Army Chief General Bipin Rawat on Wednesday created a furore when he made comments about the Assam-based All India United Democratic Front, claiming it had grown faster than even the Bharatiya Janata Party. Given that Rawat was speaking about migration from Bangladesh, the implication was that the AIUDF has grown as a result of this alleged influx.
Rawat referred to the alleged migration as an act of “lebensraum”, the German word that means “living space” – an ideological principle used by Nazi Germany to support the country’s territorial expansion. As if this wasn’t enough, Rawat blamed Pakistan and China for pushing Bangladeshi migration.
Lebensraum, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the AIUDF: there is a lot to unpack here. However, far more than important that what was said is the fact of who said it. The chief of the Indian Army making adverse observations about an Indian political party or commenting on the foreign policy aims of India’s neighbours is highly irregular. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: it is part of a larger trend of the politicisation of the Indian Army. Increasingly, the army is not just a fighting force but is a participant in public debates as well. This would be a troubling phenomenon in any democracy, where politics should be conducted exclusively by civilians.
Jumping into politics
Rawat’s comments on a political party were preceded by the Indian Army’s censure last week of Hyderabad Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi. Refuting the accusation that Indian Muslims are unpatriotic, Owaisi pointed out that of the seven people killed in a recent terror attack in Kashmir, five were were Muslim soldiers. Rather than let other politicians respond to Owaisi, the Indian Army itself jumped into the fray to rebut Owaisi, arguing that he was trying to “communalise martyrs”.
Since he was appointed army chief, Rawat’s freewheeling comments have also often crossed the line into politics. In January, Rawat attacked China on the Doklam crisis, calling for a multi-pronged approach, including diplomatic, military and partnerships with other countries in the region, to deal with Beijing. China’s foreign ministry, in turn, responded to Rawat’s statements. Even more troublingly, Rawat waded into nuclear policy, arguing that India is ready to call Pakistan’s nuclear “bluff”.
Rawat has also proffered his views on Kashmir. In February, 2017, he said Kashmiri civilians interfering with operations against militants will be considered anti-national and the army could even use force to deal with them.
How did things come to such a pass? One major factor is the rise to power of the BJP in 2014 and its use of a muscular nationalism – a key component of which is militarism. Messaging around national security, military action on Pakistan and terror were a key part of Narendra Modi’s campaign. To this end, the BJP even appointed a former army chief to its cabinet after winning the elections.
In 2016, Bipin Rawat was appointed Army chief by superseding two other officers – something that has happened only one other time since 1947. After his elevation, Rawat has frequently endorsed the Modi government’s policies in public. He praised the ill-considered decision in 2016 to demonetise 86% of India’s currency. As part of his comments on the AIUDF on Wednesday, he praised the Modi government for “now looking at the North East in [the] correct perspective”.
The surgical strikes of 2016 – in which the Indian Army crossed the Line of Control to attack Pakistani post – were also used by the BJP in the political arena. The 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections saw the BJP using these attacks as part of its campaign.
The Indian Army itself allowed the team that carried out the surgical strike to speak directly to the media. In May, Major Leetul Gogoi, the officer accused of using a human shield in Kashmir, was presented at a press conference to defend himself.
Militarisation of public life
While the BJP is a big factor in this new trend, it is not the only one. Militarism has seeped into many aspects of Indian public space. Retired armymen are a regular part of primetime television debates on news networks. In fact, even people opposing militarism have to often, ironically, couch their arguments in an army idiom. For instance, when a BJP spokesperson during a TV debate last year accused Kanhaiya Kumar of lacking patriotism, the student leader parried the charge by arguing that 16 members of his family worked in the security forces and one had even been killed in action.
This is a troubling development. Militarism is fatal for democracies, given that politics must be based on a competition of ideas. The men with the guns have a crucial role to play in national security – but their entry into politics is unwelcome. In India’s neighbourhood, the armies of other countries have often interfered in politics. They have usually been driven by popular support from elites, who see army rule as less chaotic than democracy – a system that has to cater to multiple interest groups. Pakistan, for example, has been ruled by the army for nearly half of its existence. Yet, as is widely acknowledged even in Pakistan today, army rule and more broadly militarism has held back the country back even democracy has allowed India to progress. India and its army need to be careful to avoid the Pakistan trap.