India has always been selling the point that its armed forces are apolitical, secular and strictly under civilian control. The world at large has been generally receptive to Indian propaganda due to the effective concealment of evidence against the drummed-up point. But that is no more. In the age of social media deluge and rise of the BJP, India is drifting visibly right of center in all its manifestation.
Generally, the Indian media refrains from questioning the government line on the issues of national security. This trend is all prevalent and there is no exception in the mainstream media. National outlets of news, including print and electronic, are tightly under government control and there is no space for even a murmur against the state narrative. This trend is now gradually seeping into the mainstream commercial media too and that is becoming a point of concern for the people of conscience in India. Absence of a spirit of inquiry is a dangerous drift and will result in loss of credibility of news outlets.
But few aspects of the armed forces behaviour have become so obvious that no one with a grain of sanity can remain silent. And that is what is happening in today’s BJP-led India. Rise of Hindutva has now become manifest. India has always been unfriendly to its minorities; with the rise of religious extremism, the life of minorities has been made difficult. Burning of Christian nuns occurred in 1998, when the BJP came to power for a very short stint. That religious bigotry was the trademark of the BJP was no secret to any serious observer of Indian politics.
But the BJP has embarked upon a different trajectory since coming to power in 2014. It has started to recruit state institutions to its brand of political thinking and has openly started to play favorites. One point of all this manoeuvering is that the BJP makes no secret of its intentions. The current army chief of India was promoted out of turn, superseding two of his seniors. When political masters dole out a prized appointment, they expect a hefty return as well, since there are no free lunches in the world.
The Indian army had been propagating secularism and professionalism as its cardinal strength. With the elevation of General Bipin Rawat, both these “cardinal points” have been turned on their head. How much it will shake the Indian army’s image will be known as time passes. But if the acts of General Rawat are any signal of what to expect, then India is set on a Doomsday path. A professional soldier does not need to please his political masters since he owes his promotion to his professionalism. But if you have been handpicked, against departmental traditions, then it is obvious there is a debt to repay. And what better way to square the debt than to propagate the political philosophy of your masters.
The world witnessed a reprehensible act in May 2017, when a Kashmiri man was tied to the bonnet of a military jeep. He was used as a human shield against the wrath of Kashmiri protestors. Even the Indian media which is noted for looking the other way when it comes to the army’s high handedness in Kashmir, spoke out in agony. The picture went viral and with it went down the image of a “professional” military force which pretends to respect international treaties and conventions on human rights.
But this incident was not to move the BJP government and its handpicked general. Instead of rebuking the officer involved in this unconscionable act, Major Gogoi was awarded the Commendation card by General Rawat. The Indian army spokesman was unable to defend this award and had to leave a press conference midway. What is the moral of the story? the BJP appointed a person to the top slot in the army who has inclination to Hindutva philosophy and is ready to demonstrate his religious bias in no uncertain terms. The choice of General Rawat was proven correct when he refused to adhere to Indian principles of secularism, and glorified his soldier’s heinous act by rewarding the culprit.
More recently, General Rawat has been coming to the support of the BJP in clear ways and in defiance of accepted norms. His statements and comments have become so blatantly inappropriate that Indian politicians and the media are talking about them regularly. General Rawat was reported to have referred to an allegedly planned influx of people from Bangladesh into the northeastern states of India as part of a proxy war being waged by Pakistan with support from China. Elaborating on his point, the army chief pointed to the fast growth of Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) party in Assam as compared to the BJP in the 1980s.
The Times of India had to admonish the general in its editorial in these words,” Needless to say this was totally unnecessary. As a serving army chief, Rawat ought to refrain from making public political comments. In that sense, Ajmal is right in questioning why the army chief should be concerned about a legitimate political party rising faster than BJP. Rawat’s choice of words, irrespective of actual intentions, creates the impression that he views AIUDF as Chinese-Pakistani proxies”.
The general was speaking the language of a party stalwart instead of a serving army chief. But it was the media and not the government or any political party which spoke about the excesses committed by Rawat.
Mani Shankar Aiyar a senior Indian politician who has held various government positions is so upset by the BJP’s policy of using the armed forces as party loyalists, that he writes and comments against this trend publically. He is, obviously, against the idea of turning civil servants and armed forces personnel into party spokesmen.
The Indian air chief was seen defending the BJP government at the expense of the Congress on an aircraft induction deal. Mani Shankar had to caution the BJP, “The use of senior armed forces officers to make political statements at the behest of, or on behalf of, or in support of the BJP government’s political program is, as The Indian Express put it, ‘to tread perilous ground”’.
Mani Shankar penned down tens of examples of what, he thought, was intemperate remarks by General Rawat. The comments he has made include, notoriously, his blasting “Kashmir politics and its education system”; “India’s diplomatic stance towards China in the Indian Ocean region”; his championing a “two and a half fronts war” which contributed to the Doklam crisis; his denigrating the search for a “political initiative in Kashmir” since “adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you”.
It may be a surprise to Mr. Ayiar, but not to Pakistanis, that if the BJP has chosen to play favorites in promotion of armed forces officers, there would be a quid pro quo. And the return has to be proportionate to the favour. The Indian army is busy fighting multiple insurgencies. Kashmir is the only place which has a Muslim majority and witnesses the most horrific acts of violence perpetrated by the Indian army. By appointing General Rawat as army chief, the BJP has sent a clear signal to all the waiting generals in the queue for “aligning” with BJP’s political philosophy or else be left out in the cold.
If India has chosen to part with secularism and professionalism within its armed forces, it must not worry others. But Pakistan needs to monitor trends within Indian society, politics and their effects on the armed forces of India. After all, lowering one’s guard is not an option in the face of an unremitting enemy. The BJP’s policy of using the Indian armed forces as the party’s tools would not be conducive to the maintenance of regional peace.