Is Rawat shooting from the hip on Assam issue?

General Rawat seems to revel in making these politically loaded remarks. One conclusion of this is that he is not being adequately supervised by the government of the day. The other is that he is pushing the envelope with an eye on a post-retirement political career.

 Rawat, AIUDF, Ajmal, BJP, Assam, Army, COAS, LoC, Manoj Joshi
Photolabs@ORF

By now you should know that Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has a tendency to shoot from the hip. You always get off a shot faster this way, but it is usually less accurate. And so it is with his latest shot on the issue of migration into Assam.

In recent remarks, the general claimed that the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Badruddin Ajmal had been growing faster than the BJP in the state and implied that this was on account of Muslim migration from Bangladesh, encouraged by Pakistan and China to destabilise India.

The comment as such was over-the- top and downright ignorant. Rawat  had no business to make a public assessment of the politics of Assam. Just why a party grows faster than another is dependent on a variety of factors, not in the least the possibility that it is gaining at the expense of another party in the region.

Making sense of election results is a complex job that confounds the best of analysts and politicians. The results of the Assam State Assembly in the last three elections show the fluctuating fortunes of the Congress, the AIUDF and the BJP. The Congress  got respectively 31, 39 and 31 per cent of the votes polled in 2006, 2011 and 2016. The AIUDF got 9, 12.6 and 13 per cent. And the BJP got 12, 12 and 29.5 per cent.

The once-powerful AGP is the one that faced a meltdown from 20 per cent of the votes in 2006 to 16 per cent in 2011 and 8 per cent in 2016. Likewise the support of the Bodo People’s Front halved from 3.9 per cent of the votes in 2011 to 6 per cent in 2016 and the Communist parties have virtually vanished.

What these figures tell us is that the rise and fall of political parties have more to do with election dynamics than any insidious migration. This is not to say that there has been no migration. Assam and Bengal were part of the same polity under the British rule, so, there was nothing remarkable about migration which was encouraged by British administrators. In the post 1947 period, there have been various allegations tossed about and as per agreement, India has accepted all migrants who came before the 1971 war to be Indian nationals. In the 1980s, the Assam movement led by the Asom Gana Parishad sought to expel alleged migrants but nothing came of it.

The Army chief or anyone else has zero proof that  Pakistan and China were master-minding the alleged influx. As such the entire Bangla border is fenced and patrolled and if he has questions on its porosity, he would do well to take it up officially with the Border Security Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

There are virtually no circumstances in which Bangladesh will accept large-scale repatriation of these alleged migrants. So, the one part of the general’s statement that made sense was his acknowledgement that since nothing could be done now efforts should be made to properly amalgamate the alleged migrants into the polity and isolate the trouble-makers. Currently there is a process underway to identify illegal migrants but this is a fraught issue which is not in the remit of the Army. No matter how it pans out, it will require sensitive handling rather than “shoot from the hip” comments.

In January the General generated controversy by calling for a revamp of Jammu & Kashmir’s education policy. He wanted the state to bring madarsas under its control as they were spreading disinformation. Now, the Army is operating under special circumstances in the state. But it is not yet under martial law where the Army could dictate its educational and other policies. There is, as we all know, an elected state government, indeed a coalition between the BJP and the PDP, and again if the general has complaints, it would be best to take them up quietly with the Minister of Defence who could take it up with her Cabinet colleagues or even the Prime Minister.

Early in 2017 Rawat had triggered yet another storm when he declared all protestors in Kashmir to be “overground workers of terrorists”.  This deliberate conflation of violent civil protestors with violent armed insurgents has not been particularly helpful. It  has seen a steady rise in the deaths of Kashmiri militants, but it has also a rising  toll of the security forces. If anything the hardline has led to young Kashmiris joining the armed militancy in steadily growing numbers. In a written reply in the J&K Assembly the state government said that some 126 young men joined the insurgents in 2017 as against 88 in 2016 and 66 in 2015.

Likewise, despite the tough words of the general, infiltration across the LoC guarded by the Army had also gone up. The MoS Home Ministry Kiren Rijiju told the Lok Sabha earlier this month  that as against 223 cases in 2015, the number was 454 in 2016 and 515 in 2017 . This was also borne out by the number of infiltrators killed—64, 45 and 75 respectively. As such Army personnel have all the right to discuss politics and have views, strong or otherwise. But their conduct rules are strict about making public comments on political issues. Senior officers are often called on to speak on various issues in seminars and conferences. But, they are usually careful in their comments. Sensitive issues involving politics can be taken up with the proper civilian authorities but this is best done through official channels away from the media.

The repeated instances suggest that General Rawat seems to revel in making these  politically loaded remarks. One conclusion of this is that he is not being adequately supervised by the government of the day. The other is that the general is pushing the envelope with an eye on a post-retirement political career. Neither are a happy commentary on the state of affairs today.


This commentary originally appeared in Indian Express.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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