When General M M Naravane took the stage in the auditorium of the Mankeshaw Centre for his first annual press conference as Army Chief, not many expected him to set the tone for his 28-month tenure so firmly with his opening statement. It came swiftly and in an understated manner, unprompted, but the intention and the thought underlying it was hard to miss: a course-correction, to pull the Army away from political controversy back into its professional domain.
Pre-empting the criticism that the armed forces had become politicised under the current government, the new Army Chief started with the A-B-C of his priorities. The ‘A’ stood for allegiance — where he stressed that the allegiance that every Army personnel owed was to the Constitution, and the values enshrined in its preamble. Never in public memory has an Army Chief said so categorically that the Army is deployed on the borders to defend the core values in the preamble to the Constitution — justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity — for every Indian.
The ongoing countrywide protests by students against the new citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) have been marked by public readings of the preamble. But Gen Naravane was not wading into that territory: he was trying to arrive at a formulation where any political party or ideology, including those in the government, did not figure in any manner. Historically, from Gen K M Cariappa’s time, the formulation of the cause served by the Army has been slightly different: it has always been said that the Army serves the government of the day, and not any political party or ideology.
Gen Naravane not only repeated the bit about constitutional values but added fundamental rights, when a question was put to him about statements made by his predecessor and the Eastern Army Commander in support of the CAA.
Asked directly about violence against students in JNU, including police action, he avoided the topic, and limited himself to certain homilies about the National Defence Academy, which is affiliated to JNU. There couldn’t have been a stronger way to send a message to his senior commanders who seem to have strayed from the apolitical path in recent years.
The stress on constitutional values and fundamental rights was not the only indicator of the shift Gen Naravane wants the Army to make. In response to a couple of leading questions about capturing Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, as stated by Ministers last year, he referred to the 1994 Parliamentary resolution on J&K, and said that the Army will do whatever is asked of it by the government.
Asked if he would continue to speak strongly on issues, like his predecessor, to project the forces, Gen Naravane said, “Indian Army believes in doing its job and we are not seeking any publicity. We will continue in the same way of serving the nation to the best of our ability.”
Gen Naravane’s predecessor, Gen Bipin Rawat, the current Chief of Defence Staff, was often criticised for overstepping his boundaries to comment on policy and political issues outside the domain of the Army.
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