Friday, 23 March 2018
Is there an Indian 'deep state'?
t stands counter to democratic values, the presence of a deep state in either a matured or a putative form is an existential danger to democracy. Since a prerequisite for democracy is eternal vigilance, a timely and periodic scan of democratic credentials of a country is necessary. Though seemingly counter-intuitive to subject India to such test, it is unfortunately no longer unthinkable to do so. 

The concept of 'deep state' sits easy on Pakistan. As it readies to observe the seventieth iteration of Pakistan day on 23 March, the most significant aspect of its history that overhangs its present is that it has been run by the army for over half its independent existence. This legacy accounts for the rumoured 'deep state' in Pakistan that comprises a core military and intelligence elite. 

The 'deep state' in Pakistan is credited with the continuity in Pakistan's policies, such as anti-India proxy war or seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. The deep state is immune to democratic shifts, taking control of government policies on India, nuclear matters and Afghanistan. Its notion of national security has a few well-recognised elements such as Pakistan as a national security (garrison) state; protection and expansion of ideological frontiers of Islam; preservation of corporate interest of the military; and internal (leveraging domestic resources) and external (allies) balancing in a manner as to offset the power asymmetry with India. 

That a deep state has its own agenda is clear from the Pakistan case. Take for instance the price Pakistan has paid for its internal balancing measure of relying on jihadi assets for furthering proxy wars in India and Afghanistan. On the surface this appears contrary to Pakistan's national interest of internal security and stability. The deep state appears to believe that this is an affordable price to pay and that it has control over the Frankenstein propensities of such enterprises. The deep state is thus an amorphous entity autonomous of accountability. 

The deep state has continuity that kitchen cabinets of democratic regimes do not have. The kitchen cabinet of Indira's days dispersed when non-Congress governments were in power. The deep state is narrower than the Establishment. In the US, the Trump phenomenon points to the disaffection of the Trumpian voter with the Establishment, identified with the political elite in Washington, DC. In Pakistan's case, the incestuous Establishment reputedly includes prominent families of the industrial and feudal elite. The deep state is thus in a more potent category all by itself. 

Given that it stands counter to democratic values, the presence of a deep state in either a matured or a putative form is an existential danger to democracy. Since a prerequisite for democracy is eternal vigilance, a timely and periodic scan of democratic credentials of a country is necessary. Though seemingly counter-intuitive to subject India to such test, it is unfortunately no longer unthinkable to do so. 

An Indian deep state can easily be dismissed. India is the world's largest democracy and the most long standing one in the developing world. Its record as a procedural democracy is unmatched and relatively unblemished. With the usual platitudes out of the way, this commentary gets down to the business of gauging the extent to which a deep state might exist (if not quite thrive) in India. 

Recently, the leading light of the pseudo-cultural formation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said that his foot-soldiers can mobilize in three days. He was contrasting their alacrity to arms to the army's comparatively slovenly (to him) mobilisation. One reason that Operation Parakram did not go the full distance from coercive diplomacy to conventional war was the long time lag for the army to get into operational gear, particularly its lumbering strike corps. To its credit the army has since cut this time down, as the name Cold Start doctrine suggests. The leading light of the RSS was of course unmindful of the different order of magnitude that mobilizing to lynch unsuspecting skull cap wearers is from mobilization for war. But that detail did not detain the head honcho of the political formation and its group of affiliates. Comparing Hindutva inspired mobs out for mayhem in some neighbouring Muslim inhabited ghetto with the army off to war is like comparing apples to oranges. 

Irrespective of this inconvenient observation, the comparison had a purpose. The Sarsangchalak was making the point that the Indian state has lost the monopoly over force. There is now in India a power-that-be outside of the state, which as is well-known is notably averse to some (if not all) constitutional provisions. This is not a new or emergent reality. The riot system has been around since Partition. In a famous instance, a regional satrap had apparently given the rioters 72 hours to be able to wreak their vengeance. In the interim, the subverted and spineless police allegedly misdirected army columns coming to aid of civil authority. The army's after action report has not been leaked (as yet). 

A religious figure, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, recently pointed to the potential for violence in case the verdict in the Ayodhya land dispute was to go against any community. In one interpretation, while it is taken for granted that the Muslims, if disappointed by the verdict, would go down the route of terrorism, radical Hindus are expected to riot. Here the RSS supremo's boast on his organisation's mobilizing capability needs to be factored in. Essentially, Ravi Shankar is informing of possible mob violence. Doing so can be taken as cautionary, as also as intimidating. The latter is in relation to Muslims, who have been at one end of Ravi Shankar's unilateral intervention in the case for an out-of-court settlement. The possibility of mob violence as a result of its judgment cannot but exercise the Supreme Court to be cautious. It is no wonder that the august body ruled that there be no undue activism by sundry busy bodies, such as Subramaniam Swamy, while it deliberates on the matter. 

The portended violence is not necessarily emotive, arising from primordial affiliations of religion and identity. It is rather an orchestrated likelihood, particularly since the ruling party that has perfected the riot system - that was originally honed by the erstwhile ruling party, the Congress. It has deployed the system to electorally benefit from resulting polarization, for instance, in Muzzafarnagar and more recently in Kasganj. Since the development mantra is unlikely to work a second time round (the first having been in 2014) and in light of its record on this score over the past four years, the need for riots is nigh. The recent losses in Phulpur and Gorakhpur only serve to heighten the need for a mother-of-all-riots. It is with good reason that the opposition party called for a delay in the Supreme Court's judgment on the Ayodhya case till after the national elections. 

What the discussion suggests is that there is an emergent deep state in India that would like to mould the democratic verdict in a particular way. At this juncture in the discussion, the question arises as to the extent of reach of rightist political formations into the state itself. The depth of this reach into the heart of the Indian state is the level of current day articulation of the deep state in India. 

The sub-judice case that prompted spillover into the open domain of the internal dissent within the highest court of the land provides a clue. The case in question is the mysterious death of one CBI court judge and the subsequent (perplexing) exoneration of a high-profile political personage in the case of 'encounter' deaths dating to 2005 in Gujarat. The deaths, initiated at the behest of an intelligence bureau input, were instrumental in elevating the national profile of the provincial head there, which over the following years acquired increasing prominence riding on the planted and motivated canard of a fifth columnist minority. The aim was the manufacture of an impregnable vote bank and turn India into a majoritarian democracy. 

The ploy succeeded as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), tottering from scam to scandal, did not have the gumption for a judicial follow through. By the end of the UPA period, the beginnings of the deep state were evident, but outside the state itself. The formation and direction of the troll brigades to bring down the UPA and take over the anti-corruption agenda is evidence. The wannabe deep state then is now the deep state. 

The Indian deep state has had a short existence so far. Faced with national elections, and an uncertain outcome, it may not grow to becoming a deep state in the conventional definition. The need for self-perpetuation, and its self-justifying rationale of preserving the good work done so far of strides towards a Hindu India, require that elections return the ruling party to power. Self-preservation implies insuring against judicial accountability. Since to them aims justify the means, it promises to be an interesting run up to national elections.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Budget let down further strains army-government relations

Through in its budget presented on February 1 the government hiked the defence allocation by just short of eight per cent over last year. This pegged at a mere 1.58 per cent of the gross domestic product, making it the least allocation by this yardstick since the 1962 War. The push back from the military on the straitened defence budget was not long in coming.

The Army’s candid deposing in front of the parliamentary standing committee on defence came to light with the release on March 13 of the committee’s forty-first report on ‘Demand for Grants 2018-19’. The report carried the Army vice chief’s lament that this was far short of its expectations on several counts, including rendering it unable to cover ongoing modernization projects, leave alone cater for the Army’s pet project of creating an ability to fight a ‘two front’ war.

The standing committee’s report has not drawn attention over the recent past. Though the defence budget has been declining in relation to the GDP over the past four years, there was little appetite in the strategic community to critique this. This was in contrast to the vociferous criticism of the government in the UPA period that usually followed these annual, routine reports.

The reports invariably carried a stricture on the government to be more attentive to matters of defence, alighted upon by the strategic community less as a stick to beat the comatose Manmohan government but more to set the stage for a ushering in a different ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which promised to be strong on defence. The declining defence budget escaped being targeted thus far since the government created an illusion of a strong defence by taking a proactive stance on both borders, activating the Line of Control (LC), while staring down the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC).

A key indicator for the operation of a national security doctrine is the defence budget. The relatively measly defence budget thus seemingly contradicted expectations of a government wishing to be seen as strong on defence. Yet, the usual critique was somewhat absent because the strategic community – honourable exceptions apart - did not wish to berate those it had championed.

Even the standing committee’s report has not attracted the critical commentary the UPA was subject to. The strategic community appears to be taken in by the government’s explanation that it is taking out a defence investment and manufacturing policy that would compensate over the long term for any shortfall.

More plausibly, the fall in allocations to levels that could raise eyebrows owed to the budget being seen as more of an election budget, possibly the last one prior to elections either later this year or early next year. With monies for schemes such as the national health insurance scheme to cover some 10 crore vulnerable families needed, the amount was presumably found by axing the defence budget. Having created an image of being mindful of defence, the government perhaps thinks that it could trade this for shoring its image in the electorally more consequential social and welfare sectors, especially since its development promise has faded considerably.

Equally, the government in election year is unwilling to chance a crisis on either border. The budget is a means to signal potential adversaries of intentions. The government is perhaps unwilling to set off a self-fulfilling prophecy, with heightened allocations posing a security dilemma for adversaries, thereby bringing about a scenario better avoided. At least in election year, the government would not want threat perceptions to spike, since the outcome of aggravation is both out of one’s sole control and can never be guaranteed.

A Doklam replay that goes awry this year could prove fatal for the government’s longevity. It would not want to put its electoral cards in the Army’s basket, howsoever alert and professional. The government would not want India’s claims of defence preparedness – such as finance minister’s budget speech boasts on border infrastructure improvement - tested prematurely, and certainly not in election year.

However, continuation of artillery duels on the Line of Control (LC) can be indulged. The electoral dividends of a continuing low intensity conflict along the LC can be had without the costs of conventional show down. The ruling party’s need for polarisation for elections does not require a costly war.

Though the Army trotted out the threat of the worst-case scenario of a two front war in its reservations expressed to the standing committee, the government has other instruments of state to ensure that the worst-case is avoided. In relation to Pakistan, the intelligence game can continue under tutelage of the national security advisor, who while lining up for the post had famously warned Pakistan that it stood to lose Baluchistan. As regards China, India now has as its new foreign secretary the diplomat credited with defusing the prolonged crisis at Doklam.

Finally, the government perhaps thought that it could get away, leaving perception management surrounding the exercise to the Army chief, by now known for his proximity to the ruling party line. There was no pushback by the Army chief over being shortchanged by the government in the budget. Instead, his first remarks since budget day came a month later, on the defence expenditures being a sine qua non for economic growth. These were characterized in the media as a defence of the budget allocation. However, his deputy made amends in speaking of the army’s disappointment.

Of late there appears to be dissension in the brass. At a university seminar in Chandigarh late last month, the western Army commander thought that to fight a two-front war was not ‘smart’. His training command counterpart went further, observing that brinkmanship is no substitute for statesmanship that alone can bring about de-escalation along the LC. Both, speaking in wake of the budget downsizing, were no doubt cognizant of its implications. The vice chief has joined them in calling out the government’s playing fast and loose with defence matters.

Potentially this a juncture of unravalling of the Army’s illusion of a government keen on shoring defence, that accounted in part for the Army’s seemingly unnecessary cozying up to the ruling party over the past few years. As momentum built up to the Modi wave prior to last national elections, the military was one of the first converts, best illustrated by its former chief VK Singh escorting PM Modi to the podium at a veteran’s rally at Rewari.

Modi-military equations have since been patchy, peppered with controversies over the seventh pay commission, the one-rank-one-pension, the status-equivalence issue with bureaucrats, fishy arms deals such as the turn-round on Rafale, arrest of a former service chief, dithering over the chief of defence staff etc. Not to forget, the claim by the head of the right wing political formation supportive of the ruling party that his outfit – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - can outdo the Army in mobilization. What the Army does in three weeks, it can do in three days.

The chequered relations have now been capped by a budget let down. Discernible is an unraveling of the Army’s illusion that a conservative-realist government that best understood it and national security is at the helm. Instead, the fallout of the reduced budget could be in the Army beginning to see a self-interested ideological formation furthering its own electoral interest while preying on the Army’s need for self-esteem.

Monday, 12 March 2018

A revolt of the generals?

AN editorial in The Tribune ('Generals speaking', March 2) has it that there is dissension in the ranks. The editorial follows two generals who, while speaking at a seminar in Panjab University, Chandigarh, seemingly contradicted earlier utterances of their Chief. Recounting recent forays by the Army Chief into political territory, the editorial concludes that the generals, including the Army Chief, should drive in their respective lanes.
At the Chandigarh seminar, the head of the Army's Western Command said that the idea of a two-front war is not 'smart'. Recall, a 'two and a half front war' was the Chief's innovative formulation last year, referring to a collusive threat from China and Pakistan, alongside a domestic 'half front' unsettled, presumably by a Maoist-jihadist insurrection. 
The second general, its training command head, called out the lack of traction of the political track with Pakistan, even though the Line of Control (LoC) has been activated with artillery crunches, resulting in deaths and displacement on both sides. The Chief is part-owner of the policy reversal of ceasefire on the LoC, having under his belt the proto-surgical strike in cross-border raids on the Myanmar border that were then grafted on to the LoC. Predictably, escalation resulted and with little prospect of a negotiated return to the pre-existing ceasefire.
Both generals have a point. They are mindful, perhaps, that with the defence budget this year reaching its lowest level since the 1962 war in terms of percentage, it would be prudent for India to cut its coat according to the cloth on hand.
A textual view is that the two are drawing attention to the advantages of strategic prudence. Since there can always be two views on strategic matters, their querying the Chief's perspective is unexceptionable. A professional diversity of opinion such as this must enliven Army commanders' conference, enabling robust policy input from the Army's side. 
However, strategic debate apart, can a subtextual view be taken of their remarks, one perhaps unintended by the two, but one informed by the subtext of their remarks? 
The two army commanders were speaking at a seminar on Pakistan. Drawing analogy from Pakistan's case, the training command head had this to say, "This (Pakistani praetorianism) is in stark contrast to India where the armed forces owe allegiance to the Constitution, and not to any party, person or religion (italics added)."
Normally, there would be no need to give voice to this homily. The distinction between India and Pakistan would appear to be self-evident. However, the times are changing. A cautionary word that Indian politics is headed the way of Pakistan is not infrequently heard. 
The training command head said as much, likening Pakistan to a mirror on the wall, which India needs to look at so as not to "make the same mistakes, particularly in light of growing radicalisation and intolerance within our own society over mundane issues."
The two statements together indicate an unease with the political forces causing distress in society, and an apprehension of the military's growing proximity to such forces. 
The seeming proximity is seen in the Army Chief's utterances. His latest remarks in the context of elections in three north-eastern states drew attention to the threat of illegal immigration. At the start of the ongoing run-up to the Karnataka elections, the Chief went down to Coorg and pitched for the Bharat Ratna for a son-of-the-soil, Field Marshal Cariappa. Rawat's positions have constantly been at odds with one of the two coalition partners in J&K, where the Army is the protagonist.  
It is increasingly evident that the Army Chief's remarks are aligned with the political plank with the right wing ruling party. The benefits in a tough-on-national-security image are, perhaps, excusable. More problematic is ballast for the political project under way of the ruling party and its supportive pseudo-cultural formations. 
This has led to a growing suspicion that the Army Chief is down a political route, out of sync with the tradition of public reticence by military chiefs and the apolitical character of the Army. Since political and professional are inversely proportional, this impacts military professionalism. 
The Army's leadership needs to cauterise the Army from the influences from without. The Army commanders form the Army's collective leadership. The subtext in the words at the seminar of the two army commanders — perhaps unintended by the two — appear to call on their Chief to pull back from the brink. It is a timely call worth heeding.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

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.

Friday, 2 March 2018

The General is at it again

He may wish to be remembered as a tough operationally inclined commander who stood up to the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control and brought hell down on Pakistanis on the Line of Control (LC). It is not a co-incidence that the Uri bulge is currently the hottest place on the LC. Rawat, served there when in the battalion, and later as a division commander on that portion of the front.

However, it appears he also wishes to leave a legacy of a no-nonsense hard-talking chief. With a doctorate and a US Command and General Staff College course under his belt, followed with military leadership experience in an international environment, with the UN as commander of a brigade group in its mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it can be inferred that he feels somewhat circumscribed by the norms of discreet utterances that go with being a service chief. Instead, he wishes to step out of a stifling tradition of silent – even if tough – chiefs.

The last time a Chief felt so constrained was some fifty years back, when Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri decided to let off steam writing for the Statesman anonymously. Snide remarks at Krishna Rao’s proximity to the Gandhi family refer to his complimentary statement on the Congress party as head of Eastern Command in the context of an election in one of the seven sister states.

The tradition of keeping a low profile has been reinforced over the years. With an occasional aberration.Former Army Chief Sunith Francis Rodrigues frustration on Kashmir came through with his comment describing Pakistanis as ‘bandicoots’ and his take on political good health also being the military’s business. His concern was prompted by the repeated political mishandling of situations in those days that brought the Army from the barracks to the streets.

Similarly, Ved Malik’s frank admission of the state of the army at the end of a decade of defence austerity on the eve of Kargil War, when he said that the Army will make do with what it has, drew frowns. VK Singh’s run in’s with the Defence Ministry are too many to recount; suffice it to refer to his moving forces then under a relative’s command – a wanna-be chief – for spooking South Block on the night before his ‘date of birth’ court case.

The liberal manner in which Bipin Rawat has been giving voice to his opinions indicates that he feels better positioned than chiefs hitherto. He last commented on the education system in Jammu and Kashmir wanting surveillance of madrassas, besides asking why a map of the state needs to grace classroom walls when a map of India is quite enough.

Rawat warned off stone throwers last year, but has had little impact on the youth but more on his own soldiers. An Army Major last year, taking his chief seriously, precipitated the ‘human shield’ episode last year. He was awarded by Rawat for his pains. This year another Major taking his chief at his word ended up with his name on a Kashmir police FIR, when his patrol shot dead two stone throwers.

Unfazed, Bipin Rawat has waded into yet another controversy. To those monitoring the strategic discourse, his take on illegal immigration was of a piece with the widely and strongly held view that Bangladeshi immigrants upsetting the demographic balance in the north east are a national security threat. Bipin Rawat went further: he voiced what was said sotto voce so far in military circles, that political interests are enabling this in reference to the perceived benefit derived by the Congress from its ‘vote bank’ among the illegal immigrants.

Outside military circles, there was no compunction to keep quiet on this. The long-retired General SK Sinha, displaying his right wing credentials, made an extensive report to the President in 1998. (No stranger to politics, in his day, he had reportedly been outpointed by General Arun S.Vaidya for the chief’s seat, supposedly because Vaidya was seen as pro-dynasty. Vaidya’s chestful of medals as against Sinha’s operational record presumably did not matter.)

Separately, in an article he wrote that he had been warned of the threat posed by immigrants by an eastern army commander in 1992, late Lt Gen Jameel Mehmood, a Muslim, who – or so Sinha claimed – had made a negative observation on this to the army headquarters. He used a Muslim’s shoulders to fire his right wing ammunition. As Governor of Assam, he leaned over right even further, projecting a local warlord’s military exploits in beating off the (Muslim) Moghul army. (Stone throwing is today his legacy in Kashmir, since he set off the peoples’ agitations with his munificence to the Amarnath Yatra board with Kashmiri land.)

Privy to strategic literature generated by think tanks in Delhi in particular, Rawat is not remiss in taking illegal immigration as a looming national security threat. A think tank nursed by his headquarters, the Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), has this to say: ‘Such a massive inflow did not go undetected, but official apathy and the compulsion of electoral vote bank politics allowed it to continue. This was an invite to disaster as it radically altered the demographic balance in many areas. A close scrutiny of the population increase since 1951 indicates a high population growth in the state presumably due to the heavy influx of the illegal migrants.’

The serving army officer who wrote the article went on to write a book on it, published under CLAWS aegis (Changing Demographics in India's Northeast and Its Impact on Security, New Delhi: KW Publishers, 2016); no doubt with the same conclusion as his article: ‘While local political compulsions have led to a soft stance in the approach of the security forces in their operations against insurgent groups, a decisive and resolute action is the need of the hour to thwart any reprehensible designs on India’s security while taking steps to lower ethnic tensions as well as checking illegal migration into the state.’ It does not take much imagination to know which party is being referred to as profiting politically, for the Tarun Gogoi led Congress was in power for a decade and half.

Bipin Rawat’s speech writer, probably a bright young Colonel from the perspective planning directorate, cannot be faulted for picking up the trope from a website he thought was credible and with official imprimatur. A Colonel could not have gone further. It takes a Bipin Rawat for that. He perhaps recalled some intelligence briefing from his time at the headquarters in Dimapur, when he commanded a corps in charge of India’s own far-east, including southern Assam. He was not updated that in the last elections the AIUDF count went down from 18 to 13 and its chief, Badruddin Ajmal, lost his Dhubri seat, besides failing to play kingmaker by weighing-in – as he perhaps intended - on the side of the Congress.

Rawat as is now his wont went out on a limb on three counts.

First is for which he has been roundly (and rightly) upbraided, needlessly putting a prime time spin on his observation. No doubt taking the name of a ‘Muslim’ party helped him elevate the issue as a national security threat. Now that the Congress is down and out, merely alluding to some unnamed political party making political capital would not help.

The supposed ‘Muslimness’ of the AIUDF was necessary to prop up the Chief’s second observation: that the illegal immigration is the face of silent and glacial proxy war. It is no wonder Ajmal went out of his way to point out that his party is based on ‘democratic and secular’ values.

Third, it is not enough to have the ISI as bogeyman anymore. The CLAWS article’s analysis was too staid for the general. It had said: ‘A shift in demographic pattern has given an opportunity to fundamentalist groups to exploit the demographic fault lines in the state and the Northeast. SATP lists 14 Muslim insurgent groups, out of which Muslim Tigers Liberation of Assam (MULTA) has been active in the areas adjoining Bangladesh. The linkages of these groups with ISI and other insurgent groups in the region pose a long term threat.’ This is both too staid for Rawat and it pitches India at Pakistan’s level. Nothing less than the ‘northern’ neighbor as threat was called for, and, look and behold, we have a speech that measures up to Rawat’s stature.

Rawat’s apologists have it that he was under the impression that he was at a closed door seminar and speaking under Chatham House rules. Be that as it may, Rawat would be unfazed by the storm that he set off. Not only is he now used to it, but he is sanguine that by speaking the (ruling) party line he is on safe ground.

No wonder a predecessor of his as chief, now in government, came to his defence, saying, the army chief can be allowed to speak as he wishes. It needs remembering that the front runner to the chief’s job that Rawat nabbed – Lt Gen Bakshi - made the mistake of underplaying a cross border raid in mid-2016 into Myanmar, depriving the Modi-Doval duo of yet another feather to go with others from their ‘surgical strikes’.

To be fair to Rawat, it is not that he does not know which side the bread is buttered, but he perhaps believes what he says. And therein lies the rub.