Dangerous Portents – Teesta Setalwad


India is a secular democratic republic not a military dictatorship. Four anchors of the most prominent English news channels would do well to remember that their collective coverage of the recent incursions in Jammu and Kashmir are irresponsible in as much as they de-link the Army’s actions from the Political leadership of the Centre. In their shortsighted and limited objectives of trying to ‘put the union government in the dock’ at the cost of rational coverage.

Applauding Chief of Army Bikram Singh and in the same breath mocking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not just irresponsible, it is downright dangerous. No Indian army action takes place in isolation of the political party in power, whichever that may be at the time. As Indians all of us are concerned not just about the recent incursions, that we are told has left an untamed band of 30-40 terrorists let loose on Indian soil, but a sane and sober coverage that at all times does not undermine the basis of our hard fought and won freedom, and the secular democratic foundations of our republic.

It is nothing short of disturbing to watch television anchors and opposition leaders selectively, and in my view, dangerously, de-linking the actions of the Indian army under our chief of army from the government in power. Is this the limited and cowboy honcho style understanding of divisions of power of the Indian republic that we wish to display? No action of the Army can be seen outside the visions and views of the political leadership of the time. Whether it is to be praised or critiqued. As an aside, this sort of gung-ho coverage suits only one agenda, that of India’s irresponsible opposition.

This limited and dangerous understanding of not just divisions of power but the supremacy of the elected body of representatives has been brazenly encouraged by a desperate and power hungry BJP. As an article in an Indian daily (Dangerous Liaisons, Asian Age, October 6 2013) aptly put it ‘army chiefs in India tend not to be political figures’, unlike those in Pakistan, but it appears that we are now in danger of becoming a little more like our neighbour. Former Army chief General V.K. Singh, who retired last year, has been at the centre of a string of highly political controversies in recent times. The battle has become sharper and more vicious especially after Gen. Singh shared a dais with BJP leader Narendra Modi. Charges have flown thick and fast on all sides. A close watcher of the defence establishment, Pravin Sawhney, has been quoted in the recent article to say that the retired servicemen who had been drawn into a BJP foreign policy cell that had been headed by Mishra became influential.
“The ties between servicemen do not snap immediately on retirement,” Sawhney says. The servicemen also vote, he points out, and in the Army, there are 14 lakh of them. Politics naturally enters the forces. It is here that there are very real dangers that the fissures may begin to show.

These recent developments must be seen in the context of previous such desperate efforts by the BJP in 1999 with a ‘moderate’ Vajpayee at the helm. Serving jawans were being galvanised by the BJP to garner votes for its war widow candidate, Sudha Yadav, sighting from the Mahendragarh Lok Sabha constituency. She was widowed during the recent conflict at Kargil. The Congress incumbent from the same constituency was, at the time, Rao Inderjit Singh. Independent reports from New Delhi-based journalists who had toured the villages in this constituency showed how lance officers and jawans of the rank of Naik from several villages that fall within this constituency (Panchgaon village in Gurgaon district) were being hauled up on the BJP plank in a desperate and devious bid to garner votes. Journalists took the bold step in 1999 and lodged a formal complaint with the Indian army, as citizens of this country, expressing outrage at this politicization and communalisation of the armed forces.

What we are now witnessing in the run up to 2014 is more of the same. The additional factor is an electronic media that consciously fails to underpin it’s coverage on a genuine understanding of the foundations of our polity.

The opposition BJP, whose fundamental worldview is the one constructed and fiercely protected by the RSS is divisive and supremacist. To build on natural anger and distress at terror attacks, infiltration attempts and what seems at brazen attempts at sections of the entrenched establishment in Pakistan to continue the unsustainable war of attrition on Indian soil and turn it inwards to divide and communalise our institutions, has been their unabashed intent. It is their unique selling point (USP). In the market place of ideas dominated only by the discourse of quick fix solutions, where long-term institutional remedies have been systematically ridiculed, preferred solutions are the those that satisfy the violent and vicarious. It is bullet for bullet, hanging for murder and rape, so what if we get carried away and even want flogging in public. Corrective and reformative justice, the painful grappling with discrimination to achieve egalitarianism, the complexity of the right and wrong, are contemptuously dismissed.

India is a secular democratic republic, one of who’s institutions is its army, who’s secular and non-divisive functioning is what victims of communal riots have turned to when oppressed by a partisan local police. This history is one to be proud of. The same army, unchecked and uncontrolled, and used as an extensive arm of a political class keen to avoid political solutions of sticklish problems, has been responsible for unspeakable horrors in states in our north-east, Manipur markedly, Nagaland and of course Jammu and Kashmir. In the clamour of the shriil debate, the reasoned arguments for a repealment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) are not even, in passing referred to. The existence of this essentially ‘emergency’ legislation in permanence in these states has conveniently avoided legitimate and serious questions of accountability with India’s armed forces to Indian criminal law and by extension the provisions of equity and non-discrimination enshrined in our Constitution. The real tragedy in all this is that the rest of the non-BJP Indian political class, overwhelmed and swamped as it is by the tenor of the debates on television, has been unable to assert legitimacy and sanity within this dangerously limited discourse. The government at the centre is the worst offender, incapable of rebutting this dangerous trend.

Let’s not forget that even as the BJP tried brazenly to barter in votes on the Kargil war in 1999, its handyman brother organization, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad went several steps further.This politics spells a real danger for us, as real as the politics practiced by our neighbour.

On May 31, 1999, senior officers of the army were asked to brief the BJP National Executive. This had never happened before. In August 1999, army officers, to their discomfort, were persuaded to attend a RSS-sponsored function, Sindhu Darshan in Leh. They were given citations signed by the RSS chief, Rajinder Singh. In his address, Mr. L.K.Advani tried to establish similarities between the RSS and the Indian army. On August 19, 1999, A VHP delegation, led by Vishnu Hari Dalmia, Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore distributed copies of the Ramacharitramanas to all our injured soldiers. To take this further, on August 23, 1999, VHP representatives gate-crashed into the office of the Ministry of Defence, armed with photographers and 20,000 rakhees, for the jawans in Kargil. The army refused to accept the Rakhees. At the time, the chief of the army staff, general Ved Prakash Malik said, “Leave us alone.”

(First Published in Rashtriya Sahara Urdu published on Friday, October 11 2013)

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