A political army or an apolitical one?
Lt Gen Devraj Anbu, commanding general in Udhampur heading India's northern command was posed a question at a press conference at Srinagar. Responding to a question, he said, "We don't communalise martyrs, those making statements don't know the Army well." The context of the question was the statement by Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi, who, as is his wont, was taking on Hindu communalists who denigrate Muslims.
Owaisi, in the context of the details emerging of the martyrs in the Sanjuwan camp attack by terrorists, had taken potshots at the so-called '9-PM nationalists' who delight in questioning the patriotism of Muslims in general and Kashmiri Muslims in particular. He said, "In this (Sanjuwan attack) incident, five Kashmiri Muslims have laid down their lives. Why aren't you talking about it? This is a reminder to all those nationalists who question my integrity and the love for this country."
The good general's taking down Owaisi a peg or two was lapped up by the 9-PM media. The general was seen as buttressing the army's secular credentials, while the head of the largely Hyderabad based party, AIMIM, was put in his place.
Missed in the aftermath was the political position taken by Anbu.
Anbu is head of India's largest field army. Surely, it must have the largest headquarters too, one that contributes to Anbu's situational awareness and provides him options for considered decision making. This headquarters also has elements of an information warfare (IW) staff. The IW staff no doubt monitors the media, including newspapers, television and social media. That it is efficient and effective, and has the ears of the general, is clear from the general going on in the interview in question to talk about how social media is contaminating young minds in the Valley. His staff surely conveyed to the general that Owaisi the previous day had remarked on the Sanjuwan camp attack.
It can be assumed Anbu also received options of response, since his press conference was impending and questions related to the Owaisi statement could be anticipated. Thus, Anbu was prepared by his staff. No doubt he had his answer up his sleeve when he was shot the question. So it's not an off the cuff response by the general, but a thought through reply. That it provided fodder for Owaisi baiters provides a hint as to who or which kind of Indian found the answer heartwarming.
The assumption of good staff work suggests that there were other answers served up for the generals' choice. After all, Anbu was himself a staff officer in the temple of staff officers, the Military Secretary's Branch, where the top order of the army's staff qualified officers are posted. One answer simple enough to divine is 'No comments.' It would have sent out Anbu's displeasure at Owaisi's words, without getting into the mud with him.
Another answer Anbu did not choose was to acknowledge the politician's observation. The politician was, by his account, taking pride in the Muslimness of the martyrs, exulting in the fact that Muslim blood mingles with that of their fellow comrades as does their sweat, rejoicing that Muslims have a role in keeping this country together, happy that this shuts up Muslim baiters, sanguine that their sacrifice will be acknowledged as proof - even when none is needed - of Indian Muslims on the frontline and numbering among the dead while there.
This opinion piece would have turned out differently had Anbu empathized with the politician and his Muslim constituency. It would have shown Anbu had knowledge of his Muslim brethren and fellow citizens. It is a pity that the general needs reminding that Muslims feel pride in seeing Azharuddin take stance, in Sania's back hand, in Hariz's rise to army commander rank, in the long rule of the Khans over Bollywood, and, likewise, are proud to see Muslims number in awards lists and that of the army's martyrs. Their pride is in one of their kind contributing on par with others in a national endeavor. What is better advertisement of a sense of ownership of and belonging to the nation?
Obviously, just as Anbu accuses Owaisi of ignorance of the army, surely Anbu can likewise be challenged on his knowledge of and empathy with fellow citizens, Muslims. Or does he take the stereotype Muslim conjured up by the media seriously? As army commander in a Muslim majority state, commanding troops battling insurgency amidst a disaffected population, an affirmative answer to this would be troubling.
If this is the Muslim reaction to seeing their ilk up front in the battle against terror, it behooves on their parliamentarian to give voice to it. Owaisi needs highlighting this - if in his inimitable fashion - so that even those deafened by the majoritarian din can hear.
Additionally, Anbu surely must know of the siege Muslims have been over the past half-decade. Is he not aware what the Modi wave has done to them politically? Anbu watches primetime too. The marginalization of Muslims, using one stick after another to beat them with - triple talaq, lynchings, love jihadis - has been upfront and in-your-face. They have to go the extra distance to overturn the labouriously contrived canard that terrorism is a Muslim brand.
Following the Sanjuwan attack, there was vile suggestion that the Kashmiris in the ranks had snitched to the terrorists where to find the army's solar plexus and hit. Now, the army is reportedly doing a survey of the neighbourhoods of its installations, no doubt with some or other template in mind of subversibility or otherwise of that neighbourhood. Would it harbor terrorists who would at an opportune moment upturn normality? This is not restricted to Kashmir. My neighbourhood far south, abutting Owaisi's constituency also sees the army barracks lined with sandbag topped walls and bunkers that could do Kashmir proud. We are suspect, because the army has drawn up some stereotype. Maybe they would find Neyaz Farooquee's 'An Ordinary man's guide to radicalism' helpful.
With a ghetto for a pocket borough, Owaisi has little choice but to be combative. He could not have passed up an opportunity to dispel the notion that Muslims belong to Pakistan. In this, statistics such as over 1500 J&K policemen dead in the line of duty are vital ammunition for the community to break out. Anbu shot the messenger at the cost of the message.
Not a week later the army yet again showed its stripes. Its army chief, seemingly unmindful of north east states going to the polls, extravagantly intoned that the illegal immigration into the north east, that profited a particular regional party, was a proxy war by Pakistan, and - hold your breath - China. His apologists suggested that he was speaking his mind under Chatham House rules, at a closed door event. Even if so, the leak was well timed. When the regional party head - Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF - remonstrated that his is a democratic and secular political outfit, the army PR minders rose to put him in his place, stating, "There is nothing political or religious in the talk." Yet another Muslim politician perfunctorily struck down, when the community has no national level leadership. Recall the farewell speech in parliament for the outgoing vice president by the prime minister. Muslim politicians are fair game. What else is politics and indulgence in it?
As for the Kashmiri leaders, there is nothing they can get right. AFSPA cannot be rolled back. The Kashmiri education system requires overhaul. Its madrasas require surveillance. The plea for talking with Pakistan can be drowned out by the artillery duels on the LC. Stone throwers are over ground workers. The lodging of an FIR when two were killed recently was a step too far. All justified solely on security grounds. There is nothing political to it.
While there is a potential dread in the direction the army is headed, it can yet be redeemed. At a recent seminar at the Punjab University, Chandigarh, one of Anbu's counterparts, the western command head, distanced himself from the formulation of 'two front war', cautioning against war with a nuclear armed neighbour. His other Shimla-based colleague went further. He said, "Kashmir still remains far from normal despite the strategy of matching response being followed by both nations. Be that as it may, there is no shying away from the fact that a lasting peace can only be found at the negotiating table." Both seemingly registered dissent at the (ruling) party line toed by their boss, the army chief.
More importantly, the training command head likened Pakistan to a mirror on the wall, saying, "We need to look at it and not make the same mistakes, particularly in light of growing radicalisation and intolerance within our own society over mundane issues." Anbu could take heed and not play to the gallery of the radicalized, radicalism in this case being of the saffron hue.
Clearly, then the apolitical status of the army is under stress. While those cautioning against going down this route are also taking a political position - against penetration of a particular ideology into the army - they are status quoists, calling out the politically active and for a return to the pristine. The army must reclaim the apolitical island for itself.