Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2019-12-30 10:20:57 Published on Dec 30, 2019
Bipin Rawat’s recent comment on CAA-NRC protests is not an aberration. Throughout his tenure, the Army chief’s political and moral attitudes reflect those of the government.
Army chief Bipin Rawat’s recent comment on CAA-NRC protests

Days before demitting office as the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat once again waded into controversy. Addressing a health summit in New Delhi, on December 26, he said: “Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate directions, as we are witnessing at a large number of university and college students, the way they are leading masses of crowds to carry out arson and violence in our cities and towns. This is not leadership.”

An Army spokesman later claimed that the General was not talking about any specific political event or personality. But even a modicum of common sense will tell you that statements have contexts, and in this case, the protests across the country on the issue of the CAA, NRC and NPR, make it clear what the General was talking about.

There is a long-standing convention in almost every military around the democratic world, where personnel avoid commenting on politics. In case you are not familiar with the way the Army operates, Rule 21 of the Army Act says that no one should comment on political issues without prior governmental sanction. It is unlikely that Rawat sought or was given permission.

The blame for this situation rests equally with General Rawat, and the government that chose him to be the chief, overlooking the claims of two other senior officers.

Ever since it has come to power, the government has so far signalled it is willing to dilute civil-military relations in this country. This, in itself, would not have been a bad thing if some thought had gone into the process.

The Modi government’s proclivity to leap before looking is well known. But the one thing that has been under the radar is the slow fire that it has lit in politicising the armed forces. India was one of the great successes of the post-colonial world in terms of ensuring that its military remained outside politics. This did not happen by accident, but required substantial effort by the civilian bureaucracy and the political class to ensure that the military walked the straight and narrow path of professionalism.

It is a tribute, too, to the past leadership of the armed forces, that they saw and understood how important it was for them to not only be an apolitical entity, but for the people of the country to see them as such. Though, by law they followed the orders of the government of the day, at the same time, they maintained a proper distance from their political masters.

The politicians, too, understood the importance of this, especially after the brief episode of 1961-1962 that ended in disaster. Both sides drew their red lines, with the civilian bosses going along with promotions based on seniority, which ensured that no upstart general went all the way to the top by currying favour with politicians. The military, for its part, stuck proudly to an ethos that has disdain for politics and promotes professionalism.

The first instance was in the appointment of Bipin Rawat as the Chief of Army Staff, superseding two very capable Army commanders, Lt Gen Pravin Bakshi, who commanded the Eastern Army, and Lt Gen PM Hariz, the chief of the Southern Command. The Army Chief is appointed from a panel comprising six Army commanders and the vice chief.

Bipin Rawat’s tough talk is in contrast to the quiet professionalism of his predecessors, who dealt with a much more adverse situation in Kashmir in the 1990s and mid-2000s. They did what they had to without loose talk.

There is an informal acceptance that those selected must be either from the three key commands — Northern, Eastern or Western — or be a Vice Chief.

That Rawat was to be favoured became apparent when he was shifted from his appointment as the Chief of the Southern Command to the post of Vice Chief within just eight months in 2016. And three months later, he was appointed Chief of Army Staff.

Soon it became evident as to why the government did what it did. Rawat’s political and moral attitudes appeared to be close to those of the government. He declared youngsters pelting stones in J&K were “anti-national” and threatened to shoot them. He seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that the action would have been wildly disproportionate to the one being used by the protesters.

Rawat’s unusual approach to events in Kashmir became apparent in April 2017, when he backed the use of a civilian Farooq Ahmed Dar, who was one of just seven per cent voters that had cast their vote in a by-election to the Lok Sabha, as a human shield. An Army major Leetul Gogoi claimed that Dar was directing the stone pelting mobs in a nearby polling station.

Even before the inquiry to the incident was completed, Rawat gave Gogoi an official commendation. Explaining issues, the BBC reported, the garrulous Rawat declared that not only must adversaries fear the Army, “your people must be afraid of you”. To the embarrassment of all, Gogoi was subsequently court martialed for moral turpitude.

It must be noted that all these remarks were made in a situation where things in J&K had improved enormously. The year 2012 saw the lowest casualty figure for the security forces — 18 — since 1990. But the BJP government adopted an aggressive strategy, allegedly to finish “terrorism” in Kashmir forever. This led to a steady escalation of violence that has led to a more than four-fold increase in the number of security forces killed in the Valley — 83 in 2017, the first year Rawat was chief, 95 last year, and 78 this year so far.

Indeed, Rawat’s tough talk is in contrast to the quiet professionalism of his predecessors, who dealt with a much more adverse situation in Kashmir in the 1990s and mid-2000s. They did what they had to without loose talk.

What Rawat seems to ignore is that the central maxim of counterinsurgency is to win the hearts and minds of the people. Kinetic action, meaning using guns is important, but at the end of the day, because you are dealing with your own people, your solution has to ensure a winning of hearts, not the silence of a graveyard.

Rawat has been encouraged by a government that has stoked faux patriotism, even as it has systematically underfunded the armed forces. It is one thing to salute the flag, award medals and rouse jingoistic sentiments, but quite another to conduct a systematic and long overdue modernisation of the armed forces and find resources for it.

This commentary originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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