This is because, generally, though not always, a political personality gets elected as India's Rashtrapati. Even though such persons shed their party affiliations after assuming the high office, politics remains an integral part of their persona. They also have to deal with politics and politicians of all hues in the course of their work. Members of the judiciary are more isolated from the political establishment than the president. Nevertheless, many of the cases handled by the higher judiciary are such that they have to deal with divisive political issues, or issues impinging on the secularism versus communalism debate, and even make comments on specific political parties and their leaders.
In contrast, both the Indian Constitution and the Armed Forces' own fine ethos have built such a unique firewall around them that it is impossible for them to either dilute their secular character or get involved, in any way, in the country's political discourses and developments. In this sense, India is very different from Pakistan (where the army's identity, like that of its republic, is Islamic) and China (where the People's Liberation Army is under the control of the ruling communist party).
Which is why, the Indian Army takes special pride in being both secular and non-political. And why Indians are so proud of their Armed Forces.
But is all this sought to be changed now?
We do know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is extremely uncomfortable with the concept of secularism, even though it is one of the preambular principles of the Indian Constitution. Indeed, secularism constitutes the basic structure of the Constitution. Yet, the current leadership of the BJP finds it so distasteful that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has almost never used secularism in his speeches. We know, too, that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the BJP, has been talking of making India a "Hindu Rashtra" more frequently than before, especially since the Modi government assumed office in May 2014. It is also common knowledge that in its attempts to misuse the institutions of governance for its own ends, the government and the ruling party have not hesitated to infect some members of the higher judiciary with the poison of bias.
The question now troubling the nation is: is some of this bias also beginning to infect the Indian Army? This worry has arisen because of the unprecedented and shocking statements by General Bipin Rawat, its serving chief. Speaking at a conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, he expressed concern that one party in Assam was growing faster than the BJP, and termed it as a threat to the nation's security. His exact words were - "There is a party called AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front). They have grown in a faster time-frame than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grew over the years. When we talk of Jan Sangh with two MPs and where they have reached, AIUDF is moving at a faster pace in the state of Assam."
AIUDF is a bona fide political party duly recognised by the Election Commission. Its founder, Badruddin Ajmal, is a member of parliament. The fact that most of its supporters are Muslim makes no difference whatsoever to the truth that in the eyes of law, it has exactly the same status as the BJP or any other party. Army chiefs or officers of any rank are not supposed to make comments that directly or indirectly convey a message that one political party is more patriotic (and hence the Army's favourite) than the other. By insinuating that AIUDF is a threat to national security, and doing so in contrast with the BJP, Gen Rawat has crossed the proverbial Lakshman Rekha and waded into a controversy hitherto unknown in the history of the Indian Army.
But political neutrality is not the only Lakshman Rekha that Gen Rawat has crossed. He also transgressed the line of religious neutrality. To know this, we have to see the text and the context of his speech. The context: he was addressing the 'North East Region of India - Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders Summit'. And the text was unmistakable - it was about the security threat posed by the immigration of people from Bangladesh into the Northeast. He identified two reasons for this phenomenon. "One, they are running out of space. Large areas get flooded during the monsoon and they have constricted area to stay. So people will continue coming into our place." Many people, including myself, will agree with the General on this point.
But the second reason, he said, is the "planned immigration that is taking place because of our western neighbour (Pakistan). They will always try and ensure that this area is taken over through proxy warfare. This proxy game is being very well played by our western neighbour and supported by our northern neighbour (China)."
The reference to Pakistan made it clear that he was referring to Muslim Bangladeshis coming into Assam and other parts of the North-East. To make it even more unmistakable, he raised alarm over the change in the "population dynamics of the area". He referred to the increase in the number of districts where such demographic change (Muslims becoming a majority) has taken place - from "five districts to eight to nine... whichever be the government."
This is not the first time Gen Rawat has suggested that Muslim-majority border areas are a security threat. Last year, he said India was prepared for a "two-and-a-half front" war - Pakistan and China were two fronts, and unrest inside Kashmir was the "half-front". The long-term implications of this kind of thinking, and an army chief getting away with making such communal and political statements in public, are frightening. They pose a threat to India's unity, integrity and security.
Defenders of the army chief will surely ask - and they are indeed asking in the social media: "But isn't influx of Bangladeshis into India a threat to India's unity, integrity and security?" It is, in my view, a serious problem, but not really the kind of maximalist threat the BJP and its Hindutva supporters make it out to be. From the late Lt Gen SK Sinha, former Governor of Assam, to judges of the Supreme Court, many have spoken about this problem, and even described it as a threat. However, two points are in order here.
Lt Gen SK Sinha wrote about it in his report to the centre when he was the Governor of Assam (1997-2003), and he was well within his constitutional powers to do so. And so was the Supreme Court, when it struck down as unconstitutional the the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2005. A serving army chief cannot do so, much less castigate a political party as an agent of Pakistan and China. If he has any proof or concerns, he should take up the matter with relevant authorities in the government, without bringing the army into this politically divisive debate. In our constitutional scheme of things, each institution of the Indian State has boundaries that define what it can and cannot do, and what its heads can and cannot say in public. These checks and balances are vital for the functioning of our democracy.
The second point is that the time has come for the Indian State to rethink its entire approach to large-scale immigration from Bangladesh. Laws have been made and unmade. No law so far has been implementable, or has been effectively implemented by any government. There is simply no way a large number of immigrants can be identified and deported back to Bangladesh. Moreover, even the highly expensive eight-foot-high barbed wire fence (electrified in some stretches), which runs along 70 percent of the 4,100-km-long India-Bangladesh border, has not been able to stop the immigration. This being the case, should not India and Bangladesh (which is land-locked by India on three sides) explore altogether different and innovative approaches to overcome this problem - which focus on social and economic integration of the two countries, with no discrimination, injustice or insecurity on religious grounds, and with far less need for armies and security forces to guard the borders? After all, Bangladesh (and East Pakistan) was an integral part of British India before 1947. Why can't we, and why shouldn't we, create a future in which India and Bangladesh live as two separate and sovereign but mutually integrated nations, thereby eliminating the ill-effects of partition without undoing the partition itself?
However, for this bold thinking to get accepted and implemented, one has to first come out of the mindset of fake nationalism - "Hindus are more Indian, Muslims are less so". One should embrace India's religious, ethnic, linguistic diversity - and not regard any one language as being more Indian and others as less so. India can never remain one if any attempt is made to impose any kind of uniformity. Which is why, another statement of Gen Rawat at the New Delhi conference was egregious. He said Arunachal Pradesh is one state where people speak "shuddh Hindi" - "they don't call a school as school, they call it vidyalaya... So amalgamating these people with us is not a very complex problem."
This thought is problematic at multiple levels - "amalgamation", "these people", "with us", with "shuddh Hindi"... This "us" and "them" mindset is precisely what angers people in the North-East and also in other parts of India such as in the non-Hindi southern states.
A final reflection. I have penned this criticism of the army chief with a lot of trepidation. Like all Indians, I too hold India's Armed Forces in very high esteem. They are the defenders of the nation. They symbolise India's unity like no other institution does. They also embody the ideals of valour and sacrifice for the motherland. Therefore, criticism of the statements of the incumbent army chief is not the same as criticism of the institution of the Indian Army. I have no doubt that the all-round rebuke of Gen Rawat's utterances will only help in ensuring that they will remain an aberration, and that the army will continue to epitomise secularism and political neutrality.
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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