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EDITORIAL: Defence chief of India, Gen Bipin Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash on Wednesday along with his wife and 11 other people, has left a mark defined by the overbearing manner in which he sought complete control on overall security management and also political influence by aligning himself with the ruling BJP. In 2016, breaking with the practice of appointing the senior-most officer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government made him the army chief, bypassing his two seniors. On completion of that term, he was elevated to a newly-created position of Chief of the Defence Staff (CDC), ostensibly, to improve coordination between the three services, but creating unease rather than certainty within the land forces, and ruffling many other feathers when he claimed that “primacy and supremacy of the army must be maintained over the air force and navy.”

The deceased general had no qualms, either, about violating the rules regulating the conduct of a conflict. Under his command as army chief, in 2017 an officer in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) tied a civilian in front of his jeep, using him as a human shield against stone throwing protesters. Predictably, the incident sparked outrage among rights organisations inside and outside the country. That did not bother him, though. In fact, he awarded a medal to the officer and defended his immoral act, saying “you fight a dirty war with innovations.” Nonetheless, Gen Rawat indirectly acknowledged the ‘innovation’ was reprehensible as he added: “I wish, these people, instead of throwing stones at us were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I would do what I[want]”. That his men have been doing, anyway. In another statement, he went as far as to justify lynching of purported “terrorists” in IIOJK as well as other trouble spots across India, causing widespread concern that his words would instigate Hindu extremist vigilantes to kill innocent people.

Gen Rawat also had a way of putting himself at odds with the well-established tradition in India of the military staying out of political affairs. Before he rose to be chief of the army staff, few people in that country could even name an incumbent of that position, but he changed that by making controversial political statements in aid of the ruling BJP’s policies, such as that when speaking soon after introduction of the discriminatory Citizenship Act, he described the Assam-based All India United Democratic Front, headed by a Muslim, Badruddin Ajmal, as a national security threat, also accusing Pakistan and China of being behind the “planned” influx of Bangladeshi immigrants. That led the Front leader to react by reminding the general he was indulging in politics, something against his constitutional mandate. On another recent occasion, he had advised students to lead in the “appropriate direction”. In Gen Rawat’s death Narendra Modi and his ideological fountainhead, the RSS, have lost a trusted collaborator. It remains to be seen if his successor will uphold his country’s long tradition of military’s neutrality — a hallmark of any functioning democracy.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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