OPINION: Making sense of the Army Chief’s comments

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - In his annual pre-Army Day press conference, General Bipin Rawat, the army chief, shared his thoughts on multiple issues concerning the army of the present and future.

He was also asked questions on internal and external matters affecting the country for which he offered his suggestions. He has regularly been sharing his thoughts on matters regarding the army in his multiple interactions with the press. The army by virtue of its conditions of service, authorises very few to speak to the media. Being its head, his views represent those of the masses.

All his comments are open, frank and straightforward. He is not a politician to beat around the bush. It is a fact that he has been blunt, but that is his manner of speaking. His thoughts may on some issues be different, however he is speaking on behalf of the organisation which he knows best. Some of his statements are unnecessarily being quoted out of context, mainly because the harsh truth and reality on which he bases his views are beyond the comprehension of liberals. In one of his earlier comments he had stated that women in fighting arms are presently unacceptable. There was a hue and cry, with many questioning his wisdom. Women even wrote articles stating that if they wish to join and serve in hard conditions why is the chief objecting.

A report in the Hindustan Times of 11 Jan 2019 stated that of the 1.3 million employees of the railways, only around 2-3 per cent are women and most are in desk jobs. The army has the same percentage or even more in the officer cadre and they are growing by the day. There are also plans afoot to raise a women military police unit. The railways have also projected that women cannot apply for some trades in the railways as these are considered dangerous. These trades include drivers and guards on trains, porters and gangmen or trackmen (who inspect tracks). Are these jobs more dangerous than battling terrorists in Kashmir or facing the Pakistan army Border Action Team (BAT) or shelling on the border?

Surprisingly the same individuals who commented on women in the army are silent on the railways. They have accepted the railway’s justification silently, but when the army chief gives factual reasons, he is questioned. What an irony! In his pre-Army Day address, the army chief stated that there is no place in the army for the LGBT community as also it will not tolerate homosexuality or adultery. His statement was, “The army is conservative. We are a family. We will not allow gay sex and adultery to penetrate.” He was again criticised for going against the directions of the Supreme Court. Though who criticised the army have never understood its working, living and operating environment where such actions can be detrimental.

The men who comprise majority of the army come from rural areas and live together in barracks. They are not from an open society as those of western nations, which have permitted the LGBT community to join. Unless India matures to that level and rural India openly accepts gay sex, the army would not, as the mass of its soldiers are from rural backgrounds. In addition, the army is governed by its own rules and laws, within the ambit of national laws. These rules place restrictions on those serving, including forming unions and associations and going on strikes. Circumscribing these rights is essential to ensure that army discipline and norms are followed and national security is ensured. In turn it ensures that the institution of the army remains intact. Opening itself to the sort of freedom accepted in modern, urban areas, would break the moral fibre of the organization.

His statement on Afghanistan was contrary to the government view. He stated that if other countries were engaging with the Taliban, then ‘we should also join the bandwagon’. This was a logical outflow because if we stay away from dialogue with the Taliban we would be left in the lurch as we have invested heavily in the country. If we must continue to have leverage in Afghanistan, we need to engage the Taliban. The same day, Hamid Karzai, the former President of Afghanistan stated, “We want India to be on board all the peace processes (despite it being conducted under the aegis of any country).”

Valley-based politicians criticised General Rawat’s comment comparing it with India not talking to the Hurriyat. General Rawat’s logic on Kashmir was sound and based on ground reality. He defended not speaking to the Hurriyat unless it shuns violence and the gun culture. He has mentioned on multiple occasions that the army is only the facilitator for peace by creating the right environment, the solution must flow from the political leadership. Those linking this to his comment about talking to the Taliban are missing the wood for the trees, as dealing with internal and external situations are two different aspects.

The Hurriyat is not akin to the Taliban, which would someday form part of the government in Afghanistan. Neither does it represent the Kashmiri public, as it claims to. The Hurriyat funds violence, is openly anti-national and supports Pakistan; hence it should be ignored till it accepts the Indian constitution and the inclusion of Kashmir as a part of India.

The army chief spoke as he should, freely, frankly and truthfully, hiding nothing. He has on multiple occasions been accused of speaking on political issues, but all his comments are linked to political decisions on national security and not governance. He has never criticised governance or any political party. The fact that some of his statements were misunderstood in the past too, is nothing new. Those who accuse him fail to comprehend that he is the army chief, who commands forces responsible for national security. They are also ill-informed on conditions of army service, on which he cannot be questioned. It is time that his views are accepted, rather than only being challenged.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)

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