By Muzafar Ahmad Dar & Safeer Ahmad Bhat
After the appointment of Bipin Rawat as the 27th Chief of Indian Army in 2016, the central government faced a harsh criticism from various political parties. Rawat superseded two senior officers, Lt. Gen Praveen Bakshi and Lt. Gen P. M. Hariz in order achieve the highest position of the Indian Army. In other words one can say that his selection became a ‘flashpoint’ between the government and the opposition. Manish Tiwari, one of the Congress leaders, termed his selection as ‘cherry picking’. Besides, Tathagat Satpathy while talking about Rawat’s appointment argued that “[s]uperseding in appointments always opens up the avenue for many questions.” He further said that such appointments in any defense or civil department results in support for the government. D. Raja of Communist Party of India mentioned that such appointments either in army or any department always become controversial during the NDA regime. He further said, “The government should answer how these appointments have been made.”
Right from the beginning, Rawat started talking about various political issues prevailing in India, which as an Army Chief was not his job. However, his statements on Jammu and Kashmir as a political issue remained the headline in various Delhi and regional newspapers. After assuming office, he made several scandalous statements. He praised Major Leetul Gogoi, who used a civilian as a human shield in Kashmir by tying him to an army jeep. Gogoi justified the act as a method to get rid of stone pelting. This act of Gogoi faced immense criticism at the national as well as international level. However, Rawat defended Gogoi: “This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way.” He even called Gogoi’s act an innovation to fight the dirty war. Besides, Rawat conferred a medal on Gogoi, while an inquiry was still in process. While defending his officer’s act, Rawat argued that he had only that option, rather than opening fire on public.
In November 2017, General Rawat visited Kodagu, a district of Karnataka, where he unveiled the statue of Field Marshal Cariappa, who was the first Indian Chief of Army Staff. While talking to the media, Rawat recommended that Cariappa should be given Bharat Ratna. He further said, “If others can get it, I see no reason why he should not. He (Cariappa) is a deserving person and we will shortly address the issue on priority.” Being an Army General, Rawat has no authority to recommend India’s highest award for his predecessor. Before announcing it in public, he should have communicated about the same through a letter to President’s Office (Rashtrapati Bhavan). Although, Cariappa was the first Army Chief, he was not the best compared to other Army Generals. Military historians have ranked K. S. Thimayya ahead of Cariappa.
Besides, on several occasions Rawat made headlines for wrong reasons. Talking about the schools and madrasas in Jammu and Kashmir, Rawat mentioned that in most of the schools of Kashmir, teachers teach students about two different maps: one of India and another of Jammu and Kashmir. This method he claimed to be the reason for misguiding the youth. He further said that there is a need to retain control on madrassas and masjids, as they are being used to radicalize the youth of Kashmir.
In March 2018, Rawat made a statement about the Northeast and the domestic politics of India. His statement was about the change in demography for the security reasons in some areas of Northeast. He gave this statement at a crucial time when elections were supposed to happen in some Northeast states. Here again Rawat was not supposed to talk about such issues, which was the job of Ministry of External Affairs. Since independence, political leaders have insisted on the separation between the civilian government and the army and its complete loyalty towards elected governments. However, it seems that Rawat may break this traditional approach, the way he is overreaching his limits. While talking about Rawat, Suhas Palshikar, who taught political science at Savitribai Phule University, writes that “by the unstated implications of his unwarranted statement, General Rawat has actually hit at the foundation of India’s nationalism. So, more than for reasons of prudence or politics, his statement becomes a warning signal for reasons of principle a principle that is most delicate and crucial to us as a nation.”
On another occasion, while talking about people of Kashmir, Rawat argued that the people of the country should be afraid of the army. He further said, “If people in any country lose fear of the Army, then the country is doomed. Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly Army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.” This is a dangerous statement from the Army General, which indicates that the government has given a free hand to the army in order to deal the situation in Kashmir, without bothering about the civilian deaths. The Wire, a news website called this statement ‘inappropriate and ill-advised’.
Partha Chatterjee, an acclaimed academic, compared Rawat with General Dyer, a British Army officer, who was responsible for Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. Besides, Politician Sandeep Dixit said, “it feels bad when our own army chief speaks like a ‘sadak ka gunda’ (roadside thug).” Before Rawat, General Cariappa made statements beyond his capacity. However, the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Cariappa to stay away from politics and to avoid the holding of conferences. Talking about Cariappa, Ramachandra Guha writes, “He was almost playing the role of a political or semi-political leader.” Guha also advised General Rawat to stay away from politics: “General Rawat should speak less in public, anyway. For, both the frequency and manner of his public utterances have damaged the credibility of his office and of the Indian Army itself.”
General Rawat’s statements can only deteriorate the legitimacy and faith which the armed forces enjoy. It seems that Rawat’s calculated statements are a means for paving his way into politics in future.
Muzafar Ahmad Dar is pursuing research at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Safeer Ahmad Bhat is an Assistant Professor at Govt. Degree College Kulgam. He can be reached at email@example.com
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