Admiral Ramdas interview: ‘Total anarchy prevailing, dangerous time for our democracy’

Former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas spoke on political interference in services, questionable defence deals, RSS-BJP’s fear of the Constitution and much more

NH photo by Tathagata Bhattacharya
NH photo by Tathagata Bhattacharya
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Bhasha Singh

Bhasha: Growing political interference in defence and civil services since 2014 is an area of major concern. How do you see the situation?

Admiral Ramdas: We often tend to treat those in the services, either civil or military, as though they are a breed apart. Every policy decision that affects our people equally affects those in the civil services and the armed forces. All the services are bound by their service rules and the code of conduct, but this does not mean that they do not have responses, positions and views about things going on in the country. Every person in any of the above mentioned services is free to cast a vote and choose his or her candidate during elections. This automatically implies the exercise of political choice, an essential component of a free and vibrant democracy.

Most importantly, members of all these services abide by and uphold the Constitution of India that they are sworn upon. They can ask their political masters to explain certain decisions and actions that affect the civil and the military services. They advise their political leaders against taking any course of action which could violate the provisions of the Constitution. Therefore, I think it is our duty, whether civil or military, to point out wherever any patronage or adjustments or compromises cannot be made only because the minister says so as these are essential checks and balances. What it implies is that there is much more responsibility on the service chiefs to tell the government, i.e. civil servants, colleagues or ministers that a certain thing cannot be done.

I believe that people haven't had the guts to be the trade union leaders of their own system, be it in the chiefs’ offices or at the secretary level. But the point is, it is your duty to tell the political masters that “Sorry, this can't be done” or “This is wrong.” You can’t just say that “Oh, I have discussed the matter, the minister wants this” or “This is the government’s decision.” In older days, I have seen files actually signed by Nehru and others. Not only signed ones, but also written notes that said “yes," “no” and why if “no”. But nowadays you see that no minister signs the files. Forget about the minister, not even the Prime Minister. Nowadays, senior military and civil officials say that they have discussed a certain matter with the minister but only khuda (GOD) knows what they have discussed. During my time, when this happened once or twice, I said, “Certainly, but give it to me in writing like a proper note with your signature on it.”

Bhasha: Nowadays the government wants its own men as the heads of all three services.

Admiral Ramdas: Everybody has a political image and preferences. You can express that at the time of voting. But once you are in service, whether through UPSC or state agencies for civil services, or NDA in case of military services, you can’t wear your politics on your sleeve.

In older days, I have seen files actually signed by Nehru and others. Not only signed ones, but also written notes that said “yes,” “no” and why if “no”. But nowadays you see that no minister signs the files. Forget about the minister, not even the Prime Minister. Nowadays, senior military and civil officials say that they have discussed a certain matter with the minister but only khuda (GOD) knows what they have discussed

Tathagata: How do you view the present Army Chief’s comments vis-a-vis Kashmir?

Admiral Ramdas: Frankly, I think if it is a political decision, it’s not in your domain. You can advise, say “It’s wrong” or “It’s right” but I don't think you need to add anything further to what the Government of India has said. You should certainly, as I have said before, advise and recommend. You can turn a verbal decision down and say you want it in writing. So, in the context of your question, the simple answer would be “no”. Similarly, when you are asked to do things that you are not supposed to do, that is also wrong. For example, what happened on the banks of the Yamuna with the Art of Living fete. You cannot use military power for something of this sort. Then, you very soon will become the police or worse than the police. We are professionals. We have to let people do their job, not interfere and that applies to all chiefs.

Bhasha: What’s a potential solution to the Kashmir problem?

Admiral Ramdas: It has to be a political solution. I am afraid the Army is much maligned, unfortunately because everybody there in the Valley has started wearing the same uniform like the armed forces. Why do you need the Army and lakhs of paramilitary personnel? I know it’s a very nice job creator but it is the local police’s job. On rare occasions, if law and order is not controllable by the police, you call in the armed forces. In Gujarat, they were called in ,too, but were not used.

Tathagata: Some time back, the Army Vice-Chief raised important questions before a parliamentary affairs committee about inadequate ammunition and the Defence Budget. What is your assessment of the situation?

Admiral Ramdas: This is an old trick in a new bottle: Always pretend that there is a threat from outside; there’s something else to distract your mind from the many wrongs that are happening within the country. I have written about this in the public domain as well as to the President and the Prime Minister that please don’t tinker around with our beautiful structure because we, in the armed forces, are a microcosm of India. We have people coming from all over the country and they are all of different races, castes, colours and religions. I even mentioned in my letters some names of our Muslim and Christian colleagues and many more. They have been as gallant, brave, courageous and as Indian as any Indian can aspire to be. In fact, many of our people who have been caught spying for our neighbour across the border have been Hindus. I remember once Dr Manmohan Singh had mentioned that it is with great pride, we say that not a single Indian Muslim is a member of any of these terrorist groups active anywhere in the world. You can’t suddenly change what has been built over 70 years to something else. Today, it is the 71st year of Independence. Though the drama has been going on for quite sometime, it has become more sharpened, more focused, more directed now.

Bhasha: For quite sometime, soldiers have been raising the issues of bad living conditions, food, etc., but the government has adopted the strategy to shoot the messenger.

Admiral Ramdas: I don’t know the source but if it is true, then there are ways and means of correcting it. That’s why we have commanders’ meetings, etc. This is where your leadership shows. You must have the correct type of leadership which is unbiased and honest. When I took over as Navy Chief, I coined a term called C3I, i.e. C3 for commitment, credibility and compassion and I for integrity.

This is an old trick in a new bottle: Always pretend that there is a threat from outside; there’s something else to distract your mind from the many wrongs that are happening within the country

Bhasha: Many questions are being raised on defence deals — Rafale, Apache, etc. The government is taking the cover of national security.

Admiral Ramdas: What is national security? It’s not that we have to just guard the sovereignty of the territory. Why do we need to guard it?

We do that to minimise the hardships suffered by our citizens, so that they should not be under any more difficulty. We are already going through a lot as a nation. Every deal is done by political masters and now the latest thing I see with the creation of a new committee, the Defence Planning Committee, is that the NSA, a policeman, has become the supremo. It is not a good sign. We have had three chiefs of defence staff who used to coordinate defence planning and expenditure, etc. There have been repeated requests to return to the old system but the civil services, I don’t know for what reason, are afraid.

Bhasha: How does coming clear on the price of the Rafale can be a threat to national security?

Admiral Ramdas: You have every right to do so and to cover up and say it’s a government deal or somebody else’s deal is wrong. The big problem is that we don’t have a white paper on defence. We must spell out that the Army has this, the Navy has this and that the Air Force has this. This is our strategic thinking, or our threat levels, and that’s why we want budget x or y and let a good debate be held. Parliamentarians should show interest in this. You can’t say that Rs 30 crore have become Rs 300 crore or Rs 3000 crore and blame it all on "additional stuff." List the additional stuff, give the cost of each one. After all, it is public money. And unlike other jumlas, nobody is going to believe you and nobody is believing.

Tathagata: Do you concur with the view that, since 2014, there has been an unprecedented weakening of institutions?

Admiral Ramdas: Absolutely. What is tragic is that we have taken years to build these institutions, universities, places of higher learning, various institutes of management and technology and so on. It is tragic to see that they are toying with appointment of VCs. Students should have the freedom to say and do what they think is right from their point of view. There is a place for dissent in our democracy. But they are choking and killing that democratic space, which is sad. Nirmala Sitharaman, our own Defence Minister, studied in JNU. She had some views and she continues to have some views. She knows what freedom of opinion she enjoyed there. People should have freedom of expression. Only then can great minds flourish. Up to a point, you must show leadership, but you must be open to listen to the views of other people. Especially, when it comes to universities and higher institutes of art, film and culture, we must allow the future generation to come out and burst out. But we don’t, and now it’s getting tighter and tighter and someday you will see it boomerang.

Bhasha: Is there a deliberate attempt to

change the Constitution? Why are they afraid of the Constitution ?

Admiral Ramdas: I don’t know why. I can only say that if I look at it as a military situation, obviously you will only be scared or worried because certain things inside it can be used like a weapon of which you don’t know enough and yet you know that it's deadly. They are scared because the Constitution evolved over a long time. I remember that for about two years, the Constituent Assembly was debating and discussing the pros and cons. And finally, what we have, as a document, is something absolutely unique and I don’t think that you can have any matching Constitution in the world. They are scared of those parts of the Constitution which ensure freedom and equality among the people of the country. It also ensures, establishes and says that you are entitled to do this and you can eat that and go to any school and wear that dress. The RSS leadership had opposed it even back then. So, this is the reason why they are scared and want to introduce a document on the lines of what had been envisaged by Golwalkar, Savarkar and Hedgewar.

Bhasha: What do you think about this transformation into a mobocracy?

Admiral Ramdas: What is happening at the moment is complete and total anarchy. Probably, much worse will come. They are afraid that their dream of Hindurashtra is not being realised as fast as they would have liked it. These are dangerous times for our democracy.

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