
The manner in which Major Leetul Gogoi, the Rashtriya Rifles officers who tied a Kashmiri man to his jeep, was awarded the Chief of Army Staff’s Commendation Card has come in for criticism from even senior retired Army officers. While awarding any commendation card on the spot is the unquestioned prerogative of the Army Chief, to do so when a Court of Inquiry is yet to be finalised into the incident, speaks volumes about how seriously that inquiry was taken in the first place.
Even as the Army defended the act of awarding commendation to the Major by saying that it was for his overall performance in counter-insurgency operations and not for any particular act, the message was quite clear. Defending the action of an officer in field and standing by him is one thing, but disregarding an established procedure brings about different connotations.
The Major Gogoi incident was followed by an interview of General Rawat to a news agency in which, referring to the stone throwers in the Kashmir valley, he was quoted as saying that “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then, I would have been happy. Then, I could do what I (wanted to do),”. The statement may have been made
in a soldierly manner, but the implications were open for interpretation.
In the same interview the Army Chief said, “Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly Army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us,” he said. This statement again attracted severe criticism and commentators questioned the wisdom of the country’s people being afraid of their own Army. Once again, the Army’s media team swung into action and tried to clarify that the statement should not be seen isolation and must be read in an overall context, but it was too late to control the initial damage.
The fact that the Chief of Army Staff wants to speak out and is not cagey about interacting with the media is a welcome development. Too many of his predecessors, and many of his present commanders too, have been chary of speaking their mind. But this opening up of the mind comes at a cost and must be exercised carefully. It attracts public rebuttal and rejection which can often be severe.
When faced with a backlash, Dikshit apologised but not without trying to justify his remarks by invoking the behaviour of former Army Chiefs like Field Marshals KM Carriapa and Sam Manekshaw. But times have changed since these two military greats wore the uniform and the threats have changed too. Maybe General Rawat has decided to break away from the past, speak his mind and take the bull by its horns.
In his book, “Generalship: Its diseases and their cure-A Study of The Personal Factor in Command”, Major General JFC Fuller quotes Napolean: “The personality of a General is indispensable. He is the head, he is the all of an Army”. While General Bipin Rawat may be perfectly capable of handling the bouquets and brickbats that come his way, courtesy demands that the Chief of Army Staff should not be called names.