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A general overstepping

Army Chief’s statements on the Northeast are problematic in terms of prudence, politics, principle.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Updated: March 7, 2018 12:34:13 am
indian army, General Bipin Rawat, Bipin Rawat on Northeast, immigration, indian army chief, aiudf, assam, Bipin Rawat on aiudf, illegal immigration in northeast states, indian express General Bipin Rawat. (File photo)

An army chief making headlines for the wrong reasons is a painful sight. Some months ago, it was about the incident of the human shield and the general’s views on fighting the dirty war. This time, General Bipin Rawat has connected his theory of dirty war to domestic politics. With his latest remarks on matters as wide ranging as the sociology of migration, electoral surge of parties and, parenthetically, the security ideology of our armed forces, the current army chief has not merely betrayed the breadth of his expertise but also the weaknesses of prudence, politics and principle that he suffers from.

Earning trust is a long-term project requiring patience, foresight and statesmanship. Squandering trust requires only momentary impetuosity and audacious claims to greater wisdom. Unpleasant and unfortunate though it would appear, the present incumbent of the high office of the chief of army staff seems to be repeatedly contributing to exactly such a squandering of the hard-earned prestige of the forces.

One of the most trusted institutions in the Indian context has been its armed forces. Though in areas where the presence of the armed forces has been more pronounced and proactive the institution does face popular cynicism, overall the armed forces enjoy robust levels of trust among citizens. But statements, whether off the cuff or carefully rehearsed, often represent deeper maladies in thinking and approach and these can easily make the armed forces vulnerable to popular pressures and prejudices.

It is not without reason that independent India’s early leaders insisted on complete political neutrality of the armed forces and their absolute allegiance to elected governments. That tradition appears to be becoming weaker by the day. The bravely brazen statements by high officers of the armed forces can only serve to corrode the trust and legitimacy that the armed forces as an institution enjoys — and this in times when many other institutions already suffer from a trust deficit. It is for this reason that transgressions either by institutions or by office-holders should be matters of concern. In the last instance, they corrode democracy and rule of law.

The army chief can be faulted on at least three crucial grounds for his recent remarks about influx into the North-east. First, it is simply a question of prudence. Suppose, for a moment, that all he said is true and accurate, these are matters which are best left to ministries of external affairs or home affairs to articulate and intimate appropriate audiences. The armed forces need not take on the tasks of diplomacy — much less so, the task of public diplomacy — beyond a very limited space. And, suppose a political party does get support from “neighbours”, the armed forces should ideally leave it to the civilian authorities. Prudence demands that an office-holder as high as the army chief should desist from making statements on delicate matters of diplomacy or domestic policy. Just as his earlier remarks on the “possibility” of a different kind of surgical strike in the future was unnecessarily playing to the gallery and in the process transgressing the limits of prudence, the latest statement, too, transgresses the limits of prudence.

But it is not merely lack of judgment that is at stake here. The general also chose to go into political analysis. In naming two political parties and comparing their rise and growth, General Rawat has clearly overstepped into the political arena. This violation of the code that the army should keep clear of politics is worrying, particularly in times when politics is more acrimonious than democracy can afford. With parties not unwilling to politicise even the armed forces, succumbing to the temptation of talking politics — or is it doing politics? — can send wrong signals all round.

There is another problematic nugget of political wisdom in the general’s statement. In saying that “you have a party called AIUDF” whose rise has been “faster” than that of the BJP, the army chief was probably comparing a party that allegedly gets support from Muslims with a party that allegedly gets support from Hindus. And, in saying that the former grows faster than the latter, was he insinuating that one community has greater proclivity to unite politically than the other?

This is, of course, not the first time General Rawat has shown his disdain for ordinary procedures and norms. In the infamous instance of the human shield, he snubbed the routine procedure by announcing a medal to the officer against whom an inquiry was still going on. So, things fall into a pattern whereby the office-holder oversteps his brief and seems keen on taking political positions.

Finally, the army chief’s statement is deeply problematic on grounds of principle. He has raised a controversy over the issue of linkages between demographic composition and security. Going much beyond the issue of “influx”, the controversial statement attempts to connect many dots — planned influx by neighbours, changing demographic composition of some districts, growth of a party — and all this in the context of security concerns. The unstated message is clear: Changing demographic composition of some districts is a problem and, by implication, the security of the country hinges on a certain demographic balance, so it is obviously much more than mere influx. All this when elections are taking place in the “sensitive” region in three states. It is unlikely that an officer of such a high rank would be unaware of the arguments that are made in the political arena about demographic balance as a security strategy, nor would he be unaware of the controversy surrounding the alleged allegiance or otherwise of some communities.

At least so far, the foundation of the Indian nation-state is firmly based on the belief that irrespective of communities and creeds, citizens of the country sustain the spirit of national sovereignty. By his remarks on demographic composition, the army chief has gone far beyond the issue of planned influx and ventured into the territory or arguments that seek to undo this foundation of the Indian nation-state.

If he has transgressed prudence, he is setting a bad precedent. If he is indulging in political statements, the army chief is sowing the seeds of politicising the armed forces. But by the unstated implications of his unwarranted statement, General Rawat has actually hit at the foundation of India’s nationalism. So, more than for reasons of prudence or politics, his statement becomes a warning signal for reasons of principle — a principle that is most delicate and crucial to us as a nation.

The writer taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

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