Avoiding the ideology trap: Learning from History
Deepak Sinha November 23, 2018: Commentary
Alexandre Dumas once wrote that “all generalizations are dangerous, even this one.” While there is much wisdom in his words, there are also circumstances when sweeping generalizations are not only unavoidable, but also simply reflect the truth. The widespread prevalence of social media and 24 x 7 news channels have empowered individuals by ensuring that not only is information, analysis and opinion available at the click of a button but also that his or her voice is heard, sometimes with telling effect, as the ongoing ‘#MeToo’ movement has shown, both in India and abroad. While empowerment of the individual is a positive development for our democracy, it has also upended governance structures, as it allows unelected individuals and groups to stall progress or any attempt to change the status quo.
Moreover, unprincipled and unaccountable elements have used such channels to spread vicious lies and propaganda that allows them to organize and indulge in bullying, intimidation and even violence to achieve their own nefarious ends. Political parties too have seen this as a useful tool to dominate the public narrative and occupy mind space. A perfect example is what we were witness to in Gujarat recently where large number of innocent labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were threatened with violence and hounded out, ostensibly by a local politician, because of an alleged heinous criminal act on the part of one unidentified individual.
While what we saw in Gujarat was at the extreme end of the spectrum, and was clearly criminal in nature, a more insidious and harmful impact of social media is the constant attempt to question and vilify decision makers and leaders, without necessarily being fully aware of all the facts. Such criticism, apart from creating fissures and uncertainty within an organization, also tends to severely constrain leaders from taking initiatives that fall within their ambit and are necessary if progress is to be made.
Interestingly, one group who appear to be the torch bearers at the forefront of this “criticism tsunami”, if one can call it that, are military veterans. There are those among them who are extremely critical of the manner in which this government has treated the Armed Forces, with some justification one may add, and are appalled by the seeming subservience of the top brass. There are also those, in fairly substantial numbers, who tend to be extremely conservative in their outlook and view all issues through the prism of nationalism and, for all intents and purposes, are allied to the present governments’ ultra- nationalistic plank. Indeed, there are many among them who have taken the plunge into politics and are members of the BJP, with one former Chief reportedly having even joined the RSS. When you add to this the fact that our adversaries spare no effort at feeding misinformation aimed at polarizing the military community and civil society, there is little doubt that the military finds itself a veritable minefield of clashing ideologies and attitudes through which it has to tread exceedingly cautiously.
To be fair, much of the criticism against the Forces has been brought on by patently silly attempts of those at the helm to grab headlines and credit to inveigle themselves into the good books of the governing dispension, probably in the hope of post- retirement sinecures. This is not something new, though what differentiates it from earlier times is this governments’ ill-concealed and voracious appetite to take advantage of these officers to politicize much of what the military does in the hope of deriving advantage against its political opponents. Sadly, it has also got into the habit of appropriating military infrastructure for use by the public to win votes, without bothering about the impact of such a step on the military. For example, while military veterans are barred from using military hospitals except in some circumstances, and are therefore covered by the Ex Servicemen Health Scheme, the Government has recently permitted all those covered by CGHS to utilize facilities at Service Hospitals. With an additional 50 Crores personnel to be catered for where will all serving personnel and their dependents go?
The recent celebration of “Parakram Parv”, a three day commemoration of the cross-border punitive strikes in retaliation to the terror attack against the Uri military camp in which 17 soldiers were killed and scores injured, is another recent example. Without downplaying the significance of the cross-border strikes, probably a far more appropriate manner of honouring the forces, if the Prime Minister indeed genuinely appreciates their contribution, would have been for him to have taken the initiative to get back home the fifty four soldiers still held as Prisoners of War by Pakistan since the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Their continued incarceration, with no attempts by successive governments or civil society for their release, is a matter of national shame that reflects poorly on each and every one of us.
This brings us to the elephant in the room that must be seen for what it is. It is well known fact that our military’s exemplary record of remaining apolitical is what differentiates it from all other militaries in the region. Individual ideologies and beliefs just have no place in the military’s firmament and politicians of all persuasions have been kept at arms- length, though one must also admit that most political parties have reciprocated similarly and kept their distance from the military as well. Unfortunately, the unsubtle attempt by the current dispensation to foist its ideology amongst the military rank and file, attempting to use “deep selection” among the higher ranks and indirectly through the veteran community that is enamoured of its ultra – nationalistic agenda, and all that it implies, appears to be showing nascent signs of putting down roots. This is an extremely dangerous trend that needs to be dealt with ruthlessly if we are to maintain our military’s neutrality and inclusive character. It seems the time has now come for including a provision within the Service Rules for an appropriate “cooling off” period before any soldier can join either a political party or involve himself in politics. This is particularly so for those leaving in the higher ranks.
The unedifying manner in which this government has dealt with the Armed Forces over the past four years, whether it be in its dealings with veterans or its refusal to adhere to long standing norms, customs and traditions, has led to increasing antipathy among the rank and file that is clearly reflected in some of their actions that have embarrassed the senior hierarchy and the MOD and shown them in poor light. Seven hundred personnel individually petitioning the Supreme Court on their apprehensions of being victimized while deployed in operations, serving officers publicly criticizing policy directions issued by Army Headquarters on social media and the non-implementation of policy directions issued by the MOD, as has happened in nearly all military cantonments with regard to providing open access to the public, are examples that should be cause for worry. All of this has adversely affected morale, which can also be gauged from the most telling example of an officer having reportedly applied for premature retirement on grounds that his conditions of service have been violated by the down- gradation of the military. That his application was rejected is no cause for optimism.
The situation is hardly likely to improve given the reported fact that the government is once again attempting, surreptitiously and without appropriate consultation with the military leadership, to look for a method by which it can prevent the Cantonment Boards from taking back bungalows from their present owners on expiry of the 99 year lease period, as required vide the Cantonment Act 2006. One reported solution being considered is to replace the ex officio appointment of the Local Military Authority as President of the Cantonment Board by an elected representative to supposedly further its “democratization” A move that would be violative of the Cantonment Board Act, not that such statutory provisions have stopped it before, especially keeping in mind that some extremely influential people have obtained ownership of these leased bungalows.
Finally, it should be a matter of great concern that amongst a host of other issues, the Service Chiefs have also quietly acquiesced to the appointment of Mr. Doval, the National Security Advisor, as the de-facto Commander-in-Chief, despite lacking both the constitutional authority and the credentials to hold such an appointment. The irony cannot be missed given that the Services themselves seem reluctant to accept the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff fearing loss of power.
By conceding their authority the Chiefs have placed the Services in a very tenuous position which can impact their professional standing and functioning in the future. They would do well to study the case of the German Armed Forces, the Reichswehr, formed post the First World War, as an apolitical and professional force. However it rapidly deteriorated after it was ideologically suborned and converted into the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. This happened largely in part due to the acquiescence of the High Command to orders that were wholly unconstitutional and undemocratic and partly due to the fierce loyalty of some to Nazi ideology. Our hierarchy must not let themselves be lulled into a state of complacency but hold firm on retaining customs and traditions that have allowed our military to occupy the preeminent position that it does in the hearts and minds of our citizens.
This article was published earlier in Times of India.
Brigadier Deepak Sinha is a Visiting Senior Fellow at TPF. The views expressed are his own.