Why is the Army chief Rawat stoking Kashmir fire, instead of dousing it?

Citizens expect the Army Chief to be strong but silent and use his strength to broker a solution, to douse the Kashmir fire and not stoke it. He lacks sensitivity and doesn’t understand the situation 

PTI photo
PTI photo

Uttam Sengupta

It does not require us to be defence experts to feel perturbed by some of the statements made by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat. Last week he chose his words carefully, gave an interview to a carefully chosen newspaper, The Indian Express, and told militants in Kashmir that they were no match to the Indian Army. “You can’t fight us”, he said.

He was of course stating the obvious. Militants, officially said to number a couple of hundred at best, cannot match security forces whose number hovers around 7,00,000 or more and with far superior fire power. What is worrying, however, is to find the chief of the mighty Indian Army having to articulate what should be so obvious to both militants and bystanders.

General Rawat, it is worth recalling, superseded two senior officers when he was appointed the Chief of the Army Staff in December, 2016. Reasons given for the supersession, which has happened in the Indian Army only twice before, were his vast experience on the Line of Actual Control in Kashmir and in the NorthEast.

His public statements unfortunately betray not just a lack of sensitivity and propriety but also understanding of the situation and of ‘politics’. It is not the fault of the Indian Army that they continue to face a hostile population in Kashmir even seven decades after Independence. It is the failure of politics and politicians that is responsible. Barely eight years ago, the Indian Army was conducting ‘Operation Sadbhavna’, helping set up schools and hospitals, hosting cricket tournaments and conducting ‘Bharat Darshan’ tours for young Kashmiris.

If the situation has worsened since then and the Indian Army chief is forced to communicate to militants through the media, politicians must be held responsible. But the Army chief, by the far the most garrulous we have had so far, did not stop after stating the obvious. He declared that the Army had exercised considerable restraint so far and went on to make an unfortunate comparison with Syria and Pakistan. More than anyone else, General Rawat would know how odious the comparison is and one is tempted to say that the General should be the one thanking his stars that Kashmir is still not Syria. Politics is said to be too serious a business to be left to politicians. If a remarkable and candid discussion at West Point, the American military academy, is an indication, Americans are slowly reaching the realisation that national security is also too serious a business to be left to generals and the military; that the generals should not be above criticism, that the American society is ignorant of what the US military is up to and who it benefits.

The Indian Army, the world’s largest volunteer army, has more than enough problems on its plate. It is perennially short of arms, ammunition and battle gear despite India being the largest arms importer.

The US Army like India’s is a volunteer army and the recruitment to the ranks is drawn from poorer sections of people, in India from the farming community and people typically living in the hills, sturdy and hard-working but with few employment opportunities. Now listen to what one of the participants at West Point had to say: “Society says that you join the Army and you’re set for life and you’re a hero forever…the military is also a welfare state; it is the most socialist institution we have. It provides a certain degree of economic stability. I worry that we have a military caste that is growing— that it’s become a family business.” “Young soldiers have an opportunity for social recognition that might be out of their reach anywhere else in American society. For a young man or woman of a certain class, this is an opportunity for something that is visceral: they matter in society, they are recognised, they have worth.”

The Indian Army, the world’s largest volunteer army, has more than enough problems on its plate. It is perennially short of arms, ammunition and battle gear despite India being the largest arms importer. It has a huge shortfall in the officer ranks and its recruitment policies have been questionable. It is also called upon to defend two long and hostile borders. And it is called out to put down militancy in the North-East and Kashmir besides assisting civilian authorities in coping with natural calamities.

But rather than address these issues, General Rawat has invited controversies. Soon after taking over charge, General Rawat declared that he wanted people to fear the Army. While commentators frowned and said that the Army needed to be respected and not feared, the criticism had little effect on the General. He followed it up by asserting that he wished protesters in Kashmir would use firearms instead of pelting stones. Then he could do what he wanted, he explained, implying that the Army could use its superior fire power against the protesters. When an Army Major shocked the world by tying a civilian to his jeep and claimed he had no option but to do this in order to escape the stone pelters, the Army chief publicly commended him and awarded the Army Chief ’s Commendation medal.

The Indian Army, General Rawat said, was fighting a proxy war in Kashmir and a dirty war at that and the Major deserved to be commended for his innovation. He also raised eyebrows by advocating a multi-pronged approach towards China including the military option; he has said that he would like to call Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff ”; he is on record saying that the Army would deal with civilians assisting the militants in Kashmir as anti-nationals and he took a pot shot at a political party in Assam, All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF), and said that it had grown faster than the BJP. The Army chief explained, without offering any evidence, that the growth was due to the proxy war by China and Pakistan, which were behind the influx of Muslims into the border state.

The chief hails from an ‘Army family’. His father retired as the Vice-Chief of the Army Staff. General Rawat too would have retired by now and would be attending to his gardens and dogs if he had not been appointed the Vice-Chief in September and the Chief three months later in 2016. He, therefore, would be the first to acknowledge the scars that the prolonged war of attrition in Kashmir would have left on his troops and the nation. It has taken a toll, damaged and distorted the soldiers’ psyches, torn families apart and created suspicion, fear and distrust that is far from healthy and a cost which is paid over time and is not immediately visible.

It is for military historians to assess General Rawat’s leadership qualities and for the serving officers to say what kind of difference, if any, his appointment may have made. But citizens would expect the Army Chief to be strong but silent and use his strength to broker a solution, to douse the fire and not stoke it.

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