If a diplomat should think twice before saying nothing, an army general should not think of saying anything at all. The Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, should have known better than to offer his views on political controversies and agitations of the day. In making thinly veiled comments on the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the General crossed the line of military propriety. The egregious remarks on student protests and leadership of agitations constitute a serious error in judgment. If the task of a leader is to lead by example, and in the ‘right direction’, as he himself put it, then Gen. Rawat, who heads nearly fifteen lakh men in uniform, sent out all the wrong signals. The Army Chief’s remarks could have been discounted as an unfortunate slip of the tongue or a one-off instance, if it were not for the frequency with which he weighed in on matters he ought to have been extremely circumspect about, in public at least. Berating students from a seminar podium is bad enough but last year, Gen. Rawat felt compelled to point out, at yet another seminar, that the All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) — led by Badrudin Ajmal — had grown much faster than the BJP in Assam. “Finally, what will be the state of Assam, we have to take a call,” he had said, throwing in the politically incorrect word “lebensraum” into the mix for good measure, while referring to migration in the region. On matters such as education in Kashmir too, the General’s unsolicited views have stirred controversies.
It is possible to argue that since the Army is so heavily and continually deployed in these areas, the north east and Kashmir, where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act operates, the Army Chief can make comments on other aspects of governance and politics as well. The argument that the Army has a political voice in these States will not travel far, though. Among other things, it reflects the failure of the political class to keep the Army confined to duties that they are meant to carry out. If what Gen. Rawat said was deplorable, what V.K. Singh, the Minister of State for Road Transport, spoke in his support was most unfortunate. Especially since he himself was the Army Chief not so long ago. It is likely to encourage soldiers in the making and those in uniform to move in wrong directions. But it is also notable that not many others have flocked to Gen. Rawat’s defence. Allowing chiefs of the three services to make political statements undermines the civil leadership in the long run. It is to be hoped the government makes the lines clear to them so that such incidents do not recur.