ONE FREEZING AFTERNOON in September 2015, I was fortunate enough to dine at the warm officers’ mess at Siachen base camp, one of the highest and most famous war zones in the world, where a lunch- time chat that started with Kashmiri cuisine drifted to books by Myra McDonald and Nitin Gokhale and then to elevated blood pressure levels at high altitude. And then the unexpected happened: a few officers launched into a vehement excoriation of the Indian political establishment that was dithering on implementing its pre-election promise—the One Rank One Pension (OROP) policy, by which the same pension would be offered to officers of the same rank irrespective of their date of retirement. They also lashed out at the Government for other reasons. It wasn’t the pay issue alone that got their goat, they said, but the ‘condescending attitude’ of a dominant section of the ruling classes, as a senior officer, flanked by deadpan juniors, pointed out. One political leader, it emerged in the talk, had recently pulled up the top Army brass for allegedly having a great time while civilians slogged it out. Reportedly, the leader had also joked about the number of days the forces actually spent at war, given the many decades of peace Free India has had.
Crass jokes on two subjects are typically banned from discussion in an Army mess: women and politics. Yet, such loud commentary on the ruling coalition and its politics at the Siachen base camp was only a reflection of heated debates that had raged in various WhatsApp groups of defence officers during the run- up to the last General Election and after. A retired senior officer who held crucial positions in the Army says he had then called it a “dangerous trend” in a private conversation with his colleagues. According to him, the acrimony over favouring or opposing the BJP and Narendra Modi continued for well over two years after the mid-2014 victory. At least 15 officers from across the Army, Navy and Air Force whom Open spoke to say that the euphoria that accompanied Modi’s high-wattage campaign resulted in politics being talked about like never before in the forces (thanks largely to social media). States one of them, calling it a cyclical phenomenon: “There was a period of hope in a new government that was supposed to do everything for the forces.”
Another one tries to dissect the trend as “not singular in direction, but multiple”. Having keenly followed various discussions over the past three years, he reasons that three major types of WhatsApp groups emerged among Indian officers: one in which the so-called ‘martial’ communities of the cow belt were very vocal about the need for change; the second was a section of ‘neutral’ observers who wanted the security apparatus to be strengthened and therefore became votaries of a change in government; the third was of those who went with the flow. An IAF officer contends that the tone of debates in personal chat groups has undergone a change over time, emphasising that not a single comment insinuating anything against any religion could be found earlier on such online platforms. Now, however, minority- bashing and jingoism seem to find more takers.
In recent months, following the Army’s prolonged standoff with militants in Kashmir, such social media groups have seen renewed activity. “I am deeply disappointed at the turn of events,” notes Admiral Sushil Kumar, former Navy chief who has fought in all wars since the 1961 liberation of Goa from the Portuguese until the Kargil War.
The ‘cyclical’ pattern that a young Navy officer talks about—the continual rise and fall of verbal slugfests on WhatsApp—has been triggered most recently by an Army officer tying an alleged stone- pelter in Kashmir to the bonnet of his jeep and driving around villages. Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, who sparked a controversy by using the man as a human shield, claiming that he did so to escape violent crowds in the Valley, has become a poster boy for nationalists. The senior officer quoted earlier says that young officers often tend to take drastic steps in hostile circumstances. “Assuming that he did so to save himself and his comrades, the organisation doesn’t talk about it, typically. Or it might order a probe. But to decorate him and parade him before TV channels is [questionable],” he opines. Says Admiral Sushil Kumar, “All this distracts the armed forces from executing what they are meant to… such ‘political sidetracking’ of soldiers can have far-reaching consequences.” He cautions that “creating such linkages will only result in diluting the mission of the soldiers: to protect the country and its people”. Major Gogoi drove that vehicle in an area between Utligam and Hardpanzoo for five hours across 17 villages over 28 km on April 9th, according to a report in The Hindustan Times.
An officer who had been posted in Kupwara for years concedes that the Gogoi incident, to his surprise, found a “tepid lashback” in several WhatsApp groups. Similarly, a Navy officer based in Delhi states that even the most “vocal types” in a WhatsApp group of which he is a member “made no big deal about the act of the officer”, unlike in the past, when such an incident would have evoked outrage. It appears to him that old values are being eroded, with members taking up fiercely polar positions; there are those in favour of upholding civilian freedoms, and others want greater power in the hands of the military.
A senior Army officer with the Northern Command is anxious that officers have begun to air such strong opinions online. He fears this might undermine the force’s secular character which sets it apart from the one in Pakistan, which was also carved out of a British Raj military that had a long tradition of acceding to civilian control. Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research who has keenly followed the trajectories of both the armies, believes that as of now the ruling dispensation doesn’t have an interest in bringing the military into politics as such, even if Army officers might want to pursue politics once they retire.
Unlike Pakistan, the military establishment in India has been subservient to the civilian leadership, something that explains why India has thrived as a democracy after its freedom in 1947. India inherited the British administration while Pakistan had to build one from scratch, and in the process fell victim to a strong military-bureaucratic axis that emerged in that country. Besides, what worked to India’s advantage was the constant vigil against any such ambitions on the part of the armed forces. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, according to Professor Steven I Wilkinson, author of Army and Nation, took various steps to restrict the Army’s ability to coordinate action against the state—consequently, the military leadership ended up being less cohesive across various wings and infantry battalions. Nehru also made symbolic moves, as Wilkinson writes, by moving ‘into the (British) commander-in-chief’s impressive New Delhi mansion, which as “Teen Murti” (named after the World War I memorial statue of three soldiers outside its gates) became his official residence’. Even when the Army had to be swiftly expanded after India’s defeat to China in 1962, paramilitary forces had to rapidly be raised, according to Wilkinson, as an ‘indirect hedge against the risk’ of a military coup. At present, the Indian Army is the third largest in the world.
Therefore, notwithstanding the news of allegedly suspicious Army movements some years ago under the leadership of General VK Singh, minister of state for External Affairs, coup-proofing strategies employed for decades by the Congress seem to have paid off so far. Now, however, a measure of disquiet has arisen thanks to abrasive WhatsApp messages by officers, overtly political commentary and an aggressive display of nationalism by soldiers once accustomed to staying aloof from such things. “I don’t think it makes much sense to compare [the Indian armed forces] with those of Pakistan, which has fifty years’ experience of on- and-off military rule. We need to compare what is happening now with the norms of civil-military relations that are long established in our country. By that benchmark, it is problematic,” says Raghavan, who served for years as an infantry officer in the Indian Army before he took up academics.
Problematic it indeed is, especially when officers and soldiers become targets of political mudslinging. As a denouement to the war of words between political parties over the military’s role and pronouncements in Kashmir, Congress leader and former lawmaker Sandeep Dikshit made a condemnable remark on Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, describing him as a ‘sadak ka goonda’ (roadside goon). After coming under attack from the ruling coalition and his own party, Dikshit apologised for his nasty remark. Yet, the bitter aftertaste lingers. Admiral Sushil Kumar says that such statements intended to shame topmost officers are entirely unacceptable and would demoralise the military. “Soldiers shouldn’t be used… for political gains. Of course, when there were major combat victories, like the ones against Pakistan in 1965, 1971 and later 1999 in Kargil, respective prime ministers claimed credit for the victory. That is a different matter,” says a retired officer with a record of having served with distinction. He hastens to add that Dikshit’s statement was “repugnant and implosive”.
He goes on, “The name of the game has changed now and efforts to brandish the alleged excesses of individual soldiers or officers for political ends will attract an equally acerbic reaction and that is when officers get caught in the crossfire.” Gogoi, whose act of ‘daredevilry’ was feted by a section of the media and political class, was later awarded an honour for counter-insurgency operations. Amid all this jubilation, back in his home state of Assam, Gogoi’s ‘heroics’ were compared with those of a medieval war hero, Bir Lachit Borphukan, who had fought the Mughals in the late 17th century.
The celebration of a desperate measure adopted by an officer in a treacherous situation has divided opinion sharply. Yet, former generals and heads of various commands that Open spoke to say they see rays of hope. Most of them attest that the Indian Army’s secular credentials and long- held traditions are still largely respected, regardless of the political climate. The Army, at least five of them say, is also capable of thinking out of the box while staying people- oriented. They warn against the “political thought processes” of dominant parties clouding such strategies. Some of them believe that an idea proposed by Major General BS Raju, General Officer Command of Victor Force, the Army’s anti-insurgency grid responsible for much of South Kashmir, to take young stone throwers on a tour around India, is a step in the right direction. So are efforts to ‘mainstream’ girls and boys in the Valley through sports and martial arts, and by offering them coaching for competitive examinations.
Soldiers of a defence force that has a long history of being insulated from politics have never before come under such scrutiny. Understanding the political winds of the day does help officers prepare for the Government’s defence priorities. But outright politicisation would weaken a well-trained fighting force. More importantly, casual statements by civilians—like social scientist Partha Chatterjee comparing Rawat to General Dyer in Jallianwala Bagh where on April 13th, 1919, hundreds of peaceful protestors were gunned down mercilessly by British forces— tend to trivialise the dilemmas faced by Army officers, as Air Vice Marshal and author Arjun Subramaniam writes in an Indian Express column. Meanwhile, there have also been voices—even from a section of Army veterans—that top-ranked officers like General Rawat also need to restrain themselves. He had remarked in an interview that he wished stone- throwers of Kashmir opened fire at soldiers, for it would have made his job easier.
Such pronouncements and resultant public uproars do nothing to preserve the values of an institution painstakingly built and nurtured for the country’s security.