Embedding the army in politics

20 Nov 2017


EVERYONE wants an army tank these days. Or an RCL gun. Obsolete and unusable, of course, but the symbolic hardware of war is much in demand in educational institutions across India. A number of universities and schools, elite institutions such as Delhi’s Modern School and Lucknow’s La Martiniere College among them have sought and been allotted old Vijayanta or T-55 tanks by the army. Ostensibly, this is to display the patriotism of the institution, or to instil it in their students.

For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime of Narendra Modi, which equates its muscular nationalism with glorification of the military, it must be a source of satisfaction that dozens of such military hardware have been installed in educational institutions. Its trusted vice chancellors have taken up the cry for tanks in campuses, while huge sums are being allocated for new war memorials. Military rhetoric is used to gloss over policy muddles and administrative ineptitude. If students were protesting in campuses over cuts in university grants, or if the poor were becoming impatient at their inability to withdraw their money from banks during the harrowing months of the demonetisation currency crunch, the soldier has always come in as a handy totem of national duty.

The tedious refrain that continues to be played out in the public space and on social media is always this: if the army jawan can stand for long hours at the border to defend the country, surely Indians could stand — and die as it happened — in bank queues to show their devotion to country? Some sharp putdowns by army officers who had also suffered in the same queues did help to somewhat quell the patriotic fervour of the BJP and its web of organisations that form a vast saffron brigade of right-wing Hindu supremacist ideology.

The controversies over India’s military are mounting as it begins to encroach on civilian space.

The changing profile of the army in the new political landscape is deeply worrying. The military and military rhetoric has dominated news for much of the three years that Modi has been in power. The most unsettling was the prime minister’s comparison of the Indian Army to Israeli Defence Forces after ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control. His boast that the Indian Army was no less than the IDF was met with general approval, a disconcerting indication that the polity could easily be militarised. It’s common practice for BJP leaders to routinely invoke the armed forces to crush political opponents, so much so that the Congress now states that the military is above criticism! That’s as dangerous as it can get in a democracy. If politicians believe that the military cannot be challenged it begs Juvenal’s famous question quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who shall guard the guards?)

The concerns have deepened after Modi’s handpicked man Bipin Rawat was made chief of army staff. That appointment itself jolted the army since it was for the first time that the government had abandoned the traditional practice of going by the seniority. There were reports of deep resentment within the army that two highly regarded generals had been sidelined for no reason. But if the political establishment eschewed a time-honoured tradition, the army maintained its own with a decorous silence even though opposition parties were highly critical of the government.

The general has shown no hesitation in shedding the apolitical image of the army, frequently taking political stances that no Indian army chief has dared to so far. Provocative statements such as his bring-them-on challenge to the young stone pelters of Kashmir have been ignored by the government. In a May 2017 interview to a news agency, Gen Rawat said that he wished those pelting stones at security forces in the Valley “were firing weapons at us”. “Then,” he declared, “I could do what I want.”

Rawat has even approached the central ministry handling education to demand that stories about army valour be made part of the school curriculum. Obviously, no one raps a handpicked general for stepping out of line. But his major attempt to portray the army as a people-friendly organisation has run into a storm of criticism, both inside and outside the army. This is the army’s decision, clearly at the behest of the defence ministry, to build three railways bridges in Mumbai. Experts have been quick to point out that it is not the army’s role to make up for the inefficiencies of civilian departments except in times of emergencies such as natural disasters when its skill and capacity to set up temporary infrastructure is urgently needed. But unfazed by the criticism, Rawat told a Delhi paper that “citizens [should] get to know their army by seeing us come to their assistance with the efficiency and capability we are known for”.

That could have unhealthy portents though. Defence analysts with a long memory have noted that in 1953, when martial law was imposed in Lahore, the Pakistan army had launched a similar campaign to project a friendly image of army efficiency by cleaning the city. What happened thereafter is now history.

One of the biggest conceits — and strengths — of India’s democracy is that it has succeeded keeping the military out of politics these many decades. India’s ability to manage the military while juntas periodically took charge of neighbouring countries has provided its citizens with a comforting sense of security that the army remains safe for the world’s largest democracy. In the recently published Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence, Steven I. Wilkinson contends that this is primarily because of the critical choices made by the civilian leadership to curtail the army’s autonomy. Among other things, the army top brass was discouraged from making speeches.

Not any more though. Now the army (so far retired personnel belonging to a wing of the BJP) is brought in to harangue civilians on what’s wrong with India’s democracy, to fulminate on TV, to lecture to students on patriotism. But many among them have also written openly about the dangers of this trend. Their warning: there are serious dangers in making the army a vote bank.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017