Converting a tragedy into a political opportunity

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The untimely death of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat in an air crash along with 12 other colleagues from different forces at Coonnoor in Tamilnadu is a huge blow to our nation’s armed forces particularly at the juncture when he was in the process of creating a joint command, as mandated by the government.

The General was not travelling in a very advanced chopper of the Indian Air Force called Mi17 which is used by the Prime Minister as well as President of India. The Indian Air Force has constituted a high-level tri-services inquiry that will look into the entire sequence and one sincerely hope that a full-fledged report will be out as soon as it is completed. So far, we have not seen many of the inquiry committee reports but since this case has now become extraordinarily discussed among the people, it would be better for the government to make the inquiry committee report public so that there is no space for whisper and rumour-mongering.

Right from the day of his elevation to the top post in the Indian Army, General Bipin Rawat was in the eye of the storm by the opponents of the government though as a Commander of Indian forces, his ability was beyond doubt. There have been questions against him but it is also a fact that in the armed forces too there are lobbies. Uttarakhand is a state where every family has a member of the Indian forces. The tiny Himalayan state not only has two prestigious regiments of the Indian army from the British period, namely Garhwal Regiment with headquarter in Lansdown and Kumaon Regiment with headquarter in Ranikhet but also has a substantial presence in Border Security Force as well as Indo Tibetan Border Police.

For Long, Uttarakhand people felt that though their percentage in the Indian army is highest but none of the natives ever got the opportunity to become the Chief of the army. Later Bipin Joshi was made the General of the army but unfortunately, he passed away due to heart failure. General Bipin Rawat’s father Lt General L S Rawat got retired as deputy chief of the army. There were others too who did not get the opportunity and we were told Rajputs are a martial race hence unsuitable to lead the armed forces.

BJP’s social engineering

BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah understood India’s caste issues much better than Congress’s leadership and other parties. When Uttarakhand came into being both BJP and Congress were competing in imposing the brahmin chief minister on the state. It was a well-known fact that Brahmins from Uttarakhand were well represented in media and other government services than other communities of the state. Even politically, we saw the dominance of Pant, Pandey, Tiwari, Bahuguna in the politics of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Look at the chief ministers in Uttarakhand in the beginning. Right from Nityanand Swamy to Narain Dutt Tiwari, Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri and Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank, Vijay Bahuguna (except Bhagat Singh Koshiyari for short period) the political parties in Uttarakhand depended on the brahmin leaders. Even when Congress won the elections in 2012 under the leadership of Shri Harish Rawat who was expecting to become chief minister and it was a well-known fact that he was the wider choice but the Brahmanical leadership in the Congress party exported Vijay Bahuguna out of a blue in the state who ultimately reduced the party to a non-entity in the state.

BJP has used the caste identity issue everywhere which has resulted in its rising to power. It realised that Uttarakhand is mainly a Brahmin-Thakur issue, it carefully crafted the strategy to counter Harish Rawat, who was emerging as the most powerful and acceptable leader of Uttarakhand. The result is that BJP leadership continues to push the Thakur agenda much to the discomfort of many brahmin aspirants for the top post.

Political leadership always calculates on their choice.  General Bipin Rawat superseded two Generals senior to him but then the government says he had more experience in counter-insurgency operations and his track record was better. Anyway, superseding has not happened for the first time and it is a fact that the government of the day as people’s representative would select people at the top position as per its choice.

An outspoken general who might have crossed his limits

General Rawat was outspoken and he spoke like a Fauji. He justified the act of Major Gogoi for using Kashmiri as a human shield saying that you have to deal with the stone pelters strongly. His statements regarding NRC and CAA were condemned by political leaders. Frankly speaking, he was speaking the language of the government and I don’t think any officer of the government would take a different stand on such issues because if they do it, they would not be part of the ruling establishment.

Frankly speaking, General Rawat was much better and articulate than many of his predecessors. Of Course, many times he was not politically correct and that is why misunderstood. He was definitely speaking the language of the ruling establishment but that is what every senior officer would do otherwise he or she won’t find a place in the structure. One needs to also look at the important point that he said categorically that the main threat to India actually is from China and not from Pakistan. Unfortunately, our ‘Brahmanical seculars’ were more critical of him for his so-called statements without understanding the fact that he is a general who will have to stand with his officers and Jawans fighting the battle in difficult conditions. My only point was and I stand with that is that this government treated the Jammu and Kashmir issue as an administrative issue though it is a political issue. The Army will do what is expected of it and there is no point in criticizing it as armed forces too function under our constitution.

The problem is when the institutions fail and are not able to fulfil their responsibility such things happen.

A soldier who is trained in warfare will always be aggressive given the situation he or she is in. With growing right-wing propaganda, there is enormous mental pressure on the common soldiers about their work and conditions. The whole propaganda wants to exclude people and minorities from the popular discourse and convert everything into we versus them philosophy. The result is that common soldiers speak that language and officers too feel pressured. For any officer in uniform in any country, the issue of his nation comes first.

The forces are only trained to fight the external warfare or help the civil administration during times of emergencies particularly the natural calamities but of late the army is being used regularly in the civilian administration whether in Kashmir or in the North-Eastern states and the result is growing criticism of the armed forces. As I said earlier, pushing the army more and more into civilian work will make things tense for them when the border situation is not good as China continues to put pressure and attempt to encircle India by clandestinely working with Pakistan. It is important that our army be left to keep our border safe and no domestic pressure is put on them.

The army used to shield the political failure of the government

The Narendra Modi government very cleverly used armed forces for its own purposes and made them face criticism of the human rights organisations for their own failure. After his retirement as a Chief of Staff, General Rawat was made Chief of Defence Staff and he was tasked to bring synergy in all three services to make them more complementary and focus on jointness. In the last twenty years lots have been spoken about the new kind of warfare where you need a combined group and therefore ‘theatre command’ was being planned. Of course, bringing all the three independent institutions under one umbrella will be a big challenge but that is why General Rawat was focussing.

General Bipin Rawat was considered to be a hard taskmaster but an extremely jovial personality. He interacted with his junior officers very well and was an extremely popular General with the ordinary citizens and common soldiers. It is definitely true that his Uttarakhand background was helpful in his understanding of the Fauji psyche however he led the Gurkha regiment and was always proud of claiming that identity too.

The Indian Air Force has already ordered a complete inquiry of the air crash and therefore it won’t be prudent to speak about it or confuse but the way BJP wanted to take political mileage of it was shameful. Here is a General who dedicated his life for the nation and perished along with his wife and other staff members. For all practical purposes, it was a disaster and a difficult moment as such a highest-ranking officer was martyred because of the failure.  The public outpouring was so powerful that BJP netas thought to put their flag there.

Big Media show

In terms of perception building, BJP led government has been far better than its predecessors’ as far as armed forces are concerned. Congress leaders somehow failed to gel with the military leaders resulting in resentments at various fronts. Given the situation in India developing and glorifying the military all the time, it is important for the government and political parties to maintain the balance and should not allow a feeling of isolation of the armed forces. There are hundreds of officers absolutely fantastic and seculars in their approach and their services can be used for nation-building even after the retirements.

You may disagree that General Bipin Rawat was not General Manekshaw but then how have our predecessors given them spaces after their death. Why is the big hoarding, banners, media, crowd, celebrations kept for politicians? Yes, this question is often asked and that creates a frenzy among the growing middle classes where ‘valorisation’ is being preached by the TV channels. They feel a sense of loss. Though it is unfair to compare things but fact people might not even remember how General Cariappa or Sam Manekshaw were cremated. Where was the people’s participation? Why should it be confined to a military event? That way, General Bipin Rawat’s cremation was unprecedented, to say the least. Modi government might have made it an event that suits them but the fact is it does not hide the failure of the previous governments for not really acknowledging the brave voices of our army.

We all know General A S Vaidya was assassinated by the terrorists in August 1986 for his alleged role in the raid on the Golden Temple Complex by the Indian army in June 1984. We never heard much about how the governments condemned it. Neither was there any outpouring? Perhaps, we did not have a ‘public’ frenzy media and the All-India Radio and Door darshan would broadcast merely the events with no space for discussions.

The fact that I am trying to convey is that he should have gotten more acknowledgement as Operation Blue star was not his ‘personal’ effort but that of the government of India. Militaries normally do what they are asked and nowhere in the world, anyone claims that the militaries have not violated human rights. In fact, when we speak of a political solution to a problem, we mean that all political issues should be resolved through negotiations and representations of people. The Indian establishment has never felt that strongly and the result is right from Jammu and Kashmir to North Eastern State we have armed forces and laws like the Armed Forces Special Power Act. 

Social digital media degenerated

The massive social media explosion as well as absolute control of the ruling establishment in the electronic media has degenerated itself a lot. Now, people plant stories, celebrate deaths and express happiness if somebody is in distress. The government and the electronic media have not done anything great because they are promoting such debates and building perceptions that celebrate somebody’s death who does not agree with them.

Both India and Pakistan are competing with each other in spreading hatred and false nationalism.

Pakistan’s handles in social media and its digital media were busy with the ‘conspiracy’ theories on General Bipin Rawat’s chopper crash. Many of them were actually linking his deaths to that of General Zia. A number of anchors just forgot that they are speaking about the death of a General who happened to be the senior-most officer of the Indian army. Some of them spoke really insulting language very similar to our Desh bhakt TV channels when they speak about all those who differ with them.

In Tamilnadu, people showered flower petals on the ambulances that carried the bodies of General Bipin Rawat and his colleagues. It was heartening to see that but back home the responses to the untimely death were mostly as per the political thoughts of the people. It also reflected the caste identities while Rajputs were jumping in valour and trying to put him above all the other generals of the past, the others were not that enthused. Rest is done by the TV channels which ensure that the event benefits the ruling party. Each event was created in such a way that only the top leadership of the BJP remained visible on the screen.

While it is good that the government gave General Bipin Rawat and others due respect, there is a limit to making everything public. One will rarely understand what happens to a family who has lost both parents. The TV channels don’t even want the families to moan their near dear one in a deeply private way. They are forced to speak about the ‘valour’ of their father. Nobody denies that a soldier is ready to die for his country, it is also a fact that we all want to live our life normally, particularly in the regions which send the largest number of people to the Indian armed forces. I can say with the firm conviction that whether in Uttarakhand or Punjab, people want peace. A fauji who goes to border areas knows well that his return is uncertain yet his family waits home.

Keep armed forces away from domestic politics

There is no doubt about the fact that the army and armed forces are the need of the hour given that every country in the world has issues and problems. This is a reality which one cannot ignore. There is an arms race. It is equally important that there should be more debate and discussion on peacebuilding, development, on climate change without compromising the strategic needs of a country. Armed forces play a role in peacetime too and by and large, they remain committed to the political leadership of the country but pushing them to resolve your political failures will be dangerous.

The issues which are internal and need political decisions related to isolation, inclusion, participation, development etc need to be done through the political process. Armed forces are not meant for that. General Bipin Rawat might have crossed his line when he spoke on certain issues but that happen when media put questions in your mouth and a military man would not be that ‘diplomatic’ as our politicians are in handling those pushing their divisive agenda under the garb of ‘nationalism’, so always prone to be misunderstood. Given the media war and competition among them with rabid nationalism, the army will always be used and it is hoped that their leadership will understand it and not allow itself to be used by the byte hungry political campaigners of the ruling party. If AFPSA has to go then it is the ruling establishment that needs to do that and the opposition should raise the issue. Once the political environment is good there won’t be pressure on armed forces in those states but once you give them free hand to deal with your opponents then the state will have to defend them and protect them.

Human rights laws are important but practically no state uses them against their armed forces. So, one needs to understand between idealism and realism and this fact cannot be ignored that because states have depended on armed forces for their abject political failure, they push armed forces into all the domestic conflicts and close the political negotiations. The army does not gain from that but is blamed for what should have been the responsibility of the political establishment of the country.


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