A recent spate of articles in the media tend to give the impression that India’s Armed Forces are increasingly getting politicised. From amongst the vast repertoire that has been published, I am taking out two for analysis and for giving an informed counter view.

Writing in Scroll, a web portal, Lt Gen. Prakash Menon wrote a piece titled “Indian military must remind politicians that it’s loyal to the Constitution – not the party in power”. This was published on March 5. The very title of the paper suggests that the military is kowtowing to the political establishment, which is far from reality. But the arguments given by Menon make for poor analysis and a lack of comprehension of the military ethos. This is surprising as the views have been articulated by a person who retired as a three star rank officer from the Indian Army, and who, while in service, tenanted many senior command and staff assignments. He was also appointed the military adviser to the National Security Council Secretariat by the UPA regime and completed his tenure under the NDA dispensation.

The points made in Gen. Menon’s article are as under:

  • Statements from the highest rungs of military leadership have cast a shadow on their apolitical character. This is distressing even if it is a case of misplaced interpretation, factual ignorance or the shenanigans of individuals on social media.
  • The military’s apolitical nature is a cornerstone of India’s democratic foundation; diluting it could be disastrous.

Its unending deployment for internal security in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East has resulted in the military becoming a permanent and key representative of the state’s coercive power in a politically charged atmosphere. Inevitably, most of the military’s actions are politically sensitive and it often finds itself in the midst of political controversies. Frequently, the military’s stand is in opposition to a State government’s with the Central government supporting the military. The military thus becomes an object of Centre-state politics.

In support of the above points made in the article, Menon has given the following examples:

  • The “human shield” incident in Kashmir in April 2017 was an unacceptable military act, sought to be justified by the military in the name of operational expediency and institutionally portrayed as an act of heroism. The military’s stance was supported by the Centre but decried by the state government, making it seem that the Army was taking sides in a domestic political battle and was, therefore, moving away from its apolitical character.
  • The use of the armed forces for spreading yoga mats, spoiling the Yamuna riverbed, constructing railway footbridges and cleaning garbage from mountaintops is exceptionable. The military also needs to tell the government, behind closed doors, that it cannot be employed for the benefit of a political party or of a religious organisation it supports. The military’s deliberate leveraging of its operations on the Line of Control for domestic electoral purposes suggests that the armed forces serve the political party in power, like in China. Such a portrayal has given rise to speculation that the military’s apolitical nature is being increasingly compromised.
  • The Army Chief’s comments about the All India United Democratic Front in Assam, suggests that the Army was taking sides in what is essentially a political battle between the ruling party and the opposition.
  • The statement from the Army Chief thatThe statement from the Army Chief that
    China and Pakistan are orchestrating immigration from Bangladesh must be assumed to be true as it has not been contradicted by the Government. Greater circumspection is required while commenting on foreign countries.
  • When the military has to express its views, it should be guided by the tenet that one of the greatest values it brings to India’s democracy is not taking sides in the domestic political discourse.

    Just a week later, Karan Thapar, wrote an opinion piece, “An inglorious tradition that diminishes the idea of India,”which was published in the Hindustan Times on March 11, 2018. Thapar made the following points:

  • Recent photographs of General VK Singh, now minister of state for external affairs, dressed in full RSS uniform and surrounded by other RSS members poses a threat to Indian secularism.
  • This act of the former Chief raisesThis act of the former Chief raises doubts whether he was a secret RSS member during his years of military service. It also throws up questions on the army’s principle of religious neutrality and raises concerns whether other military officers are also supporters of the RSS.

Such articles cannot be ignored as they are presumptive, factually incorrect, divisive, potentially damaging and also hold forth the possibility that those who purvey them could have a possible agenda in promoting a certain political line, to shape public opinion against the present government and in favour of an earlier dispensation which afforded them patronage, power and prestige. But leaving innuendoes aside, let us look at the facts. The Armed Forces have remained steadfastly a political since Independence, despite Nehru deliberately sidelining them, Indira Gandhi exploiting the brilliant victory won by the military in 1971 to the advantage of her party, and Rajiv Gandhi making the Army an instrument of his foreign policy through the Indian Peace Keeping Force between 1987 and 1990. The military leadership has consistently remained aloof from politics despite actions by some people to besmirch their reputation and honour. That tradition continues till date and signifies the strength of Indian democracy. Such questions are invariably raised with ulterior motives as the fake reports on the front page of a daily some years ago suggested, which implied that the Army was preparing for a coup!

Menon’s angst is directed against the present Chief for a lecture he delivered to a military audience, in which, amongst multiple issues, he also highlighted the growth of a particular outfit, which has an exclusive Muslim membership. The statement of the Chief was factual and was made in the context of demographic changes taking place which have serious national security implications. Security concerns are routinely expressed in military conferences across the world, especially in mature democracies like the US, the UK and France. Nothing which the Chief said was out of place and which could be faulted. Why then this display of alarm? Could the motives be different to what is ostensibly being portrayed? Or do some people care so little for national security?

I am not sure why Menon calls Maj. Gogoi’s action as an unacceptable act, but he is entitled to his opinion. What is surprising however, is his lack of understanding of counter terrorist operations. Junior leaders in combat have to take split second decisions, where the underlying principle is to act in good faith. The result in hindsight may be either right or wrong, but that is of little consequence as what matters is whether the act was carried out in good faith. In Gogoi’s case, there was no malfeasance, no preplanned desire to hurt a particular set of people. As an officer, he was tasked with a rescue mission which he accomplished without loss of blood in a very dangerous situation. He acted in good faith. Ethics here, does not form a part of the narrative.

If officers are castigated for their actions taken in good faith, the upshot most likely will be that in future, young leaders will avoid taking decisions on the battlefield. The Army and the Centre rightly supported Gogoi as any other action would be playing into the hands of the terrorist narrative and would have dealt a serious body blow to the morale of the Army. The State government was playing to the gallery, to appease its constituency, but the Centre has to look into national interests. To construe this as the Army interfering in the political process is to stretch the imagination. It is also unfathomable why some who should know better, are so supportive of the narrative emanating from terrorist supporters and sympathisers.

The talk of the military being employed to lay yoga mats has been falsified. The Army laid the mats for its own personnel which is in order. Also, for decades, Indian Army mountaineering expeditions have been decluttering the pristine snow clad peaks by carrying litter back. Foreign expeditions do the same. At every step, let us not question the action of the Army Chief, who is responsible for the morale and well being of the Force. In this day and age where news is carried across the globe in real time, it behoves retired Generals and other veterans too, to exercise some circumspection when talking of the actions taken by the present leadership.

If the military’s success in the surgical strikes was exploited by the ruling dispensation, then so be it. It has happened earlier and will continue to happen in future. A military victory is the upshot of a political decision and the ruling party can rightly claim credit for the same. If a reverse is suffered, well then, the flak will again be taken by those in power. To suggest that the military is deliberately leveraging its operations to benefit the ruling party is nothing short of slandering the worlds finest Army. Comments from the military the world over are orchestrated to achieve foreign policy goals. Why should it be different in India? It is also not clear why Menon seems to believe that the military is taking sides. The Armed Forces have to operate under the government in power as they are the elected representatives of the people of India. I do hope that Menon is not suggesting that the military take orders from Sonia Gandhi!

The comments from Thapar also need to be dismissed with the contempt they deserve. Thapar’s criticism of the RSS is unwarranted as is his castigation of Gen. Singh for posing in a RSS dress with the RSS cadre. This simply betrays his lack of knowledge of the RSS and the sterling work this organisation has done over the decades. Incidentally, many luminaries in the Indian scene have RSS roots and they include both India’s Prime Minister and President! Gen. Singh has also posed with members of different faiths and communities, so why should Thapar be perturbed if Gen. Singh posed with members of the RSS? His view is prejudiced and jaundiced.

On a more personal note, it appears that Thapar holds a pathological hatred for Singh. In 2012, I saw him in conversation with a former NSA, Brijesh Mishra in a programme titled Devils Advocate. Mishra was perhaps not well and he was slurring his words, as if he was under the influence of alcohol. And Thapar kept asking Mishra whether VK Singh was the worst Chief the Indian Army had ever had! What disrespect to a serving Chief! But perhaps the angst lay elsewhere. It was Karan Thapar’s father who as the then Army Chief, led India to its most humiliating defeat against the Chinese in 1962. That perhaps is a memory that Thapar cannot shake off.

There is too much military bashing in recent times by a coterie which had prospered for decades under a different dispensation. Such articles therefore must be refuted and countered, to prevent the spread of a false narrative that can only weaken India and give strength and solace to our enemies.

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