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Mainstream, VOL LII No 11, March 8, 2014

Ominous Portents

Tuesday 11 March 2014, by Kuldip Nayar

Another Lok Sabha, 15th in the series, has concluded its five-year tenure. Whatever business that was transacted in the House was, indeed, exasperating and raucous. Unfortunately the House representing the democratic system has fallen by the wayside practically in all Asian countries.

In another three months the Indian voters will once again queue up before the polling booths to elect their representatives. Their quality has been wanting. But I am confident that the next House will be better in content because the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party

(AAP) has changed the political scenario in the country to make it cleaner and transparent.

Yet I do not like the increasing influence of the armed forces. Defence Minister A.K. Antony was correct in saying that there can never be an Army coup in the country. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too echoed the same thoughts when he opted for the parliamentary way of governance after independence in August 1947. His argument was that the country was too large and too caste- and religion-ridden.

My worry, however, is over the say which the armed forces are beginning to have in the affairs of governance. Take the stationing of troops at the Siachin Glacier. Was it necessary when several retired top brass said that it had no strategic importance? Even otherwise, when an agreement had been initialed by the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan, our armed forces should have followed the decision but they had it stalled. Instead of it being a no-man’s territory the soldiers of both countries at the Glacier are suffering due to the inclement weather and losing men at regular intervals.

Take another example of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which empowers the Army to detain or even kill a person on suspicion without any legal action. The North-East has been under it for years. A government-appointed committee found it “unnecessary” and recommended its withdrawal. But the armed forces have had their way and the AFSPA continues to be in operation.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has officially asked New Delhi to free the State from the law’s application. He has made the appeal even publicly. But the Central Government has not relented because the armed forces want the AFSPA to continue. Even a marginal concession of releasing the political prisoners, as requested by the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, has been denied.

More recent is the inquiry into the “encounter” at Pathribal in Jammu and Kashmir. The Army is alleged to have killed five “terrorists” while the local villagers have said that the deceased were innocent. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquired into the matter and has submitted its report before the Supreme Court. According to the report, it was a clod-blooded fake encounter.

In fact, breaking his silence after 23 years, the then Kupwara Deputy Commissioner, S.M. Yasin, said recently that he had been threatened and

offered promotions to change his report on the alleged mass rapes in Konam Poshpora in February 1991. It is strange that the Army has

claimed that there was no such incident. The self-acquittal by the top brass has only aggra-vated the sense of alienation and resentment among the people in Jammu and Kashmir. The Government of India should still set up a judicial inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge to investigate into what are perceived as fake encounters.

Hardly has the dust settled down on the Pathribal encounters when the story of a possible coup in January 2012 has become public. Two Army units—one of which was an armoured battalion—moved to Delhi from Agra.

Any movement of troops in the periphery of the Capital has to be with the prior permission. Still, both units moved and were withdrawn only when the Defence Secretary summoned the Director General of Military Operations, Lt. Gen. A.K. Choudhary, at midnight and conveyed to him that the top in the government was very unhappy and concerned. When a daily newspaper broke the story at that time, Defence Minister A.K. Antony rubbished it. So did some key Army and civilian officials. Now Lt. Gen. A.K. Choudhary, after his retirement, has confirmed the story.

More shocking is the confirmation by Air Chief N.A.K. Browne, then heading the Air Force. He has said: “The paratroopers were being moved to check out the possibility of their marrying with the C130 at Hindon air base, near Delhi.” Still the Defence Minister has said that it was “a routine training exercise”.

When after telling the Director General of Military Operations the government sends a chopper to check if the troops were on their way back, there is more than what meets the eye. Since the date synchronised with the appeal to the Supreme Court by the then Army Chief V.K. Singh’s on his birth date, the movement of the military units was given importance beyond proportions.

The entire matter has to be examined further by a team of top retired civil and military officials to reach to the bottom of the “routine exercise”. It cannot be left at the mere denial stage despite Defence Minister Antony’s vehement denial. Even a limited say of the armed forces in civilian matters is ominous.

That the armed forces are apolitical is a tribute to their training and conviction when both Pakistan and Bangladesh have swerved from the right path. The other two countries in the subcontinent have had a similar training. Still they threw out the elected government. Even today when the troops have gone back to the barracks, one cannot underestimate the importance of the military. The Indian military knows and honours its place in a democratic polity. Still the examples I have given should serve as a grim warning.

True, the democratic tempera-ment has got implanted on the Indian soil. But this could not be taken for granted. Even a small example of Bonapartism should be probed thoroughly. The armed forces are for the country’s defence and the decision to use them rests with the elected government. This is something basic and no comprise can be made in a democratic structure.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com