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Above: Army parade at Rajpath, New Delhi

Changing the apolitical nature of the forces is a dangerous trend and can have serious repercussions for democracy, the morale of soldiers and the security of the country

~By Praful Bakshi

Army Chief Bipin Rawat raised quite a few eyebrows when he said that there was politicisation of the armed forces. He said the norm in the “good old days” was never to discuss women and politics in the forces. “The military should be somehow kept out of politics. Of late, we have been seeing that politicisation of the military has been taking place. I think we operate in a very secular environment. We have a very vibrant democracy where the military should stay far away from the polity,” he said.

That is a tradition that harks back to the British days. When the Indian army took its modern form under the British, the main aim was to make sure it remained as insulated from political activities and all its manifestations as possible. This was primarily to ensure that it did not get affected by the freedom movement. This trend was to continue right through the first and second world war till 1947 when India gained Independence. The army continued with the same thinking and ethos. It was—and still is—a serious offence for any officer to make contact with any political person or group, and till recently, he was supposed to report to his superiors if such a contact was established.

However, with modern trends in media, communication, education and training, this sort of insulation became quite ineffective as every soldier and officer was exposed to all the manifestations of politics. This was not only because he was expected to cast his vote during elections, but modern technology, television and online activities exposed him to the full spectrum of political activities and ideology. Moreover, as a part of his education and training, an officer was supposed to study and understand political developments in the nation. At some stage, he will be expected to be involved in governance when the official machinery is unable to administer proper control.

A modern soldier in India comes mostly from the rural agricultural background, and his entire family is involved in local politics from village panchayat onwards. Most of these soldiers and even officers, on retirement at a fairly young age between 35 to 38 years, become part of these political activities.

RESPONSIBLE POSITIONS

Being from a disciplined cadre and enjoying better health and mental awareness, these ex-military personnel find themselves in fairly responsible positions in local political cadres, even rising to commanding positions. Prime examples of this in the recent times are those of Col Kirori Singh Bhainsala, who spearheaded the Gujjar agitation many times in Haryana, Capt Amarinder Singh from the erstwhile royal family of Punjab and who is now chief minister there and Maj Gen Khanduri, once CM of Uttarakhand.

Even in the case of senior officers, the call of politics is a fresh challenge to overcome. This can be seen in the case of Col Rajyavardhan Rathore, former Army Chief Gen VK Singh, late Sqn Ldr Rajesh Pilot, Sqn Ldr Kamal Chowdhury and Sqn Ldr Suresh Kalmadi, all of whom held either ministerial posts or were MPs. These are some examples of the popularity which the political thought process enjoys among service personnel, making politics an attractive second career for them. These are also examples where politics has not negatively impacted the army. 

POLITICAL INTERFERENCE

Matters can take a serious turn when interested political parties and leaders harm the basic apolitical ethos of the armed forces due to vested interests. A major manifestation of this is the politico-bureaucratic involvement in higher level promotions and strategic placement within the Services.

Politicisation by itself may not be negative unless it gets contaminated by a strong weapon—religion. In fact, religion-based politics is the first and sure step towards radicalisation.

After 1947, the armed forces found themselves high up in the official order of government protocol. This was unpalatable to bureaucratic cadres who wanted more vacancies in higher positions. The politicisation began when senior bureaucrats convinced then PM Jawaharlal Nehru that as armies in neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Burma, Thailand—were facing military coups, it would be prudent to keep a check on the activities of the Indian armed forces like promotions, postings, weapon procurement, and so on. They also pressed for seniority of the forces to be downgraded in comparison to those of the bureaucracy.

Alongside, it was decided that higher promotions of armed forces officers would be a ministerial issue, which meant that it would be a panel of bureaucrats under the guidance of a politician who would decide promotions, and not the army chief. Consequently, political parties started taking a direct interest in these promotions. An important aspect was to have officers from their own caste or state in higher posts of the army in order to curry favour with the home constituency during elections and also subsequent recruitment from their own constituencies to please their constituents.

LARGEST IMPORTER

There is another sensitive reason which requires understanding of the defence indigenisation programme of the country. India is perhaps the largest defence weapons system importer and spends a vast amount of its foreign exchange in these imports. With a large number of countries competing for sales, a phenomenal amount is offered as bribes and kickbacks. This has led to many scandals, be it the 1948 Jeep Scandal or the current Agusta helicopter deal. Many politicians, bureaucrats and defence personnel have benefited monetarily from these. This is most undesirable and dangerous as we saw in the removal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat from the post of naval chief in a secretive manner in 1998. He was dismissed for defying the government’s appointment of a three star admiral over his choice. No other Service chief has ever been dismissed in such fashion. The incident left a deep scar on the psyche of the navy.

Of late, it has become a regular practice for leading political parties to have a separate military or ex-servicemen cell. Here, political leaders invite retiring senior officers to be a part of future planning for the party and to brief them on national security issues. This body becomes a guide for cadres in rural areas where other retired officers and senior JCOs wield considerable influence from a voting point of view. They also occupy a large number of top posts in the party set-up.

The negative outcome of this system is that with the retired personnel becoming part of various political bodies, there are opposing and conflicting forces in the military machine. Serving personnel, through their contacts with ex-servicemen, are exposed to different ideologies. This trend of politicising the armed forces is fast catching up.

CONTAMINATION BY RELIGION  

Politicisation by itself may not be negative unless it gets contaminated by a strong weapon—religion. Religion-based politics is the first and sure step towards radicalisation. This brings us to the crux of the problem. Throughout history, armies have fought to protect the religion of the state, be it in Asia, Europe or the Middle East. In Europe, Christian kings, as political heads and commanders of their armies, were also protectors of the state religion. They got into conflict with Islamic monarchs, leading to the famous Crusades.

What is new, though within the democratic process, is retired personnel being forced to protest over issues like the alleged disparity shown to them by the Pay Commission.

This was equally true in India, as from ancient times, the monarch as a political-military head was also the main protector of his country’s religion. Thus, we see that religion became an integral part of the military culture of any country.

Moreover, the rank and file of any army is formed by simple peasants who are deeply religious as compared to their urban comrades. They require a constant source of religious guidance during their tenure. Thus, right from ancient times, there has been a provision for the post of a religious preacher in the armed forces all over the world.

In the Indian army, the religious preacher is a serving JCO, fully trained in religious matters to meet the demands of the serving personnel, from the barracks to the battlefield. He not only provides guidance to the soldiers, but is also a source of influence for the families and children of the personnel. Problems can easily develop here if the preacher decides to propagate the thinking of a political party through the mode of religion. This was seen during the first war of Independence in 1857 when Sepoy Mangal Pandey led an armed uprising against the wilful mischief created by British officers.

In spite of all these issues, the religious atmosphere in any Indian army battalion or regiment is exemplary for the tolerance and respect for all religions. Every battalion has preachers for all religious denominations. At times, this could mean three to four different preachers for the troops. But the most interesting aspect of this is that the place of worship of all the religions is a spot called the Sarva Dharma Sthal (a place for all religions). The officers and the commanding officer visit each place separately, irrespective of their own beliefs. In spite of this, at times the troops can be influenced adversely by a clever preacher.

GUIDED BY RELIGION

In 1984, there was a mutiny at the Sikh regimental centre at Ramgarh on politico-religious grounds after the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi, where a formation of the army was disbanded and sent home. Nor can one forget the assassination of Mrs Gandhi by her security guards driven by their religious beliefs. At times, the reason for a revolt may not be purely religious but can be directly related to the national cause as was the case of the famous uprising by the Indian Navy in 1946, followed by a number of air force and army units revolting against the crown. When Clement Atlee, England’s PM in 1947, was asked as to what were the reasons for the British to leave India earlier than planned, he stated that the naval uprising and the INA movement of Subash Bose were the main reasons and not the Quit India Movement.

This brings us to political activity at the state or central level that directly effects the mind and morale of the soldier. Here, the Malegaon incident brings into focus the role of local politicians, who, as it is alleged, played the religion card to get retired and serving officers to prepare and train political cadres to assemble bombs, and perhaps even blow these at public places. This allegation, if proven, will demand a very serious investigation and action on the part of army authorities. According to army rules, treason against the state is a serious crime, which during war, is punishable by death.

What is new, though fully within the norms of the democratic process, is retired personnel being forced to take to the streets to draw attention to various issues like the alleged disparity shown to them by the Pay Commission. The day is not far when a political party of retired service personnel could be contesting the national elections.

This could lead to anti-national groups taking advantage of the situation. It is high time the government views politicisation of the forces very seriously as the armed forces are the finest symbol of a democratic India and the best representation of the masses.

The armed forces have extraordinary demands made on them, which may not be understood and appreciated by an ordinary citizen. Hence, they should be dealt with care, along with a deep study by military sociologists and experts. Handling and keeping up the morale of the armed forces is an integral part of the national security doctrine and deserves the immediate attention of the country. At the same time, they should be insulated from the effects of religion and politics.

The adage that if you treat a soldier like a gladiator, he behaves like one can also hold true if you treat him as a manipulating politician wherein he surely will be one.

—The writer is a leading defence analyst

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