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Indian general plays with fire

by Praful Bidwai, 9 October 2013

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The News International, October 09, 2013

Indians justifiably take pride in the robust durability of their country’s democracy, barring the Emergency (1975-77), and the relatively apolitical nature of its armed forces. Unlike in many third world countries, the military in India hasn’t overtly meddled in politics, defied the civilian leadership, or usurped power. But recently-retired army chief VK Singh’s shenanigans and other developments put a question mark over this assumption.

Gen Singh, a newspaper has revealed, set up a secret intelligence unit called the Technical Services Division (TSD) to conduct a series of “unauthorised” operations. These included funding politicians to destabilise the Omar Abdullah government in Jammu and Kashmir, paying an NGO to help change the line of succession in the army, espionage against Pakistan, and buying sophisticated telephone-call interception equipment to eavesdrop on fellow-officers.

These allegations – based on defence ministry documents – are, to put it mildly, grave. They warrant serious disciplinary action. Singh hasn’t denied them. On the contrary, he says the army has always paid off politicians from all parties, and “all the ministers” in Jammu & Kashmir to “stabilise” the situation there and win the people’s “hearts and minds”.

These claims have been stoutly denied by eight former army chiefs, who stress that the army’s sadbhavna (harmony) programme, run to create popular goodwill through education, culture and tourism, has nothing in common with Singh’s covert operations.

Whatever the truth, the disclosures have damaged the legitimacy of the Indian state’s democracy project in Kashmir and the armed forces’ integrity, and strengthened those who believe New Delhi has tried to integrate the Kashmiri people into the Union through manipulation and fraud, when not using brutal force.

Only a full high-level inquiry into Singh’s conduct will reveal the extent of the malaise. The inquiry must cover his bruising battle with the defence ministry over his date of birth, and the allegation that two army units moved this past January 16-17 towards Delhi in breach of settled protocol, setting off alarm-bells.

VK Singh isn’t the first general to have crossed swords with the civilian leadership or acted in violation of the sound principle that in a democracy, the latter must always prevail over the military brass. Military leaders can have no say in policy matters, nor must they comment on civilian leaders, domestic laws, foreign relations or government decisions.

This principle derives from the constitutional division of powers and the established maxim that the armed forces’ heads should “give professional advice to the government on strategy and military operations and on the military implications of defence policy” – and stop there. It’s the prerogative of the elected leadership to formulate defence policy: this “cannot be decided in purely military terms without reference to the government’s financial and economic policies…” Any departure from this principle can only undermine the paramount authority of the elected leadership to lay down policy and strategy.

This principle was occasionally violated in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, in 1966, Eastern Command chief SHFJ Manekshaw met a US diplomat and commented freely on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations, revealed the strength of the troops under his command, and criticised his defence minister and army chief. He panned the government’s Vietnam policy. He also talked of his chances of promotion as the army chief.

In recent years too, generals have pronounced on policy matters. Take the Siachen dispute with Pakistan – the world’s highest-altitude but wantonly expensive military conflict. Indian diplomats were on the verge of signing an agreement settling this – in 1992, in 2005, and in 2011. Indian generals overruled them. In 2005, army chief JJ Singh publicly opposed the decision to withdraw Indian troops without demarcating and authenticating their positions A deal was similarly scuttled again in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Siachen conflict rages on, claiming scores of lives through frostbite, without strategic advantage to India or Pakistan.

An even worse instance is the Indian army’s repeated veto against the home ministry’s recent proposal, backed by the Abdullah government, to partially lift the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from peaceful areas in J&K. AFSPA gives the army unrestrained powers. It allows an officer to shoot anyone suspected of the intent to commit a violent act, including a breach of prohibitory orders such as Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Worse, AFSPA gives impunity. The concerned officer can only be sued with the defence ministry’s prior permission – which is never given. Nothing can be a more brazen violation of natural justice. No wonder the law is extensively abused to kill innocent people in J&K and the northeast.

Yet, Northern Command army chief B S Jaswal in 2010 publicly pleaded that AFSPA be treated as a holy or religious book: “Don’t touch this pious document…” Recently, a general even threatened the army would stop counter-insurgency operations if AFSPA is lifted – a case of blackmail.

The Indian government should have sacked these generals, just as Douglas MacArthur was dismissed in 1951 for issuing a veiled threat to expand the Korean war into China, and Stanley McChrystal was removed from the Afghanistan command in 2010 for mocking Vice-President Joe Biden and other civilians.

By failing to act against the delinquent officers, the government has allowed army personnel to usurp an illegitimate role for themselves – and get away. Some consequences of such irresponsible indulgence have become evident. The most recent is Narendra Modi’s September 15 Rewari (Haryana) rally, organised to mobilise ex-servicemen, and attended by 20 senior-rank former officers, including VK Singh, wearing ceremonial medals and ribbons.

It’s perfectly legitimate for ex-servicemen to air their grievances about pensions, etc and demand that these be redressed. But it’s out of order for them to wear ceremonial badges and do so under a political party’s banner.

The Sangh Parivar has systematically tried to infiltrate the military apparatus, witness its links with shady elements like Col Srikant Prasad Purohit. The Bharatiya Janata Party has consciously cultivated and recruited retired military officers. BJP-led governments implicated even serving officers. During the Kargil war, the Vajpayee government got Gen NC Vij and Air Vice Marshal SK Malik to brief the BJP national executive. Again, serving General VS Budhwar provided logistical support to the RSS-organised Sindhu Darshan festival at Leh in 1998 and also attended it in 1999.

BJP-ex-servicemen links have recently thickened. The president of the Tamil Nadu BJP Ex-Servicemen Cell has just circulated a note exhorting former soldiers to involve themselves in politics: they should choose the BJP because of its “nationalistic outlook, candour, integrity of showing equal concern to all religions…”

VK Singh justifies his Rewari participation rally by citing his “nationalist”, not political, agenda. That won’t wash. Singh is desperate to get political support – no matter whether from the BJP or Anna Hazare with whom he has been working closely.

This bodes ill for the Indian Army. It wasn’t easy to establish its largely apolitical tradition, nor was it consistently followed. Nehru had to send Gen KM Cariappa to distant Australia so stop him from meddling in economic and political issues. Indira Gandhi had to skilfully prevent Gen Manekshaw from threatening a coup – half in jest.

The danger of the Indian armed forces’ politicisation has reappeared, in a communal avatar. It must be resolutely put down.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: prafulbidwai1 at


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use