Army Chief oversteps line by playing politics

No military leader before the present chief has dared to step out of this watertight domain.

Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat appears to have flagrantly overstepped his authority and made offensive political remarks on Thursday in disregard of our fine tradition of the military staying out of civil matters and the country’s governance, including dealing with protests. In our constitutional scheme, this is the prerogative of the elected leadership and the civil service and police within the broad framework of civil society.

No military leader before the present chief has dared to step out of this watertight domain. It would have been fitting if the nation’s political executive had shown its displeasure, and let this be known. Not only has this not happened, there is a sense that this government is indulgent to the armed forces in jurisdictional matters.

Before Gen. Rawat criticised the leaders of protests against the recently passed citizenship law, which is polarising and communal, a subordinate of his, Eastern Army commander Lt. Gen. Anil Chauhan, expounded on distinctly political themes. He reportedly told journalists in Kolkata that “the current government” had taken hard decisions on security. He cited the derogation from Article 370 in J&K, spoke with approval of the proposed Naga Accord and the Citizenship Amendment Bill before it became law, and said he would expect a move against left-wing extremism soon.

It is extraordinary that such an irresponsible officer has not been sent packing. Clearly, he was extended solicitous latitude for foraying into areas outside the military's domain. It is no exaggeration to say that the phrase “the current government” — which seems a clear expression of political choice — grates on the ears.

Retired and serving officers, as well as those they command, are unlikely to have missed this aspect of the three-star general’s impertinent remarks, which appear calculated to be dismissive of the culture of compartmenalisation of civilian-military relations as has developed in India.

It is noteworthy that Gen. Rawat too used the expression “this government” in earlier remarks in the context of Kashmir and Pakistan, setting a poor example to those he leads.

From the start, this Army Chief was aware that he is a favourite of the present establishment. An outstanding officer had been superseded to make him leader of the Indian Army, and this may have given him a sense of entitlement. Now, when he is due to retire on December 31, there is widespread anticipation that Gen. Rawat will be made India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Since there is absolutely no desperate rush to institute the position of CDS just days before an Army Chief is to step down, it’s hard to shrug off the feeling that the post is being created for him.

If Gen. Rawat is indeed made CDS, it may be thought that he has been rewarded for his egregious observations on the recent protests, licensing other political-minded military officers. The chief’s observations are in line with the government and BJP, falsely and with political calculation, accusing the Congress and Left and liberal opinion of fomenting violent unrest.

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