What Lies Behind the BJP’s Attempt to Harness Retired Soldiers to Its Rath

The trend now has an eerie similarity to what happened in Pakistan, where the army (and religion) play a potent and central role in politics.

New Delhi: Ex servicemen and students pay homage to martyrs of Indian Army and Parliament attack at a meeting organised by ABVP on the JNU campus in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Vijay Verma  (PTI2_24_2016_000257B)

New Delhi: Ex servicemen and students pay homage to martyrs of Indian Army and Parliament attack at a meeting organised by ABVP on the JNU campus in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Vijay Verma (PTI2_24_2016_000257B)

New Delhi: For the first time in India’s history, armed forces personnel – so far only retired officers, of course – are coming out to speak and hold demonstrations, and prescribe what is right and what is wrong in a democracy, what ought to be done and what ought not in universities, in public action and behaviour.

This coincides with a raging debate over nationalism and patriotism, over religious and caste identities, with the Sangh parivar and BJP seeking to redefine these terms and taking recourse to national symbols – on nearly every issue that confronts them.

In what has now become an established – and disturbing –  pattern, the BJP and its kindred organisations routinely invoke the armed forces to score political points against their opponents.

The Indian armed forces have remained resolutely apolitical and secular and have been the strength of India and defenders of its constitutional democracy, unlike what happened in Pakistan. The trend has an eerie similarity to what happened in Pakistan, where the army (and religion) play a potent and central role in politics.

The same tactic is now being resorted to in the Sangh parivar’s attempt to clamp down on universities. On February 24, the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, invited former army officers to an event called “An evening in memory of the martyrs” on the JNU campus. The army veterans had strong words against the freedom of speech if it meant jeopardising India’s sovereignty. At the meet, ex-servicemen contrasted the sacrifices made by soldiers to protect India’s geographical integrity with the calls for the dismemberment of the country allegedly made by unidentified slogan shouters on campus on February 9.

The ex-servicemen’s anger was understandable but it also reflects the gulf between their understanding of the role of a university and that of the students.

If students in a university invite some people to try and understand their point of view – and the invitees raise slogans – the students, who have asserted their Indian-ness in that meeting, can be arrested for the views supposedly (according to video clips) expressed by those attending. While no Indian, including any of those in JNU charged with sedition, supports India’s dismemberment, doctored videos portraying them as backing anti-national forces have obtained traction among the ultra-nationalists – and ex-servicemen seem to have followed unthinkingly.

Major General GD Bakshi (retd), criticising US ambassador Richard Verma for saying that free speech was the essence of democracy, said, “Today the American ambassador is trying to teach us about democracy and nationalism. What is nationalism – it’s the people and the territory. We are Indians and we are proud of it. You can’t remove Kashmiri Pandits from their homes and take away our land.” He was talking about the alleged slogans raised for Kashmir’s independence from India at JNU.

Major General RK Malhotra (retd) denounced all anti-national acts and wondered what he could tell the families, widows and orphans of martyred soldiers when anti-India slogans were raised in universities. Disclosing why he thought the pro-Afzal Guru event had been organised in JNU, he said, “Why was February 9 chosen? Because Make in India was happening and international participants were present in the country. This is an orchestrated event. Such slogans are never made randomly.” He also said that terrorism took birth in ideologies, not from guns. “Freedom of expression is fine, but not at the cost of India’s sovereignty.”

In its endeavour to set up nationalism as the touchstone for any intellectual discourse in universities on concepts of nationalism, self-determination, etc,  the BJP government, as a beginning, has already decreed that the national flag be hoisted in university campuses to instil a feeling of nationalism among the students. Now, the idea suggested is to station a battle tank in JNU to instil patriotism and a feeling of pride in the soldiers who have been killed defending the nation. This suggestion comes in the wake of several days of protests at the university by teachers and students alike decrying the police action against some JNU scholars.

Earlier, ex-servicemen participated in a march from Raj Ghat to Jantar Mantar in Delhi on Sunday, February 21 against what they termed ‘anti-national’ activities in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Several BJP and RSS workers also participated in the march, which was held under the banner of ‘Save the Nation’.

The ABVP is only following in the BJP’s footsteps. The BJP has been talking about the armed forces, their valour and their sacrifices in defending the country’s borders with disturbing regularity – nearly every time in its statements and official briefings at BJP HQ. The most recent was the one on February 23, 2016, while attacking those agitating for freedom of expression.

These themes are also broadcast far and wide on social media and, more significantly, on WhatsApp, thereby using the deep penetration of the mobile phone network in the country to reach out to a large number of citizens. Retired persons, housewives, salesmen, random persons on the street, and ex-servicemen, all chime in to start prescribing what should be taught in political science, history and sociology. These ideas are circulated all over simply by recipients unthinkingly, irresponsibly forwarding such messages to everyone possible. All out of a sense of duty for the nation, especially since it does not take more effort than touching a button.

Veterans of the Indian armed forces are often invited by news channels for their views and expert opinions on issues relating to security, defence and other matters concerning the services such as One Rank One Pension (OROP). But to have former soldiers talk about academic matters seems jarring and unwarranted, students and teachers say.

  • vikas singhal

    So according to you Soldiers only need to die on border, but not give their opinion

  • Meenal Mamdani

    India is a democracy and every one is free to hold marches or protests in favor of or against a particular point of view as long as the demonstration is peaceful and does not invite violence.

    Servicemen are people too and are bound to have personal views which may be in sync or out of sync with the politics of the moment. However this must not be allowed to cloud their judgement or action as long as they are in active service. Once they retire they are ordinary citizens and can speak or protest following the same rules of conduct that apply to others – no violence or incitement to violence.

  • Ranbir42

    The Indian armed forces, have, hither to, been apolitical, which has served the interest of the armed forces and the Country very well for the last six decades or more. The current trend of the armed forces personnel hob nobbing with the politicians in an effort to achieve their personal goals needs to be nipped in the bud. It is surprising that while a large number of ex-servicemen have been sitting at Jantar Mantar for the last 280 days to awaken the government from its deep slumber to come good on their promise to the armed forces, a minuscule minority of the service veterans are trying to dampen the effect of the majority. It is no coincidence that most such service veterans who are towing the government’s line are senior officers who are not directly impacted by the ex-servicemen’s agitation at Jantar Mantar. It is a fact that such officers cannot be denied their right to do what they consider as right, but, willy nilly, they are likely to impact the secular fabric of the armed forces which has always been their strength. They may gain in their individual capacity by hob nobbing with the party in power, but they do so at the cost of harming the interest of the armed forces, and thereby, the country.