I have been getting calls from the Pakistan media to inquire whether the army stalled the government from certain decisions or forced it to take some without its willingness. Their concern is understandable because the army is the boss in Pakistan and even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who said the elected government would be superior, has to clear the agenda of close India-Pakistan relations with his army chief General Pervez Kayani.
I have assured the Pakistan media that the situation in India is like the one prevailing in advanced countries in the West, where voters are the arbiters. However, I can recall one example of the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act which can kill anyone on suspicion without being arraigned. The government was inclined to modify the act after a commission’s recommendations. However, the army had its way and the act stays without any amendment.
Except for this, I have found the Indian Army obedient to the elected government. It may be a cliche, but the army is apolitical and takes pride in eschewing politics. There may be discussions in messes or canteens of the armed forces on the present conditions of the country, but they are healthy and nothing beyond the ventilation of disgust.
This is not even a case of Bonapartism. I know of a few aberrations on the part of certain army chiefs who have gone beyond the ambit of authority. But there is no instance of defiance. When General K.S. Thimmaiah, a popular army chief, submitted his resignation to the dismay of public, it was against the functioning of the then defence minister Krishna Menon. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru intervened and made Thimmaiah withdraw his resignation. Menon stayed on at the Defence Ministry and Thimmaiah retired after completing his term. General K. Sundarji went beyond his authority during the military exercises (brass tacks). He went into the disputed territory under China and into Pakistan. Islamabad was so disturbed that it sent its foreign secretary, Abdul Sattar, to New Delhi. Sundarji was pulled up. However, he continued to be the army chief until his retirement.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was popular among the people, particularly after the victory in the Bangladesh War. Even the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was suspicious. He made it clear when he met her that he was proud to head such an armed force which did not interfere in political affairs. “You do your job and allow me to do mine,” he was supposed to have told Indira Gandhi.
The latest example, somewhat disturbing, is that of former general V.K. Singh, who retired recently as the army chief. He shared dais with the controversial Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. I wish Singh had waited a bit longer before jumping into politics. There is no harm in generals joining politics. The greatest democracy of America has examples of top military chiefs like Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eishenhower running for presidential election and winning the coveted position. But both of them did not rush to the election platform from the theatre of war. They contested only after decent intervals.
The main allegation against Singh is that he set up a unit, Technical Support Division, to snoop on the government of Jammu and Kashmir and used secret funds to try and topple it. In an interview to a television network, he has gone further to say that the army has been financing, since independence, ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir government to maintain “peace and stability” in the state.
The allegation of snooping against the elected government at Srinagar is a serious one. The ruling National Conference is justified in demanding a probe by a sitting Supreme Court judge. The centre is in the dock as far as Singh’s admission that the military has financed all ministers at Srinagar. Let the Omar Abdullah government explain whether the charge is correct. Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister, is so disturbed that he has demanded a CBI probe immediately. The constitution, by Singh, of a special cell for special purposes has also to be looked into. The Defence Ministry has issued a statement to assure that the matter is being pursued for “further action”. Singh was said to have been upset by the leakage of report against him by top army officials.
The report is not yet in public domain, but the charges are too serious to be left at that. The revelations make a mockery of the army’s function in a democratic polity. Covert operations are conducted all over the world. They should never see the light of the day and the officials engaged in them should keep quiet till their death and not even mention them in their memoirs.
The military also needs to revise its rules of retirement so as to stop former chiefs of the three services — army, air force and navy — from joining political parties for a decade after their retirement. Being in command, they are bound to have earned enough fame to influence voters. All this darkens the image of the army.
However, Singh is not the entire army. He is a maverick. He has criticised even the Supreme Court for having rejected his claim to continue for one more year in service because his birth certificate was “incorrect”. When he had made no effort to have the “mistake” rectified during his entire career, he had no right to do so after occupying the position of the chief of army staff.
Singh is all politics. Even his body language says so. What he has said speaks volumes of affairs between the government and the army. The self-righteousness of Singh is not understandable. Why did he not stand up and stop the financing on Kashmir? Instead, he accelerated the process. He says that Omar Abdullah has “an agenda”. What is it and what did Singh do to stop it? To topple an elected government is no solution. His own credibility is in doubt. His association with Anna Hazare at present should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.