“The time has come for India to shift focus to its northern border. The country is capable of handling China’s assertiveness. China is a powerful country but we are not a weak nation.”
“Yes, China is exerting pressure. We are dealing with it. Yes we should try that it is not escalated. We will not allow our territory to intruded. Troops are earmarked, should a situation arise our troops are ready to cater.”
“While troops (of the PLA) may have returned (from Doklam)and infrastructure remains, it is anybody’s guess whether they would come back there or is it because of the winters that they could not take their equipment, but we are also there, so in case they come, we will face them.”
— Bipin Rawat
Around Army Day earlier this year in mid January, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), a position revered by the troops was busy shooting his mouth off, virtually delivering a quote a day, unbecoming of his stature as Army 1(his black Scorpio sports that number). Indian Army chiefs, ensconced in Raksha Mantralya’s corner office don’t normally indulge in needless gabfests and in General Rawat’s case, it is unnecessary and repeated baiting of a dangerous adversary. On Tuesday, it emerged that India has been ranked the fourth most powerful military power in the world. According to the Global Fire Power Index 2017, India’s military strength is behind only that of the US, Russia, and China. Rival neighbour Pakistan ranks 13th on the elite list. Even as General Rawat consistently rattled the cage, our western neighbour Pakistan, which has been bleeding us for years using its doctrine of death by a thousand cuts was functioning with its usual impunity attacking military installations and soft targets in Jammu & Kashmir. The Army chief maintained a stoic silence as our braves were being killed with unceasing regularity. For all the Army chief's theatrics and creation of optics, the dreadful and ugly truth is that the Chinese have not taken a backward step in the sensitive Doklam region. Recently, the NSA Ajit Doval, Army Chief Bipin Rawat and foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale travelled to Bhutan to bring them up to speed on what was happening in Doklam and probably sensitise the Bhutanese establishment on the primacy and strategic importance of Doklam for India.
On Monday itself, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman validated the Chinese threat percept in Doklam when she said in parliament — Indian and Chinese troops have “redeployed” themselves away from the face-off site in Doklam, and China has undertaken construction of helipads, sentry posts and trenches for its army personnel there. She said, “Post disengagement from the face-off in 2017, troops of both sides have redeployed themselves away from their respective positions at the face-off site. The strength of both sides have been reduced. In order to maintain these troops during the winter, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undertaken construction of some infrastructure, including sentry posts, trenches and helipads." Last week, junior defence minister Subhash Bhamre had said that the situation along India’s border with China is “sensitive” and it has the potential to escalate. Sitharaman’s reply came in response to a question on whether satellite images have revealed that China has constructed seven helipads in Doklam besides deploying tanks and missiles in the area.
Troops of India and China were locked in a 73-day-long standoff in Doklam from June 16 last year after the Indian side stopped the building of a road in the disputed area by the Chinese Army. The face-off ended on August 28. Sources said China has been keeping its troops in north Doklam and significantly ramping up its infrastructure in the disputed area. As mentioned earlier in January, Army Chief General Rawat had said the time had come for India to shift its focus from borders with Pakistan to the frontier with China, indicating the gravity of the situation. Now the question is why would you pump up the volume knowing fully well that the Chinese threat represents a clear and present danger. Obviously, one cannot back down to any threat posed against our sovereignty, but what about the active daily engagement on our western border? J&K is a cauldron brimming over, a bloody battlefield and despite an effective concentric circle type of all pervasive security grid, Pakistan proxies or fidayeen are doing incalculable damage to the morale of our fighting forces. Not one word for those dying bravehearts, instead ratcheting up the pressure on our northern neighbour where an undefined border has created constant consternation with a bellicose PLA trying to assert itself. Yet, it remains passive unlike the ‘live’ western border where breaches and fire assaults are commonplace, a daily phenomenon.
Since January 1, the Indian Army has killed around 20 Pakistani soldiers in punitive fire assaults. Equally, we have lost more than 15 soldiers, apart from BSF personnel and civilians, in over 280 ceasefire-fire violations (CFVs) and terror incidents in J&K this year. That both the PM and defence minister chose to stay away from Army Day functions on January 15 even though both were very much in the country was most galling. As many as 10 Indian soldiers were killed in the first two weeks of this year alone. In January alone, a belligerent Pakistan ISI-Jehadi military complex had upped the ante. An Army jawan and three civilians were killed while 15 people were injured as Pakistani troops targeted forward Indian positions and civilian areas both along the international border and Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir for the third day running. The injured included two security personnel. The four deaths took the toll for January to 10, almost equalling the number of deaths in entire 2017 in such cross-border firings. Yet the Army chief focused on China, ignoring the ongoing fusillade in J&K. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the piece de resistance came when in a confrontational speak, he shot his mouth off making a tangential politically loaded statement about Assam — “I don’t think you can now change the population dynamics of this area. If it was five districts to eight to nine… the inversion has taken place, whichever be the government... There is a party called AIUDF, if you look at… they have grown in a faster time-frame than the BJP has grown over the years. When we talk of Jan Sangh with two Members of Parliament and where they have reached, AIUDF is moving at a faster pace in the state of Assam. Finally, what will be the state of Assam, we will have to take a call?”
Talking about the influx of people from Bangladesh into the Northeast, the Army Chief had said, “A planned immigration is taking place because of our western neighbour. They will always try and ensure that this area is taken over, playing the proxy dimension of warfare.” He was addressing a conference on bridging gaps and securing borders in the Northeast region. “I think the proxy game is very well played by our western neighbour, supported by our northern border (China) to keep the area disturbed. We will continue to see some migration happening. The solution lies in identifying the problem and holistically looking at it,” he said.
Theatre of the absurd, since when did Army chiefs comment on politics and that too on sensitive demographics. While the aggressive jingoism for China was in any case misplaced, by speaking on Assam and its religious make up, he had opened a communal front in an openly disputatious comment. Was he being prodded into saying these things? That would tantamount to his position being compromised and no Army chief has indulged in this kind of cheap theatrics, at least not in recent memory. Should he be asked to zip up? Yes, most definitely, for the Indian Army cannot be associated with such colored statements. It is sacrilege to make such petty statements and it certainly doesn’t behove the Army chief to say what he said.
The retaliation came swift and fast. Former Lt Gen Prakash Menon, well respected for his sense of fair play, but extremely outspoken tweeted — The army is not in charge and is the lead agency in politically loaded internal security situation. Depending on context of issue relevant ministry/ Dept/agency could comment. Overall. Chief should not voice opinion that projects that he is in charge of the entire situation. In another tweet, he argued — Two issues, 1st chief making statements that have political and religious overtones eg madrasa edu in J& K etc, 2nd, govt has not commented therefore tacit approval. Is it healthy for mil institution? I don’t think so. Though there could be more to it than what is in public domain.
Ex Army chief Gen V P Malik countered on his timeline by saying — Topmost mil ldr of the country has the right to spk on issues affecting national security where mil is/may be called upon to act. What, when, and where to spk depends upon situations and personality. Muzzling him will be counter productive.
Lt Gen H S Panag writing in his blog created a flutter in the dovecotes, writing in his blog — Our Chiefs of the defence forces have been making headlines with their statements on national security issues and at times also on issues outside their domain. Questions have been raised by the media, the opposition and veterans about what the Chiefs should and should not be saying. While some are cheering them, others say they have transgressed into the political domain. Curiously, the defence secretary who is “responsible for the defence of India and the armed forces,” as per the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules 1961, has never made a public statement with respect to national security in 53 years of my military memory. Yet, in the not-too-distant past, a defence secretary allegedly commented on the clamour for a Chief of Defence Staff — “We already have a Chief of Defence Staff, I am the Chief of Defence Staff!”
The apoliticalism of our armed forces has never been in question. General Menon didn’t leave it there. In an article he raised pertinent issues regarding the character of India’s civil-military apparatus, “Its unending deployment for internal security in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East has resulted in the military becoming a permanent and key representative of the state’s coercive power in a politically charged atmosphere. Inevitably, most of the military’s actions are politically sensitive and it often finds itself in the midst of political controversies. This is bound to continue as long as the military is deployed in support of civilian authority. But the moot point is that such controversies must be dealt with by the military and civilian authorities acting in unison. What has regrettably become frequent is the military’s stance being in opposition to a state government’s with the central government supporting the military. The military thus becomes an object of Centre-state politics... The Army Chief’s recent comments about a political party, the All India United Democratic Front in Assam, suggested that the Army was taking sides in what is essentially a political battle between the ruling party and the opposition. Some commentators have argued that there is nothing wrong in the Army supporting the central government, which it serves, especially when it comes to matters of security. True, the Army is an executive arm of the government but it owes its loyalty to the Constitution of India and not to the party in power. Indeed, saying that the military is apolitical means that it does not take part in any political argument and even if it wishes to express its views about the impact of political manoeuvring on security, it should convey them behind closed doors. The basis of being apolitical rests on avoiding as far as possible the messy and murky world of domestic politics. Yet, recent incidents and statements put the military under the arc lights for all the wrong reasons... It would, therefore, not be incorrect to assume that recent statements of the Army Chief about Pakistan and China reflect the government’s viewpoint. If it were not so, the pronouncements would have been denied or contradicted. Since the statement that China and Pakistan are orchestrating immigration from Bangladesh has come from the Army Chief, we must assume it is true. But does such an accusation have to be levelled by the Army Chief, especially when no other arm of the government has brought it to the public’s notice? Clearly, there is a need to exercise greater discretion while commenting on foreign countries as it affects the sphere of political relations, driven primarily from outside the military arena.”
Three divergent schools of thought, but the majority view is that sagacity demands that the Indian Army chief should be more circumspect and choose his words more carefully. After all he symbolises the garima of a cosmopolitan and homogeneous armed forces; and as its leitmotif, it is not his business to make such utterances. If at all, he is being prompted by the body politic in power, then it is even more distressing. Diatribes and harangues are not his course of action, tactics and strategic crucibles are. Emasculating this fine institution will be our collective death.