On Christmas day it happened. Retired veterans of the Indian army — ex-army chief General NC Vij, former IAF vice chief Air Marshal BhushanGokhale and Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain — shared the dais with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) head Mohan Bhagwat and a host of seers at the Dharma Sanskruti Mahakumbh. The event included the delivery of fiery speeches on Hindutva. Hindutva, for those who may confuse it with the eclectic faith of Hinduism, is the ideology that is straining to convert India into a theocratic Indian state.
The issue of the communalization of the Indian army has always come into focus when an RSS-driven National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has ruled the center.
In an interesting, if unsavory, development, the Times of India reported on Dec. 26 that it is Hindu religious heads who epitomize the fountainhead of India’s nationhood, a claim that is tinged with Hindu supremacy. "Do you know who is with the soldiers guarding the Siachen glacier — the Naga Sadhus. Both soldiers and sadhus lead a strict life in service of the nation and hence should get equal respect," said Amravati-based Jitendra Maharaj, whose devotees include alleged conmen Prashant Wasankar, Sameer Joshi and others now behind the bars for running Ponzi schemes. The discourse pushed the envelope further. Denigrating Mughal rule as ‘Muslim’ rule, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, said that in the last 1000 years, "the people of this country did not get a chance to rule, when that should have been the case in a democracy."
Efforts to politicize the Indian military under the present regime echo efforts made by the NDA and its sister organizations in the past. They have gained momentum in recent months with the Narendra Modi government using ‘Pakistan’ and ‘surgical strikes’ to stoke narrow chauvinist sentiments and garner votes.
India, by virtue of being a strong democracy, has taken pride in its apolitical military — a loyal instrument of the democratic, republican state. The importance of this characteristic was reiterated recently by several army veterans, when a local political party dragged the army into the controversy of whether Pakistani actors should act in Indian films or not. When the Maharashtra-based political party (MNS) in September took objection to the release of the film "Ae Dil hai Mushkil," a series of events transpired in which the Indian army’s loss in the recent terror attacks was used as a cover-up for the political game played by MNS and the ruling party BJP. The Times of India had then said, “Just as the army is no fan of unseemly politicization of the surgical strikes, petty attacks on soft targets like actors are not its game. Its nationalism and secularism are more confident and tolerant.” The attempts to politicize Indian armed forces were condemned by a number of journalists — Shekhar Gupta, RajdeepSardesai and BarkhaDutt — as well as filmmakers and military veterans.
On Sept. 18, four heavily-armed terrorists attacked an Indian Army camp near Uri in the Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir. In what was termed the deadliest terrorist strike of the past two decades, 17 soldiers were killed and 20 were injured. According to the news reports, a large number of soldiers from the Dogra Regiment had been stationed at the camp in tents and other temporary structures. Some of these tents caught fire during the attack, and the fire spread to other parts of the barracks, causing more damage. Lashkar-e-Taiba has claimed responsibility for the attack.
This came after seven military personnel and a civilian were killed earlier in the year in an attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot by a heavily-armed terrorist group. The Indian government was heavily criticized for this attack, which followed close on the heels of Indian prime minister’s friendship handshake with Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif. Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia had said, “By going to Pakistan for a cup of tea, the Prime Minister has wasted six years of efforts of the UPA government to isolate Pakistan.”
Eleven days after the Uri attack, the Indian army claimed to have conducted ‘surgical strikes’ against suspected militants across the Line of Control. Pakistan rejected the claim of the pre-emptive strikes, stating that India had cross-border fired upon Pakistani soldiers, killing two Pakistani soldiers and wounding nine.
Following these incidents, tension between the two countries has escalated, and several decisions have been announced by both the governments, including the proposition of sealing the border by the Indian government and a ban on Indian television channels and cinema by Pakistan. The Border Security Force (BSF) did not exchange customary Diwali greetings and sweets at the Wagah border, according to the news reports, which has also happened periodically in recent years.
In the aftermath of the Uri attack, MNS put up a show of xenophobia and issued a warning to the artists of the neighboring country Pakistan. Amey Khopkar, chief of the MNS's cinema workers' unit Chitrapat Karamchari Sena, announced a 48-hour deadline for the Pakistani actors like Fawad Khan to leave the country. News reports quoted him as saying, "Pakistani artists will get beaten up. Along with them, we will also beat up whichever producer or director is with them."
This happened months before the scheduled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, which are slated for February 2017 in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. With just one MLA in the State Legislative Assembly, MNS has been lately losing popularity in the state it had enjoyed for a short while after its inception in 2006, following Raj Thackeray’s exit from the traditionally belligerent and parochial, Shiv Sena.
The party, known for its Marathi chauvinistic stance, targeted film director Karan Johar’s upcoming Diwali release "Ae Dil Hai Mushkil," starring Fawad Khan. Fearing the party-style vandalism, the Cinema Owners’ and Exhibitors’ Association of India (COEAI) called for a ban on the film, citing the presence of the Pakistani actor. While the ban wasn’t official, the central and the state governments kept mum on the subject until the movie’s producers met with the home minister Rajnath Singh.
On Oct. 18, "Ae Dil Hai Mushkil" director Karan Johar issued a video statement in which he appealed to let the film be released, citing the teamwork of several Indian artists and technicians, and pledged not to work with Pakistani actors in the future. The video was a sad and pathetic admission of cultural defeatism. Despite the apology, MNS didn’t budge, and it was only after Modi’s home minister Rajnath Singh promised police protection and assured its release to the film producers that the government’s stand was clarified.
On Oct. 22, however, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadanvis decided to intervene in the matter and arranged a meeting with the film producers and MNS founder-president Raj Thackeray. Fadnavis buckled under the pressure of MNS threats, and it was agreed that the producers will donate Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund — a demand put forth by Thackeray before the meeting.
Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, a Modi favorite, did his bit to color the controversy. He first said it was the BJP government that had made the army realize its strength. This was an insult to the army. The Army Welfare Fund Battle Casualties was started as a centralized fund to accept donations and contributions from organizations and individuals, and to be managed by the adjutant general branch of the army. The assistance from the fund is meant to be in addition to the existing schemes for relatives of soldiers who die in battle. An SOP in this regard was approved by the Defense Ministry last month.
The ministry’s statement had said contribution to the fund must be voluntary in nature, to be used exclusively for “next of kin of battle casualties.”
Fortunately, the Indian Army took a principled stand and refused a donation obtained through extortion. The deal finalized at the CM’s bungalow to extort money for the Army Welfare Fund in exchange for the unobstructed release of "Ae Dil Hai Mushkil" elicited a strong response from army veterans. Many alleged that it was an attempt to harvest political gains from the issue by using the army’s name. Several ex-soldiers and veterans opined that the army should not be made a part of the scheme of local party politics, and that the army should refuse the amount. Former Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur lashed out at Thackeray in a series of tweets describing his demand as “extortion” and stating that army doesn’t need “tainted money.” The Times of India quoted a senior army official in its report: “Don't play politics with the army, which has a strong apolitical, highly-disciplined and secular ethos. The armed forces do not want to be dragged into such low-level political wrangling.” Another officer added, “We only accept funds that are donated voluntarily, not through such coercion or extortion."
Media reports later claimed that the army has refused to accept the 5-crore amount to be donated by the movie’s producers.
Several activists, politicians and thinkers came down heavily upon the government for its role in the attempt to politicize the military. The Deccan Herald said in its editorial piece, “When a government enters into a deal with a law-breaker and forces a citizen to meet his wrong and illegal demands, the rule of law breaks down and the law of the jungle takes over.”
However, for the public, the ruling party in Maharashtra has come out of this controversy as subservient to bullies, and Raj Thackeray emerged as the self-pronounced victor. Ironically, while the two may appear to be on opposing sides today, the MNS is only aggressively following what the Shiv Sena had begun in the mid-1980s — the infamous incidents of ‘digging up the cricket pitches’ to prevent Indo-Pak matches and the prevention of singer Ghulam Ali’s concerts in Mumbai.
In the years of the first government by the NDA, the Indian army was made to play host to an RSS religious festival called the Sindhu Darshan festival, which took place in Leh. The festival was the brainchild of Union home minister, L.K. Advani, who on his visit to Ladakh in 1997 discovered that the Indus river flows through Ladakh. Praveen Swami reported in "Frontline" (Aug. 13, 1999) that the infrastructure for the festival last June was provided by the third infantry division in Ladakh. He wrote that, “More than 500 RSS workers, including RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay, attended the Sindhu darshan. Most of them stayed on premises made available by the army, which also sent troops to erect platforms and pavilions.”
Many army officers, who reluctantly had to participate in the festival this year, were unhappy at the attempt to force a political meeting on soldiers. “We’ve no business here. It was purely a political meeting. If they wanted to honor the jawans, they should have come to the units,” one military officer told the Outlook correspondent Rajesh Joshi in 1999.
A more brazen example of the pernicious bid to ‘instill a Hindu consciousness’ in the army jawan was reported by the Hindustan Times on Aug. 20, 1999: “VHP gift-wraps Ram with free ACs.”
The Hindustan Times wrote, “A VHP brigade led by its president Vishnu Hari Dalmia, working president Ashok Singhal and senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore visited the Army Base Hospital here (New Delhi) this evening for the installation of 18 air-conditioners the organisation had gifted. They also very thoughtfully used the opportunity to distribute copies of Tulsidas’ epic to the convalescing soldiers. The copies were distributed irrespective of the recipients’ religious persuasion.”
Indo-Pak or Hindu-Muslim?
In 1999, on the eve of the Kargil war, the reported torture and mutilation of the bodies of Indian jawans by Pakistani soldiers became a pretext for the RSS to present the Kargil skirmish as part of the 1,000-year-old Hindu-Muslim conflict.
The RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, in its June 20, 1999 issue, advised Vajpayee to use nuclear weapons to settle what it considered to be a 1,000-year-old war between Hindus and Muslims. “The time has come again for India’s Bheema to tear open the breasts of these infidels and purify the soiled tresses of Draupadi with blood. Pakistan will not listen just like that,” the publication stated.“We have a centuries’ old debt to settle with this mindset. It is the same demon that has been throwing a challenge at Durga since the time of Mohammed Bin Qasim. Arise, Atal Behari! Who knows if fate has destined you to be the author of the final chapter of this long story. For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?”
The symbolism was vitriolic and complete. For the fanatic followers of the Hindu right, Pakistan is a demon and Muslims the flip side of the same hated coin.
Finally, in 2016 there was an additional twist across the acrimonious border.
Leading Pakistani journalist and assistant editor of newspaper Dawn, Cyril Almeida, in an exclusive report on Oct. 6, 2016 (days after India’s claim of surgical attacks) had said that some in the civilian government complained at a top-secret meeting that they were being asked to do more to crack down on armed groups. Yet, whenever law-enforcement agencies took action "the security establishment ... worked behind the scenes to set the arrested free."
Insisting that the law should apply equally to all, the civilian government's representatives at the meeting gave warning that Pakistan risked international isolation if the security establishment did not take the recommended course of action, according to the report.
The report came against the backdrop of heightened tension between the two countries, sparking an uproar. The government called the report false, holding an inquiry against the journalist. Almeida, who was leaving for abroad the next day, was barred from leaving to help in conduct a probe into how "inaccurate" details of a crucial security meeting were leaked to the media. The journalist’s name was put on Exit Control List. However, owing to the flak of several organizations, including Amnesty International, the travel ban on the journalist was lifted, according to the news reports.
For Pakistan, independent and critical thinking and assessment of its institutions, especially its army, is tantamount to questioning the very base of its existence. India was, for decades, more self assured and secure. But then this self assurance came with its confidence in a nationhood that was inclusive and all-encompassing. It did not need the security of exclusion to justify its existence. Under Modi and the RSS that may be changing.