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.
Armed forces at the centre stage
In the last five and a half years, India has taken a majoritarian and hyper–nationalist 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 never–ending.
In the past, after the mass agitations in 2016 and the active interference of unarmed mobs in counter–terrorism 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 time–tested model of adopting people–friendly operations.
In 2019, post the Balakot airstrikes and the aerial skirmish the following day, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran a national security–driven campaign for the Lok Sabha election, keeping the armed forces at the centre stage. This campaign made 150 retired armed forces officers write a petition to President Ram Nath Kovind about the politicisation of the armed forces.
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 counter–insurgency 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 long–term 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 panic–driven 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 merit–driven 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 self–interest 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.