The writer is Editor-in-Chief, Financial Chronicle; Visiting Fellow ORF and eminent author. He loves the space where politics and economics converge.

Retrofit: Army Chief should speak less, and with care

Published Mar 9, 2018, 3:31 am IST
Updated Mar 9, 2018, 3:31 am IST
India’s Army Chief should be more circumspect and choose his words more carefully.
Army chief General Bipin Rawat
 Army chief General Bipin Rawat
  • The time has come for India to shift focus to its northern border. The country is capable of handling China’s assertiveness. China is a powerful country, but we are not a weak nation.
  • Yes, China is exerting pressure. We are dealing with it. Yes, we should try that it is not escalated. We will not allow our territory to intruded. Troops are earmarked should a situation arise…
  • While troops (of the PLA) may have returned (from Doklam) and infrastructure remains, it’s anybody’s guess whether they would come back there, or is it because of the winters that they could not take their equipment, but we are also there, so in case they come, we will face them…

— Army Chief General Bipin Rawat

Around Army Day (January 15), the Chief of Army Staff, a position revered by the troops, was busy shooting his mouth off, virtually delivering a quote a day, unbecoming of his stature. India’s Army Chiefs, ensconced in the Raksha Mantralaya’s corner office, don’t normally indulge in needless gabfests, and in Gen. Rawat’s case it is unnecessary baiting of a dangerous adversary. On Tuesday, it emerged that India has been ranked the fourth most powerful military power in the world.


According to Global Fire Power Index 2017, India’s military strength is behind only that of the United States, Russia and China, while rival neighbour Pakistan ranks 13th on the elite list. Even as Gen. Rawat consistently rattled the cage, Pakistan, which has been bleeding us for years using its doctrine of death by a thousand cuts, was functioning with its usual impunity attacking military installations and soft targets in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Army Chief kept a stoic silence as our brave soldiers were killed with unceasing regularity. And for all the Army Chief’s theatrics and creation of optics, the dreadful and ugly truth is that the Chinese have not taken a backward step in the sensitive Doklam region.

On Monday itself, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman validated the Chinese threat perception in Doklam when she said in Parliament: “Indian and Chinese troops have ‘redeployed’ themselves away from the face-off site in Doklam, and China has undertaken construction of helipads, sentry posts and trenches for its Army personnel there.” She added: “Post disengagement from the face-off in 2017, troops of both sides have redeployed themselves away from their respective positions at the face-off site. The strength of both the sides has been reduced. In order to maintain these troops during the winter, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undertaken construction of some infrastructure, including sentry posts, trenches and helipads.” Last week, our junior defence minister Subhash Bhamre had said the situation along India’s border with China is “sensitive” and it has the potential to escalate.  The troops of India and China were locked in a 73-day standoff in Doklam beginning June 16 last year after the Indian side stopped the building of a road in the disputed area by the Chinese Army. The face-off ended on August 28. Sources said China has been keeping its troops in north Doklam and significantly ramping up its infrastructure in the disputed area.

Now the question is why would you pump up the volume knowing well that the Chinese threat represents a clear and present danger? Obviously, one cannot back down to any threat posed against our sovereignty, but what about the active daily engagement on our western border. J&K is a cauldron brimming over, and despite an effective concentric circle-type all-pervasive security grid, Pakistan proxies or fidayeen are doing incalculable damage to the morale of our fighting forces. The Army Chief said not one word for those dying bravehearts, instead he is busy ratcheting up the pressure on our northern neighbor, where an undefined border has created constant consternation with a bellicose PLA trying to assert itself.

Since January 1 this year, the Indian Army has killed around 20 Pakistani soldiers in punitive fire assaults and lost more than 15 soldiers, apart from BSF personnel and civilians, in over 280 ceasefire violations and terror incidents in J&K this year so far. That both the PM and the defence minister chose to stay away from the Army Day functions on January 15 even though both were very much in the country was most galling. As many as 10 Indian soldiers were killed in the first two weeks of this year alone. In January alone, a belligerent Pakistan ISI-jihadi military complex had upped the ante. An Army jawan and three civilians were killed while 15 people were injured as Pakistani troops targeted forward Indian positions and civilian areas both along the international border and Line of Control (LoC) in J&K for the third day running. The injured included two security personnel. The four deaths took the toll for January to 10, almost equalling the number of deaths in the whole of 2017 in such cross-border firings. Yet the Army Chief focused on China, ignoring the ongoing fusillade in J&K. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the piece de resistance came when in a confrontational move, he shot his mouth off making a tangential politically-loaded statement about Assam — “I don’t think you can now change the population dynamics of this area. If it was five districts to eight to nine… the inversion has taken place, whichever be the government...There is a party called AIUDF if you look at… they have grown in a faster timeframe than the BJP has grown over the years. When we talk of the Jan Sangh, with two members of Parliament, and where they have reached, the AIUDF is moving at a faster pace in the state of Assam. Finally, what will be the state of Assam, we will have to take a call?”

This seems the theatre of the absurd. Since when did Army Chiefs comment on politics, and that too on sensitive demographics? The aggressive jingoism for China was in any case misplaced, by commenting on Assam and its religious makeup, he had opened a communal front in an openly disputatious comment. Was he being prodded into saying these things? That would tantamount to his position being compromised, and no Army Chief has indulged in this kind of cheap theatrics, at least not in recent memory. Should he be asked to zip up? Yes, most definitely, for the Indian Army cannot be associated with such colored statements. It is sacrilege to make such petty statements and it certainly doesn’t behove the Army Chief to say what he said.

The reactions came swift and fast. Retired Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon, well respected for his sense of fair play, but extremely outspoken, tweeted: “The army is not in charge and is the lead agency in politically-loaded internal security situation. Depending on context of issue relevant ministry/ dept/agency could comment. Overall, chief should not voice opinion that projects that he in charge of the entire situation.” In another tweet, he argued: “Two issues — 1st chief making statements that have political and religious overtones eg madrasa edu in J& K etc, 2nd, government has not commented, therefore tacit approval. Is it healthy for mil institution? I don’t think so. Though there could be more to it than what is in public domain.”

Retired Gen. V.P. Malik, a former Army Chief, countered on his timeline, saying: “Topmost mil ldr of the country has the right to spk on issues affecting national security where mil is/may be called upon to act. What, when, and where to spk depends upon situations and personality. Muzzling him will be counter-productive.”

Retired Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag, writing in his blog, created a flutter when he said: “Our Chiefs of the defence forces have been making headlines with their statements on national security issues and at times also on issues outside their domain. Questions have been raised by the media, the Opposition and veterans about what the Chiefs should and should not be saying. While some are cheering them, others say they have transgressed into the political domain.”

He went on: “Curiously, the defence secretary, who is ‘responsible for the defence of India and the armed forces’, as per the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules 1961, has never made a public statement with respect to national security in 53 years of my military memory. Yet, in the not-too-distant past, a defence secretary allegedly commented on the clamour for a Chief of Defence Staff: ‘We already have a Chief of Defence Staff. I am the Chief of Defence Staff!’”

Three divergent schools of thought, but the majority view is that sagacity demands that India’s Army Chief should be more circumspect and choose his words more carefully. After all, he symbolises the garima of the armed forces and as its leitmotif, it’s not his job to make such utterances. And if he is being prompted to do so by those in power, that’s even more distressing. Emasculating this fine institution will be our collective death.