There was a time, Indian armed forces personnel followed one cardinal principle: that they would not discuss politics or women. That seems to have changed now. Politics now appears to be the most favoured topic of discussion among armed forces personnel – serving and retired.

While this is a problem that India needs to address, the shift in the armed forces’ ethos from secularism to the majoritarianism that has afflicted the rest of India is more worrying.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at an event organised by an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The organisation claimed to work for the welfare of the border population.

Many senior retired military officers as well as a few young serving Army officers were part of the audience. I was surprised to see the serving officers were in uniform. The others present included personnel from the police, banks and other civil departments.

In my speech, I enthusiastically recommended ways to improve the lives of residents living in border areas. A couple of meetings later, I realised that the organisation was focussed on profiling the border population on communal lines. Many speakers also raised questions about the patriotism of Muslims who live in border areas in the East.

I immediately put an end to my association with that organisation.

That serving defence officers were actively associated with a politico-religious organisation and that several retired senior defence officers are increasingly joining active politics soon after retirement establishes that India’s defence forces are rapidly getting politicised.

Indian politicians, the military leadership and the media – to an extent – are responsible for this trend.

What India needs to realise is that the professionalism of the armed forces will be the first casualty if the slide towards politicisation is not stopped. If promotions occur on the basis of an officer’s political ideology, the best officers will no longer be promoted, compromising India’s security. If that happens, we won’t be very different from Pakistan that went down that road decades ago.

BJP and armed forces

India’s politicians are most responsible for damaging the political neutrality of the armed forces.

The country has fought four wars since Independence – three of which it decisively won – but no political leader at that time attempted to take political advantage of those victories.

That has changed.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for instance, has brazenly and cynically attempted to cash in on the armed forces for votes. It started with the surgical strike across the Line of Control in September 2016. The party played up these strikes during the campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections held months later, which it won in a landslide. More recently, the BJP politicised the Indian Air Force strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, in February, with an eye on the 2019 general elections.

Countries usually do not publicise such operations in order to retain the scope for deniability as previous Indian governments have done in the past.

But India has behaved differently with the BJP at the helm.

During his campaign speeches over the past months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often attempted to ride piggyback on the actions of the armed forces to project himself as a strong leader.

For instance, the photographs of the security forces personnel killed in the February 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama were displayed in the background when Modi delivered a few election speeches.

Similarly, Modi’s party colleagues have referred to the Army and Air Force as “Modi ki Sena [Modi’s Army]” or “Modi ki vayu Sena [Modi’s Air Force]” while campaigning. These are clear attempts by the BJP to politicise the defence forces and gain politically from the successes and even deaths of soldiers.

Former Chief of Army Staff VK Singh joined the BJP after he retired and was appointed Minister of State for External Affairs by the Modi government.
Former Chief of Army Staff VK Singh joined the BJP after he retired and was appointed Minister of State for External Affairs by the Modi government.

Controversial appointments

Another step towards the politicisation of the armed forces is the supersession of capable defence officers for those hand-picked by the Union government.

The appointment of Bipin Rawat as Army chief in 2016 was the first such instance by the BJP-led Centre. His appointment saw two equally capable generals being superseded.

The justification the government gave for Rawat’s elevation was that he had more experience in counter insurgency operations. But that is not even the core function of the Army, and the explanation does not sound convincing.

The government acted similarly while appointing the chief of the Navy. In March, setting aside the principle of seniority, it named Vice Admiral Karambir Singh as the next Chief of Naval Staff. Singh will take over from Admiral Sunil Lanba who retires on May 31. This prompted Vice Admiral Bimal Verma – the officer who had been superseded – to move the Armed Forces Tribunal.

This does not augur well for the image of the forces. It will also hurt the professionalism of the forces as senior officers will now hesitate to give their honest professional advice to the government for fear of displeasing them and risking a chance at a promotion. If this continues, the Army may never produce another Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who was known to speak his mind to his political masters.

The fact that the superseded officers in the cases mentioned above reached the rank of an Army Commander or equivalent is evidence of their professionalism, integrity and capability to hold the post of chief. The supersession of such highly capable officers therefore raises doubts about the government’s intentions.

The matter gets further politicised when Opposition parties question these appointments and attribute political motives to the appointments.

Rogue officers?

But why blame only politicians? Several senior officers have tarnished the reputation of the armed forces with their conduct after retirement.

These officers can be divided into two types. One, those who spout venom against minority communities as armchair analysts for television channels or on social media. Two, those who join politics after retirement and debase the institution they come from by their conduct.

Several retired senior Army officers can be seen participating in TV discussions these days. Some of their opinions are vitriolic. They indulge in heated discussions on religion, patriotism, nationalism. They cast aspersions on the patriotism of members of the minority community and also spread canards against the icons of India’s freedom movement.

Other senior retired defence services officers spout venom against members of minority communities on social media.

That these men were once senior officers who commanded a large body of diverse troops is a sad reflection of the systems in the armed forces that allow such rogue (for want of a better word) officers to reach higher ranks.

The appointment of Bipin Rawat as Army chief in 2016 was clouded by controversy.
The appointment of Bipin Rawat as Army chief in 2016 was clouded by controversy.

Officers and politics

Several senior armed forces officers also join politics upon retirement. This is not a new trend. The case of former Army Chief General JJ Singh, however, is unusual.

After he retired in 2008, he served one term as the governor of Arunachal Pradesh. He decided to fight the Punjab Assembly elections in 2017 despite that.

As a candidate of the Shiromani Akali Dal, an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it was disappointing to see him use abusive words against Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh, who is now the chief minister of Punjab, in a video that went viral in 2017.

In another video, JJ Singh was seen campaigning for the Punjab elections with all his service medals pinned on his chest. The Election Commission later barred him from wearing medals while canvassing.

Besides making a spectacle of himself, Singh’s acts tarnished the image of the average Army officer.

But it’s not just retired Army officers.

In May, the Leh district election officer wrote to the Indian Army on a complaint raised by a candidate alleging malpractice in the electronic postal ballot system by a commanding officer. It was claimed that the officer was asking the troops under his command about their voting preferences instead of providing them with the ballot so that they could cast their vote themselves.

Army has denied any wrongdoing in this case, but as the saying goes, “There is no smoke without fire.”

Cooling-off period must be mandatory

I believe that any government servant, especially armed forces personnel, should only be allowed to join politics after a cooling-off period of not less than five years.

The bureaucracy and the armed forces are the iron framework of the nation. They are the ones who ensure continuity of government policies by remaining neutral and not letting their own political ideologies interfere with their work. They must remain neutral.

In my opinion, the politicisation of defence forces personnel is more dangerous than that of bureaucrats.

This is because senior Army officers have the influence to politically motivate all troops under their command. This can lead to a situation of the kind seen in Pakistan, where the Army has repeatedly captured power and is involved in governance even today despite the presence of an elected civilian government.

The soldiers who make up India’s defence forces come from diverse areas unlike those in the Pakistani Army, which predominantly consists of personnel from Punjab. The diversity in the Indian forces drastically reduces the possibility of a coup from occurring. However, if troops are driven by unity of political ideology and communal fervour, this eventuality cannot be ruled out.

Unlike the Pakistani Army, Indian defence forces have always maintained political neutrality so far.

Since Independence, India’s defence forces have prided themselves for the secular practices they have adopted. One example of this is the establishment of a “Sarva Dharm Sthal” or “an abode for all religions” in each military station.

Officers and men attend prayers and festivals held at these places of worship without any hesitation. Here, it is not unknown to find Muslim officers leading a puja and a Hindu officer leading namaz.

But this harmony is under threat now. We are fast approaching a stage where “Sarva Dharm Sthals” are in danger of being reduced to mere showpieces. This situation is neither good for the defence forces nor for India.

It is time the leaders of the armed forces take urgent steps to prevent troops from losing their political neutrality. Politicians too must tread with caution and not allow this important institution to fall into an abyss.

Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general of the Border Security Force. His Twitter handle is @sood_2.