Tuesday, March 28, 2023
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Indian military isn’t politicised like China, Pakistan but the seeds have been sown in 2019

The Modi government and the Indian armed forces will have to introspect and arrest this trend rather than wait for another debacle.

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Even though India’s military functions as per the Constitution under the direction of the elected central government, it is supposed to remain neutral to the ideology and political decisions of the party in power. And so, it was highly unusual for Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Anil Chauhan, to make a partisan political statement recently.  

“The current (Narendra Modi) government is keen on taking hard decisions that have been pending for a long time… The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed despite reservations from a couple of northeastern states. It would not be hard to guess that some hard decisions on Left-wing extremism may be on the anvil after this,” Lt Gen Chauhan said on 14 December in a public forum in Kolkata

That same day, troops under his command were operating in aid of the civil authority in Assam and Tripura to control protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Calling in the Army to maintain law and order is a dangerous trend for any democracy, but with his remark, the Lt Gen put a question mark on the Army’s neutrality, which the force has zealously upheld for 72 years since Independence. Fortunately, apart from conducting a few flag marches, the Army was not used.

And this is not an isolated incident – it seems that 2019 was the year when the Indian armed forces were exploited for politics, from Balakot to Kashmir to CAA.

Also read: Why states need to stop calling Indian Army to deal with protesters. It’s not riot police

Armed forces at the centre stage   

In the last five and a half years, India has taken a majoritarian and hypernationalist stand on national security issues,  and in this process, co-opted the armed forces, which have been deified. All critics, reformists, opponents and a large section of the population, have been identified with the external enemy – Pakistan. The distinction between the Modi government and its instrument of last resort – the armed forces – has blurred, particularly with respect to accountability towards national security. 

We have seen the government pursue an aggressive military strategy against Pakistan along the Line of Control and International Boundary, and in the form of surgical Special Forces and air strikes across them. An equally aggressive strategy has been adopted with respect to the ongoing insurgencies, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 was diluted on 5 August to strip the erstwhile state of its special status, and the security clampdown since then seems neverending. 

In the pastafter the mass agitations in 2016 and the active interference of unarmed mobs in counterterrorism operations, the Army was at times seen making no distinction between the militants and civilians. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) publicly supported this deviation from the Army’s timetested model of adopting peoplefriendly operations.

In 2019, post the Balakot airstrikes and the aerial skirmish the following day, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran a national securitydriven campaign for the Lok Sabha election, keeping the armed forces at the centre stage. This campaign made 150 retired armed forces officers write petition to President Ram Nath Kovind about the politicisation of the armed forces.

Also read: Modi govt is obsessed with exercising power instead of focusing on what matters — economy

Army officers joining the bandwagon

The year also saw some senior Army officers making statements with political undertones, a trend that began in 2017. They exaggerated external and internal threats and gave traction to ongoing counterinsurgency operations during the elections or when the Modi government was facing a political problem. 

Senior officers of the Indian Air Force (IAF) publicly defended the Modi government’s Rafale jet deal with France’s Dassault by giving statements that went beyond their role, which pertains to the evaluation of the aircraft, specifications of technical and weapons package, and the longterm contractual obligations of maintenance and upgrades. The defence was more about the financial terms of the contract and offset contract, which had political undertones. This raised serious questions about the neutrality of the armed forces. 

Have armed forces been politicised?

Politicisation implies that the armed forces identify with a political ideology and become an extension of a political party. For instance, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China is a politicised army. The other variant of politicisation is when the army dominates the politics of a country. Pakistan is an example where the army controls the government. 

The saving grace for India is that barring a few aberrations due to rogue actions and panicdriven violations of terms of engagement, the traditional apolitical ethos of the Indian military has prevailed despite the political environment and unethical statements by a few senior officers. However, there is no doubt that the military and its operations have been politically exploited to reap electoral dividends. 

The phenomenon of opportunist senior officers cosying up to the political establishment is not new. We saw this trend in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and paid the price in 1962. Thereafter, the armed forces and the government took corrective action. Strict action was taken against errant officers. Air Marshal Manjit Singh Sekhon wrote to then-Chief Minister seeking his help to promote his case for appointment as Air Officer in Chief, Western Air Command, which would have enabled him to become the next Chief of Air Staff. He was forced to resign on 19 March 2002. Many others were reprimanded.

To prevent senior officers from succumbing to the temptation of promoting self-interest with politicians, most governments adhered to the principle of seniority with respect to the appointment of service chiefs and Army commanders. The government deviated from this principle when General Bipin Rawat was appointed the Chief of Army Staff, superseding two Army Commanders, and again while appointing the present Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh. It is the prerogative of the government to follow relative meritdriven selection, but without a transparent methodology, and considering our political culture and past experiences, it only leads to producing a politicised hierarchy. Moreover, rather than reprimand errant senior officers, the political statements have been lauded and defended. 

Despite its rampant political exploitation, the Indian military has not been politicised in the classic sense, but an unethical hierarchy promoting selfinterest may end up doing exactly that. The Modi government and the military need to introspect and arrest this trend rather than wait for another debacle.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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  1. Good to know that there are still voices from the forces, in this case though just retired, who have the moral wisdom and courage to speak up and make known their dissent. This government which is more brawn and low or zilch brains is out to destroy the independence of all institutions.. Appalling and extremely sad.

  2. These things happen all the time ,everywhere, in local parlance we call it ‘uchakna’, ‘lift karna’ & so on , it is unrealistic to expect human beings not to do it, even if they are in the army.As far as service rules are concerned, it is the jackal guarding the chicken coop , so where interests merge , conflict of interests will be overlooked.

  3. When citizens go against their own fellow countrymen and destroy property the protestors are no more sane countrymen and hence army has to step in.

  4. The trends observed in the recent past with security forces and some govt agencies are not only give rise to suspicion of nexus and neutrality of constitutional agencies’ independent, unbiased working. The statement of Senior defence officer and retiring Army Chief leads to endorsing these observation. Defence personnel like any other Indians are citizen but their uniform carry special obligations toward profession they have chosen and respected. The fear of common men is not hypothetical but reality we have seen with investigating agencies like Police, IB, CBI, ED and constitutional agencies such as Election Commission, Finance Commission, Vigilance Commission and even RBI. Govt silencing citizens as custodian of Country cannot interfere in working of these agencies and more so with Judiciary and Armed Forces . All there fears are fueling protests across country because trust deficiency and few steps taken by govt which have reversed the clock. Modern world want Prosperity, opportunities to grow, education, health services, security and hardly anybody is concern about issues like religion and to some extent nationalism. Nationalism, religion or culture is embeded and not to be preached by systematic forces or passing laws.

  5. Gen Panag is expecting Modi to rein in people like Bipin? He forgets that Bipin serves his purpose i.e. of advertising BJP. Why would he blunt his own weapon? Rightly, he has made him the CDS.
    What an army it has become!

  6. General is off the mark here, China is doing today much better because the political class and military is on same board.

    To be fair if a large country India has to move fwd, it needs to leave Western type democracy for a Chinese like one party system.

        • Congress is basically a Hindu hater party, no wonder it has accepted Muslims to stay back in India, never passed any laws to reform Muslims but appeased them by providing subsidy for Haj, it also clamped various Hindu Religious bodies and Temple trusts but never did anything like this in case of muslims, Congress never rued for driving out Kashmiri Pandits out of Kashmir.

  7. Gen Panag commented about the neutrality of Armed Forces with great clarity. However, Air Force officer who came to the defence of Rafael acquisition, did so at the behest of a narrative that something fishy was taking place. Neither did the secrecy that surrounds a typical armament purchase help the unyielding clamor of a rabid press. People in the know, had to come and defend themselves or like Augusta helicopter scandal would face prison time if improprieties were indeed present. Some of us also remember the Bofors acquisition. Most defence experts agreed in retrospect that it was not a bad weapon, but since financial improprieties weren’t answered it was assumed Bofors was weapon of dubious capability. Consequently the narrative that the service has been enfeebled, gains credence. So it was essential that clarifications came from the weapon acquisition evaluators.

  8. Not only have the seeds been sown, some sturdy saplings have already grown, a lot more healthy than the green shoots that are anxiously awaited for the economy. Deep selection should be avoided like the plague, given our cultural ethos in government.

    • Why deep election should be avoided and based on whose statement a retd officer who was hobnobing with AAP. If he is questioning others before that he must look at himself how neutral he is.

      Deep selection, else we should get rid of
      military boards and have a computerized flawed system deciding system based on age and service available.

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