Before we get totally distracted with the assembly election results on December 11, it is imperative to consider the case of Jeetu the Fauji.
A soldier on home leave from active duty in Jammu and Kashmir is spotted in the lynch mob in Bulandshahr. According to the police, video grabs establish that he was not just an innocent by-stander but an active participant in the murderous crowd which went on to take a police inspector’s life. The army has handed him over to the Uttar Pradesh police. However, it is yet to be established whether it was Jeetu who fired the fatal shot that killed Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh. For the record, Jeetu denies any involvement in the incident.
Is Jeetu the Fauji a metaphor of our tortured republic or is he just an isolated case of an individual, who happens to be a soldier in the Indian Army, succumbing to the poisoned passions and rancid prejudices being doled by politicians? The question cannot be avoided, and the answer may be even more troublesome than the implications of the death of a police inspector at the hands of cow vigilantes. Is there something much more than meets the eye when a trained soldier stands accused of easily and willingly signing up for a communal lynch mob?
No doubt, there will be a rush to write off the Jeetu episode as the case of a solitary bad egg in an otherwise thoroughly professional army. Our military leadership has always been very proud of the Indian Army’s image as a secular institution, in perfect harmony with our constitutional arrangements. We take pride in the armed forces’ ethos and ethics that elevate the jawans and officers above their primordial loyalties of caste, creed and region.
As a republic, we have celebrated the fact that we are different from Pakistan and that we very much cherish and practice the principle of civilian supremacy over the uniform. Admittedly, there is considerable politicking among the top brass over postings and promotions (and, sometime, over age certificates), which, in turn, is expectedly exploited by the defence ministry’s managers.
Yet, barring a few aberrations, our generals have shown no inclination to get sucked in the quarrels among the politicians, and, certainly there is no organisational appetite to take over the “guardians of the state” mantle, in the manner of an Ayub Khan. Indeed, the received wisdom remains that Pakistan has become a tattered state only because the armed forces have acquired such a decisive voice in its national affairs. The Pakistani model has very little attraction for the professional general in India.
True, over the last few decades we have frequently called upon the armed forces and para-military organisations to step in to take care of challenges to internal security; in insurgencies of various kinds, we have pitted soldiers against fellow-Indians of different persuasions. As a polity we have liked to believe that despite these prolonged, brutalising engagements, the Indian solider remains infused with republican virtues and a professional ethos.
In recent years, as our politics has become bitingly contentious, the challenge before the military leadership has been how to firewall the men and the organisation from the deafening religious feuds unleashed by the politician. The task is complicated because the majoritarian politician always invokes imagery and emotionalism associated with nationalism and patriotism – the very two values the professional soldier is encouraged to inculcate.
The armed forces leadership also has on its plate the issue of the jawan’s exposure to social media and its facile reproduction of communal animosities. Even in the best of situations, there are no easy ways of getting away from social media’s deleterious effect on our collective sanity and reasonableness; but, the jawans’ contamination obviously has unhappy ramifications for society as a whole.
In this unsettling scenario, no less vexatious is the Army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s apparent over-eagerness to downplay the opinion expressed recently by Lt. General D.S. Hooda (retd) on the 2016 “surgical strikes”. Gen Hooda was GOC-in-Chief, Northern Command, and had the operational responsibility for the armed action across the Line of Control in Kashmir. A few days ago, at a literary event in Chandigarh, the retired soldier had voiced his reservations about the politicisation of that action.
That this gentle but unambiguous criticism by a top-ranking army officer of the way everyone from the prime minister down to district level operatives has sought to garner electoral gains from the surgical strikes was bound to rile the ruling party. But what is troublesome is that General Hooda’s sober and sobering observation should have been immediately doubted by a handful of serving generals. Inadvertently, these senior generals have allowed themselves to get involved in the politicians’ quarrels. It is difficult to see how these serving officers have enhanced the Indian Army’s image as a professional institution.
As it is, the incumbent Army chief has set new standards in loquaciousness. Recently, he engaged himself in needless cross-talk with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan over the Kartarpur corridor. He got away with this intrusion in the foreign office’s domain because the politicians were all so caught up in throwing mud at each other in election season.
That should bring us back to the niggling question about and beyond Jeetu the Fauji: have our politicians managed to contaminate the men and officers in the armed forces with the communal virus? It is one thing for armed forces leaders to develop an unthinking admiration for the self-styled macho politician who talks rough and tough in matters of national security and defence. It is an altogether different – and troublesome and unacceptable – proposition to suggest even remotely that any soldier has an option to take sides in the politics of majoritarianism, disguised as a patriotic project.
It would be very much worth our while to remember that three decades ago, some of our soldiers and officers had allowed themselves to get affected by the follies of Punjab politicians. The consequences were tragic for our republic and some of those fault-lines still remain unrepaired. There is simply no reason for our officers not to learn any lesson for the tragedies of 1984. The armed forces must undertake to rid themselves of the Jeetu virus.