Nobody in India needs reminding of the dangers of politicising the Army. All you have to do is look next door to Pakistan. Despite the more-than-cautionary tale that exists across the border, there are always politicians in India who are willing to treat the Army like a bargaining chip. Case in point: Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray's demand over the weekend that movie producers pay Rs 5 crore to an Army welfare fund for casting Pakistanis in their films.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis brokered a deal between Thackeray, whose party has a history of violent protests, and a delegation from the film industry over threats regarding the release of Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil over the Diwali weekend. The MNS had threatened to protest the release of the film, which features Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, prompting the chief minister to call a mediation session.
There the producers were told by Thackeray that they could not cast Pakistani actors in the future and that they will have to donate Rs 5 crore to an Army welfare fund for every Pakistani in their films, even if those were shot when Indian relations with Islamabad were good enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Pakistan.
The sight of a chief minister attempting to broker a deal between an industry body and an unelected politician prompted enough unease, since it seemed to legitimise Thackeray's threat of violence. Adding a monetary aspect to that, effectively forcing the filmmakers to pay up money for decisions made in the past, turned much of that unease into outrage – especially for many who retired from the armed forces.
Manmohan Bahadur, who retired as Air Vice Marshal of the Indian Air Force, was the most vocal.
The armed forces are always in a difficult spot in these situations, because service officers are expected to remain apolitical – and so they leave heavily on retired veterans who can communicate their sentiments. And there were plenty of those.
Reports in both the Times of India and the Hindustan Times featured quotes from unidentified serving officers who recommended that the Army turn down any forced donations.
“If something is wrong, it is wrong. How can a forced donation of Rs 5 crore make it right?" Brigadier Khushal Thakur (retired), a veteran of the Kargil war, told the Hindustan Times. "But the bottom line is the army’s name should not be misused for political gain."
The same sentiment was echoed across Twitter and the political spectrum, decrying Thackeray's choice to drag the Army into his politics – and the Maharashtra chief minister's decision to legitimise this.