India regaining Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir is a topic that makes periodic appearances in India’s domestic and foreign policy discourses. On 22 November, Northern Army Commander Lt General Upendra Dwivedi, while answering a question about the Army’s position on defence minister Rajnath Singh’s statements on reclaiming PoK, said this: “As you are aware, a parliamentary resolution exists on the subject and therefore it is nothing new. As far as the Indian Army is concerned, it will carry out any order given by the government of India, and whenever such orders are given, we will always be ready for it.”
Indian media soon distorted the statement to imply that the “Army is ready and waiting to take back PoK”. The shift in meaning was subtle but important. Heated media debates followed and focused enhanced attention on the topic of PoK, which has been leveraged by the ruling dispensation to project muscularity in dealing with Pakistan. Retaliation for Pakistan’s transgressions has been housed in the defence minister’s oft-repeated ‘eent ka jawab patthar se denge (we will answer bricks with stones)’ statements on the PoK issue.
The same political statement was repeated by Lt Gen Dwivedi during the media interaction on 22 November—probably for the first time by a military leader—in the context of describing the Army’s reaction to Pakistan’s violation of the 2021 Cease Fire Agreement.
Pakistan Army’s official Twitter handle was not far behind in its reaction. It was aimed at the Indian military, and ended the diatribe by stating: “In the interest of peace for the region, the Indian military would do well to abstain from irresponsible rhetoric and vitriolic communication to shore up electoral support for their political masters’ regressive ideology,” it said. The accusation was about India’s military leadership being a party to the anti-Pakistan agenda utilised for electoral gains by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For an Army that is often described as having a nation, instead of the nation having an Army, it was definitely more than tongue-in-cheek advice.
PoK in the Indian political landscape
As India moves toward a round of elections that will culminate in the 2024 Parliamentary elections, more such ‘PoK will be recovered’ episodes and their variations could animate India’s domestic politics and shape relations with Pakistan. All of them could involve spewing hatred and hostility towards Pakistan due to perfidies in different forms, which are an integral part of Pakistan’s diplomatic and strategic conduct with India. Domestically, such emotions often tend to morph into a Hindu-Muslim antagonistic framework that serves the purpose of consolidating Hindu votes for a supposed electoral advantage.
In all probability, such electoral machinations would be undertaken under the shadow of increasing challenges to India’s national security due to global and regional geopolitical frictions emanating from the larger struggle between the US and China. A struggle that is likely to draw in India and may serve to further increase tensions with China and Pakistan. It is a no-brainer that India needs to focus on dealing with China and deploy its instruments of statecraft in terms of political, military, economic, diplomatic, intelligence, technological and information power. Pakistan, in contrast, should not be allowed to become an unavoidable distraction due to the nature of India’s domestic politics. This can be achieved only if narrow party politics are superseded by national interests. A prospect that seems unlikely, given the record of domestic politics and events in the last decade.
Maybe, there is ground for optimism, if the BJP accepts that it may not need to leverage hatred toward Pakistan to win elections anymore, considering its prevailing popularity and disarray in the opposition camp.
Military leaders must stay away from controversy
While India’s political parties will do as they please, military leaders have more of a choice. They can steer clear of being used by the political leadership to strengthen anti-Pakistan moves for electoral gains. The choice could be exercised along two different axes.
First, the spoken and the written word, along with actions undertaken and publicised, are the means that are in theory, expected to build and protect the Army’s image. In the world of information overload, this is a necessity. What perhaps is unnecessary and something that requires to be minimised is the proclivity of senior military leaders to readily participate in interactions with the media.
Instead, let official spokespersons —who are present at all levels—be the main interlocutors. The senior leadership will thus reduce the chances of their utterances being misinterpreted, and of being drawn into avoidable controversies. Overall, considering the trajectory of domestic politics, the policy should be that of letting the military’s actions speak for itself. Silence by senior military leadership on politically loaded matters should be the preferred route.
Second, there is a need for the military leadership to be sensitive and not give the impression that it is supporting domestic political narratives, which are shaped to show political opponents in poor light. One such narrative that has gained ground is illustrative. It wishes to portray the notion that India’s progressive streak began largely in 2014, a year that coincides with the advent of the Narendra Modi government. Military leaders should be particularly careful that they are not seen to be a party to such narratives in their utterances. It jeopardises and betrays the Army’s apolitical stance.
In the years ahead, India’s developmental progress is likely to face stronger headwinds. Domestic political interactions and contestations conducted within the Indian democratic framework are the soul of its ability to face challenges and seize opportunities. The military risks losing its capacity for independent advice because it has been unwittingly or deliberately incorporated in ideological schemes that do not cohere with its unambiguous constitutional values.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)