There is an old adage about being seen and not heard. It was used to define the role of children at a dinner table. But the injunction has relevance in other spheres, particularly in some realms of public life. In Great Britain its most celebrated application is to royalty. The monarch speaks to her prime minister only in camera. In India, however, the saying is honoured only in the breach. There have been occasions in which presidents and governors have expressed their views when strict propriety would have dictated that they kept their opinions to themselves. A comparable situation has arisen with the army chief, General Bikram Singh, warning Pakistan that India’s military would retaliate aggressively if there were instances of further provocation from Pakistan. He said this publicly in a press conference. The questions regarding this statement do not pertain to what Mr Singh said but the occasion he chose to voice his views. The latter could have been articulated to Mr Singh’s colleagues within the army and even to the ranks to maintain their morale. The problem arises because Mr Singh spoke to the public at large through the media.
Mr Singh and all heads of the armed forces report to the civil administration — the defence minister, the prime minister, and the president. The army chief is not like an elected representative of the people. His views should be given to the concerned civil authority. On any military matter, particularly when it involves a violent incident on the border, which is tantamount to an act of intrusion, the government — and all its various agencies — should speak in one voice and there should be one policy. In this particular instance, there is a clear divergence in spirit between the statement of the foreign minister and that of the army chief. This is unfortunate as it could have been easily avoided had Mr Singh kept his counsel and expressed his strong views to the defence minister or even to the prime minister. Mr Singh’s public statement transgresses a cardinal principle of any democratic administration. The armed forces in a democracy are always subservient to the elected government. This means any armed action against a foe will be taken at the behest of the government and not according to the wishes of the army. Restraint in speech is as critical as restraint in arms in the proper functioning of a democracy.