Shooting from the lip
The army chief should refrain from dangerous loose talk
We have been witness to a strange spectacle this month, a bewildering reversal of roles. The head of India's biggest right-wing ideological formation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which seeks to promote Hindutva and espouses "cultural nationalism", has been speaking like a military man. And the chief of the Indian army, arguably the country's most secular institution, has been indulging in the kind of loose talk that is the staple of RSS shakhas.
Addressing a meeting in Bihar's Muzaffarpur on February 11, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, boasted, "Preparing an army takes six to seven months but we [RSS cadres] will be battle ready in two-three days... this is our capability and discipline that marks [ sic] us apart."
When his comments led to a furore, the RSS "clarified" that the organization was not trying to surpass the army but was always battle-ready.
Explaining Bhagwat's remarks, the RSS propaganda chief, Manmohan Vaidya, said, "Bhagwat ji said if the situation arises and the Constitution permits, the Indian army would take six months to prepare society, whereas sangh swayamsevaks can be trained in three days, as swayamsevaks practise discipline regularly."
Those were ominous words and in ordinary circumstances, both the government and the army would have come out with strong rejoinders, emphasizing that under the Indian Constitution, there was no place for civil militias of any kind to assist the standing army - and certainly not militias so deeply ingrained with animus towards large sections of the Indian people who do not subscribe to their faith or ideology.
But we live in extraordinary times. The government is led by a party that is proud to be a satellite drawing sustenance from the RSS sun and so it was hardly surprising that it chose not to comment, leave alone reprimand, Bhagwat's boast and "offer". The army, too, kept silent - again not surprising, and perhaps to be welcomed, since the Indian army, as an institution, has always steered clear of politics and political controversies.
That venerable tradition was broken, yet again, by General Bipin Rawat, the current chief of the army staff.
Exactly 10 days after Bhagwat's remarks, the army chief made comments that were far more disturbing because it reflected a mindset that is distinctly at odds with the values of the institution he is in charge of.
Rawat was speaking in New Delhi on February 21 at a seminar titled "North East Region of India - Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders".
His short speech was riddled with overt and covert insinuations, with wild allegations unsupported by evidence, and with words and sentiments that no one would normally associate with the chief of an avowedly apolitical and secular institution.
His remark on a political party in Assam, the All India United Democratic Front, triggered the biggest controversy. Obliquely referring to the alleged influx of migrants from Bangladesh into Assam, the army chief said, "I do not think you can now change the population dynamics of the area. If it was five [Muslim-majority] districts [earlier] to eight to nine [today], inversion has taken place...
He then went on to say, "There is a party called AIUDF, they have grown in a faster time frame than the BJP grew over the years. Jana Sangh had two MPs and... where they have reached. AIUDF is growing at a faster pace in the state of Assam."
The insinuation that the AIUDF was growing because of the support of illegal migrants was clear.
Rawat did not stop at that. He also held Pakistan and China responsible for the inflow of migrants from Bangladesh. "Planned infiltration is taking place at the instance of our western neighbour, and supported by our northern neighbour, to keep this area disturbed. You will continue to see some kind of infiltration happening to keep this area disturbed."
In the demonology of the RSS, the Pakistan-China-Bangladesh nexus has always loomed large and the fear of being swamped by a planned Muslim influx is central to Hindutva paranoia. But when the army chief, completely unmindful of diplomatic repercussions, echoes this world view, it must be stated with a great deal more facts and with a much greater sense of responsibility. That was entirely missing in Rawat's speech.
The suspicion that his comment on "planned infiltration" may be more ideological than factual is strengthened by the fact that his analysis of the AIUDF's growth is far from rigorous. To begin with, the general seems to have confused the Jana Sangh with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP, after it came out of the Janata Party, famously won just two seats in 1984 before registering a meteoric rise.
From two seats in 1984, it won 85 seats in 1989 - a massive jump in just five years. It steadily raised its tally for the next four elections to reach 182 seats in both 1998 and 1999. It dipped to 138 in 2004 and 116 in 2009, before the sweeping 282 seat tally in 2014.
The AIUDF, which was set up as the Assam United Democratic Front in 2005 before assuming an all India nomenclature in 2009, fought its first assembly election in 2011 and won 18 assembly seats in the 126-member state assembly. In the next election in 2016, its tally actually came down to 13 seats. It won one Lok Sabha seat in 2009, and went up to three in 2014.
As such, the AIUDF's growth is simply not comparable to that of the BJP. But the idea of a "Muslim" party growing rapidly on the strength of illegal migrants, aided by the evil Pakistan-China duo, is just the kind of twisted propaganda that Hindutva outfits excel in. That the army chief should lend credence to it adds a particularly menacing dimension.
The intemperate comments about the AIUDF and illegal migration apart, even the more innocuous parts of Rawat's speech are problematic. For instance, while speaking of the migration from Bangladesh, the general said that lack of space was one reason. His exact words were: "One is lebensraum... they are running out of space. Large part of their areas get flooded... during monsoons. So they have very constricted areas to stay in."
His casual use of the word " lebensraum" betrays either an ignorance of a term closely associated with Hitler's world view that drove the Nazi military conquests and its racial policy, or reflects a subliminal internalization of a dangerous ideology and its terminology. In either case, its use by the chief of the Indian army is disturbing.
Similarly his anecdote about meeting a tribal from Arunachal who wore "two horns on his head" and was "scantily dressed" but spoke Hindi fluently also reflected an ideological bias. "What I am trying to say is that Arunachal Pradesh is one state where the state language is Hindi. So there has been an amalgamation that has happened... which didn't happen elsewhere." The army chief, perhaps inadvertently, revealed an affinity for the RSS's "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan" dictum, and seemed to believe that Hindi-speakers were more nationalist and could be more easily "amalgamated" than other ethnic communities speaking their own varied tongues.
The February 21 speech was not the first time General Rawat crossed the line into areas beyond his domain. On January 12, he blamed schools in Jammu and Kashmir for the state's militancy, saying that two maps - that of India and of the state - were being taught to students. The state education minister asked him, politely, to mind his own business.
Earlier, Rawat issued a commendation card to the army major who used a human shield even while an inquiry into the incident was on. And he suggested Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa be awarded the Bharat Ratna - a recommendation that a serving army chief ought not to have made in public.
General Rawat is a much decorated soldier who was appointed army chief after superseding two officers senior to him. As the head of an institution that swears by discipline, it is time the general realized that guarding one's tongue is an act of discipline too, and that the army must always be above the political fray - for it belongs to the nation and not to the government of the day.