December 27, 2019 12:06:19 am
When the Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, took a position on the ongoing students’ protests against the new citizenship law at a public event in the national capital on Thursday, he overstepped an important line. Despite the exception and aberration, it is a line that has, by and large, held in India’s constitutional democracy, dividing the polity from the military, and underscoring civilian supremacy. That its armed forces are neither an extension or instrument of the ruling party, nor a dominant player in the polity, and that, for the most part, the military abides by an apolitical ethos, a voluntary restraint, a culture of neutrality, marks India out from less evolved democracies in its neighbourhood and beyond. General Rawat’s criticism of the protests, therefore, his publicly expressed conviction that protesters are “leading masses and crowds to carry out arson and violence in cities and towns”, and his stern pronouncing of judgement “this is not leadership”, are conspicuously improper. The fact that the general, only days away from retirement, chose to wade into a sensitive political issue playing out live across the country, and in doing so, echoed the point of view of the ruling regime, says disquieting things.
General Rawat’s comments reinforce attempts by the Narendra Modi government in the last few days to criminalise the protests. The reality is that these protests have been and they continue to be mostly spontaneous, mostly leaderless, and mostly peaceful. There have been a few disturbing incidents of violence and arson but across several cities and states, students and young people have turned out peacefully on the streets in large numbers to speak up against a discriminatory law and for the Constitution’s letter and spirit. On the other side, the government has seemed utterly lacking in the ability to either listen to them, or to talk to them. It is trying to mask this inability and failure by unleashing the police lathi charge and arbitrary detention, the suspension of internet and imposition of Section 144. In Uttar Pradesh, it has done much worse. Here, the conduct of the Adityanath government is fast turning into a textbook case of how not to deal with a protest in a democracy. The UP government has taken political and administrative imperviousness to a shocking level, with those killed crossing 20, police putting out “reward posters” for “miscreants” and “suspects”, issuing notices and warnings of property attachment and detaining local civil society leaders who have, on evidence, little to do with the violence.
Beyond the immediate events, the backdrop for General Rawat’s intervention is also made of a more general tendency by the ruling regime to paint all criticism and political opposition as unpatriotic, if not pro-Pakistan, and to put the figure of the soldier to political and electoral use. By being seen to make a partisan point in this moment, by appearing to fall in political line, General Rawat does damage to both his own reputation and to his high office.
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