It is not the first time that Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat has toed a political line, and controversially and openly backed the government’s contentious policies and decisions, but he has crossed all limits with his statement on the nationwide students’ protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). His criticism of the protesters ‘’for leading masses and crowds to carry out arson and violence in cities and towns’’ was highly improper and his judgement that ‘’this is not leadership’’ was unwarranted. It is not for the army chief to express his views on the rights and wrongs or the appropriateness of agitation in the country with which the army has nothing to do. Even if the army is called out to tackle a disturbed situation resulting from a popular protest, it should do that only professionally, taking its orders from the government but without making a judgement on the issues involved.
Gen Rawat has in the past talked about the growth of Muslim population in Assam and about a political party there, in apparently disapproving terms. There have been other improper comments too. These are not only improper but go against the code of conduct in the armed forces. The Army Act bars any direct or indirect comment by personnel on a political question. The student protests are political and so Gen Rawat’s comment was a political comment. The argument that he was only making the general point that students should shun violence is wrong and unacceptable in the specific context of the protests. Another senior officer, Eastern Army commander Lt Gen Anil Chauhan, also recently made distinctly political comments. Such comments lead to the politicisation of the army. The government and the BJP have tried to do that, and the leadership of the armed forces should try to resist that instead of supporting it. A politicised army loses its professionalism, efficiency and credibility.
The army, like the judiciary, should be an apolitical institution. The strength of democracy lies in the institutional support it has. If institutions make compromises on their values and conduct, democracy gets weakened. They have started showing signs of decay in the country, and Gen Rawat’s comments are proof of the spreading rot. He has made the comment when he is about to retire and is likely to be appointed as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). No other army chief has made such controversial comments and set such wrong precedents. He deserves to be held to account and penalised for his remarks to send the right message to the forces, but it is unrealistic to expect the present government to do so.