Bottomline | Fears and Failings

Two thoughts to reflect

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

As the New Year dawns, I wish to share two uneasy sentiments that have burdened me since a decade, but of late, have got pronounced. The first is the creeping religious extremism in the Indian Army, and to a lesser extent in the other two defence services. The second is about continued exclusion of the defence services from the highest national security making body called the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the track-record of the two main national political parties on these issues that will impact on the future of India is mixed.

The foundation of India was laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who it is well established was a secularist. What is probably not recorded enough is his antipathy for the military. Rummaging through my old books, I chanced upon the autobiography of Bertrand Russell which carries a letter by Nehru to Lord Russell dated 4 December 1962, three days after the Chinese implemented the unilateral ceasefire. One would have thought that following the ignominious defeat, Nehru would have desired closer military interaction in defence matters. But he thought otherwise. He wrote to Lord Russell:

“Certainly we do not want this frontier war with China to continue, and even more certainly we do not want it to spread and involve the nuclear powers. Also there is the danger of the military mentality spreading in India and the power of the Army increasing.” These lines can only be interpreted one way: The Prime Minister was worried about a military takeover at a time when he needed professional advice most, as is evident from this sentence: “The Chinese proposals, as they are, mean their gaining a dominating position, especially in Ladakh, which they can utilise in future for a further attack on India.” Nehru was more concerned about checking Chinese aggrandisement appetite than resolving the border row. These two sentiments, of keeping military at bay and postponing border resolution crept into the Congress genes, which all successive Congress Prime Ministers have displayed in full measure.

The BJP-led government was different. Even before the Vajpayee government came to power, it started courting military advice. A national security cell headed by Brajesh Mishra gave the open call to retired military officers to join the camp. This was unprecedented and the excitement within the uniformed personnel was palpable. Even serving officers were bowled over by prospects of rendering advice to the highest quarters. Once in office, the right-wing party inspired by the RSS-ideology indulged in military jingoism; most of its decisions though lauded momentarily were not well-deliberated. Within weeks of assuming charge, the Vajpayee government defied the world with nuclear blasts, dislodged the Pakistan Army from the Kargil heights, and kept the military mobilised for 10-months for a war which it had not intended to fight. Some good, however, did come from all this. The government brought a few structural reforms in national security; the military learnt to fight better; and there has been more general awareness about military matters. The downside was that extremism of the RSS variety piggybacked into the military.

A bit of myself at this point. A born Hindu and growing up in Dehradun in the Seventies, I, out of novelty and curiosity, attended a RSS shakha (congregation where martial arts are taught). Excited, I mentioned this to my father at dinner time and all hell broke loose. He was livid. Having survived the trauma of Partition in which many of his relatives and friends were lost, he told me once again of how he had managed to escape from Lahore and reach Delhi, and how he wandered around rows of refugee camps for months hoping for providential reunion with the family. The uppermost thought that stayed with him was that he was happy to be in secular India, and the RSS, he told me, is set to demolish that very idea of tolerant India. Later, when I joined the army, it was comforting to find little religious discrimination; all army units have what is called a ‘mandir-parade’, the Lord is invoked collectively to protect the unit from harm. Units with mixed troops have prayer places for different religions, and higher headquarters usually have a temple, mosque, and a gurudwara side by side. Religion in the army used to be one’s personnel faith, and not something that needed to be worn on the sleeves. This no longer appears to be so. Innumerable serving officers seem inclined to condone Hindu extremism; a few even explain such conduct as a response to Muslim extremism. There are think-tanks focussed on national security in the heart of India’s capital that are being run by RSS funds; needless to add that many senior retired military officers take pride in being on its rolls. Such institutions churn out religiously coloured discourses.

How have things come to this pass? Military officers are itching to offer professional advice, and RSS is more than willing to play the game. For these reasons, I was pleased to read Rahul Gandhi’s reported remarks on the threat of Hindu extremism. I hope he corrects the Congress party’s institutional disdain for military advice as well.


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