Saturday, 10 February 2018
The Army: Introspection is warranted

Basant Rath, a J&K cadre IPS officer, writing in The Wire (5 February, berates a senior in the IPS of the UP cadre for taking the oath to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He calls for the commitment of uniformed officials the Constitution. He was reacting to a social media video of his IPS senior participating in a right wing organization’s ceremony at which attendees took the oath on building the Ram Mandir, that went viral recently. This invited Rath’s wrath. Quite at the same time, there was another video clip that went viral on social media. This one showed an army officer, presumably serving in J&K, motivating his listeners with cultural nationalist trope. This suggests Rath’s advice is valid for all uniformed services, including the army.
This is a counter intuitive claim since the army is known for its apolitical and secular character. That the army needs reminding of this commonplace is unfortunate. In the clip in question (, the officer claims prior service in J&K and attests to have had a trigger-happy time. Downing rum, he is seen dashing the glass to smithereens against his head, after the fashion of para-commandos who reputedly do so in their messes on occasion. The officer in question sports the para wings on his chest. He is perhaps participating in the annual Republic Day ritual in which the Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) are invited to drinks at the Officers’ Mess. JCOs reciprocate by inviting the officers over to the JCOs’ mess on Independence Day.
The officer is entitled to his views. However, since he is sharing these and speaks in the video in Hindi, he is apparently speaking to persons below officer rank. Since he is in uniform and in an official capacity, he has to exercise caution in airing his views. Assuming that drink has loosened his tongue, it is worth taking him at his spoken word and reviewing his spoken reputation as a Rambo of sorts. The army can do without misguided elements within its ranks in an age of the ‘Strategic Corporal’ (an age in which media amplified tactical decisions potentially have strategic effects). He certainly must be prevented from misusing the cover of AFSPA and the human terrain in Kashmir for his pathologies. Even if the officer’s views are forged at the increasingly respectable fount of cultural nationalism, there is no official legitimacy conferred on such ideological views as yet – particularly since the poem he recites reportedly is of genocidal content.
There is no guarantee the army would take appropriate action. The army is liable to clamp down on social media footprint rather than address its warts. The ‘human shield’ episode of last year – endorsed by no less than the army chief with a commendation - indicates a certain permissiveness in the internal social environment within the army. That perhaps emboldened the mentioned officer to go the distance in his motivational talk. Another misstep by the army in course correction would lead to the discourse only expanding and nauseating the conversation and exchanges within the army. The army needs to be vigilant on this score and officers’ circumspect.
Little propels the military (universally) to action more than a threat to its corporate values and culture. It is best advised of the extant threat to these and from within. It is time for the army to back track from the limb it went on to in the ‘human shield’ episode. Then, under seeming assault from the liberal media and usual suspects in the commentariat (including this columnist), it closed ranks behind unacceptable behavior. The price has been in a fraying of its internal fabric. Internally, an advisory could serve as a deterrent to help the army track back to safety. It would reinforce traditional norms and messaging, while warning off closet purveyors of cultural nationalism lurking in the officer corps. 
Externally, a leak of the action taken in disciplining this particular officer is warranted. It would show those interested in the good health of the army that the contaminating possibilities from the spread of majoritarian nationalism in India are contained. The virulence is particularly rabid in the northern cow-dust belt: the catchment areas of majority of its officers and its soldiery. Besides it would reassure the Kashmiris – in whose area the officer boasts of multiple tenures – that the security is in the right hands.
Rambos are never absent from a ticking force. The challenge is to positively articulate their energy, innovation, spirit, strength and enterprise. Even so, not all who project a Rambo personality are strong internally. Some are hiding from or running away from inherent infirmities. They use the cover of outsized moustaches, swagger, braggadocio and bluster to impersonate fighting men. It is unclear which category the officer in question belongs. In either case, there is a requirement of supervision, lest the autonomy of subunit command is taken as license to impose on the populace – the center of gravity in subconventional operations - or subject them to gratuitous violence.  
This is the case with the terrorists too. Their recent violent grab from police custody of a terrorist at a hospital in Srinagar is a case to point. There are swashbucklers among them, with sterling fighting and leadership qualities. In the case of the hospital attack, while the participants apparently had the gumption to pull off a rescue, they had no compunction of sparing a hospital as the site. They too are self-indulgent in the liberal rope they are mistakenly bestowed with by society. Most are undeserving dregs, drop outs and ‘losers’ in Trumpian terms.
The community, in the false belief that the wider interest of liberation requires their forbearance, allows them untold liberties – including unspeakable ones with womenfolk. Often the community’s choice as to how long and to what extent to persist with the challenge to state authority is snatched away. Those profiting from the troubles take charge, relegating original aims and superseding traditional authority structures. This happened in the late nineties in Kashmir. The phenomenon appears to be making a reappearance. Kashmiris would require exerting to reacquire agency, lest they are ground down yet again.
Troubled times bring out not only the best in men – on both sides – but also the worst. A conflict environment – as it gets increasingly brutalized – allows for impunity for both sides to indulge their worst instincts. Supervisors and handlers respectively have little interest in monitoring and restraining fighters. While for terrorist there is little incentive to rein them in; for the army, a misunderstanding that morale suffers holds up action.
While Pakistan can be expected to shed crocodile tears, and use the troubles to further its agenda, that India is increasingly in the same boat is a new dimension. The Hindutva lobby, poised to use the Kashmir issue – among other Muslim centric issues – to hoist themselves into another stint in power have no love lost for Kashmir or Kashmiris. In so far as these are body count based and not dependent on picking up a wound medal alongside, you can be sure creative writing is in evidence in citations.
Acknowledging this does not detract any from the daredevils, such as the citation of the gallant deceased Air Force corporal that made our President tear up on Rajpath at Republic Day. In standing through the reading of the citation in front of the spouse and bowing deeply to her in respect as he handed over the highest national honour, the Ashoka Chakra, the President conveyed national sentiment. The army knows this sentiment does not and cannot carry over to fakes. While the army men have a choice of models to follow between the Air Force corporal and the army officer in the video in question, the army must ensure – through a regulated internal environment - the wrong model is no option.