Army chief General Bipin Rawat on Thursday triggered a controversy by publicly condemning those leading violent protests, asserting that leadership wasn't about guiding people to carry out arson and violence, comments that were widely seen as being aimed at the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests across India.
The comments by the general, set to retire on December 31 and widely expected to be named India's first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), drew sharp criticism from Opposition leaders and also senior retired officers though most of the latter did not want to come on record. They were seen as not befitting someone of the stature of the army chief, and as being of a political nature. While Indian armed forces have always been under the control of the elected government, officers have traditionally avoided making comments of a political nature or taking sides in political slugfests.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari tweeted: "Since when have Army Chiefs started commenting about internal affairs. It undermines Civil-Military Relations whose cornerstone is that Armed Forces neither comment or interfere in domestic politics. This has been our singular success going back to 1947."
At a speech in an event in Delhi, Rawat said: "Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate direction. We are witnessing in large number of universities and colleges that students are leading masses and crowds to carry out arson and violence in cities and towns. This is not leadership."
Rawat said a leader was someone who leads people in the right direction, gives them the right advice and ensures he cares for the people he leads.
After Parliament approved amendments to the citizenship law earlier this month, violent protests have taken place across the country. Multiple protesters have been killed and injured in these protests, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
"What is so complex about leadership, if it is all about leading… Because when you move forward, everybody follows. It is not that simple. It appears simple, but it is a complex phenomenon," General Rawat said.
The army establishment was quick to clarify that the chief had neither referred to CAA nor any political event or personality. It added Rawat was addressing the future citizens of India who are students. The army chief was speaking at a health care summit. However, the damage control exercise did not work as the comments had already sparked off a political controversy.
"Leadership is knowing the limits of one's office. It is about understanding the idea of civilian supremacy and preserving the integrity of the institution that you head," All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi said on Twitter.
In a statement, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) also "unequivocally condemned" Rawat's remarks. "The General has directly indulged in condemning the student protestors who have been opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act and the move towards creating the National Register for Citizens across the country. The Army Chief's statement underlines as to how the situation has degenerated under the Modi government where the highest officer in uniform can so brazenly breach the limits of his institutional role," the CPI(M) statement said, seeking an apology from the chief.
It added that it was necessary to raise the question as to whether India was going the Pakistan way of politicising the military.
Several retired officers, including a former service chief, HT spoke to felt that serving chiefs should refrain from commenting on political matters. "One must be very careful in times of polarisation. There is so much turbulence in the country. Such comments are avoidable," said the former chief, asking not to be named as he felt it would be inappropriate to comment on the remarks of a serving chief.
Another top retired officer said such comments were avoidable as it projected the military as partisan, especially at a time when strong political positions have been taken on the controversial issue. However, another retired chief said there was nothing wrong with what Rawat said. "The army chief is also a citizen of the country. There's nothing wrong if he chooses to voice his views."
Former navy chief Admiral L Ramdas said Gen Rawat was "wrong" in making the remark. "The rule is very clear that we are serving the country and not political forces, and to express any political views as we have heard today are quite a wrong thing for any serving personnel, whether he is the top gun or at the bottom rank. It is not proper," Ramdas told news agency PTI.