21 September 2015

Politicising the Military

September 19, 2015 

Political missteps and administrative mismanagement have opened a Pandora's box.

The recent political battles over the one-rank-one-pension (OROP) demand of retired military personnel have been commented upon widely in the press, largely around issues of giving retired members of the armed forces their due and the fiscal cost of doing so. One significant aspect should have received more attention: the politicisation of the military.

One of the achievements of the Indian republic has been that its military has not been allowed to dabble in politics. The only reason why this can be counted as an achievement is because so many postcolonial states have slipped on this point, and not just in our neighbourhood. This has remained so despite the executive often involving the military in domestic political matters, particularly when politics turns violent and the writ of the state seems to fray—in the face of communal violence or insurgencies. It would be more appropriate to say that the military has remained outside domestic politics and the nation state too has had a political consensus on such a role and position of the armed forces.

This consensus among the political actors and the removal of the military from domestic politics started to come apart most visibly in the early 1990s when the communal mobilisation of a large number of Hindus all over the country around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation led to the destruction of the Babri mosque. It was around the same time that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started branding other political parties—the Congress, the parties of the Left Front and the parties pushing the Mandal Commission—as anti-national, in a continuum which included their being anti-Hindu and also corrupt. It was in this context that a large number of retired military personnel enlisted themselves into the BJP, terming it the only “nationalist” party, thus quite explicitly tarring its opponents with the “anti-national” brush. This was an unprecedented break in the traditions of India’s military; retired soldiers had often joined political parties across the spectrum but this was the first time they were questioning the loyalty of other parties to the nation state. The fig leaf, of course, was that those who joined the BJP were all retired officers, so there was, technically, no politicisation of the armed forces.

The armed forces have, since then, become an agenda in domestic politics with the BJP continuing to woo service personnel—both retired and serving—by talking about the government’s “neglect” of soldiers. Even on the issue of withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from parts of Kashmir and the north-eastern states and on demands for the trial of soldiers accused of the torture and killings of innocent civilians, the BJP made it a question of the army’s honour and threw its weight behind the legal im(p)unity of those who had prima facie done wrong. (It needs to be remembered that this narrative of neglect of the soldiers was built up in a context where the Indian armed forces have remained largely unquestioned—both legislatively as well as in public opinion.)

Thus it came as no surprise that Narendra Modi started his prime ministerial campaign with a large rally of ex-servicemen where he promised the implementation of the OROP within a hundred days of coming to power. The demand for OROP had remained alive, even if muted, since the early 1970s. However, it has gained a certain traction in the past few years as the higher echelons of the central civil services had given themselves OROP and denied it to the men in uniform. It has become one more instance of the bureaucrats denying soldiers parity in remuneration and post-retirement dignity.

The demands of the soldiers need particular attention, especially those of the ranks who join the forces in their late teens with minimal education and are retired in their 30s, with few skills for civilian jobs. It is wrong to send them off with a pension which does not even keep up with inflation. The officers too retire early and also suffer pecuniary losses but their main demand is parity of “dignity” with those who retire later and with civilian officers. This perhaps explains why there were two separate agitations at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi demanding OROP, one led by the retired jawans and the other by retired officers. Like with many other pre-poll promises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, OROP too was forgotten till the ex-servicemen started public agitations and the political costs became too high. A solution has been found—in time for the Bihar assembly elections. Yet it is clear that ex-servicemen have been hustled into accepting it and remain unhappy; it remains an issue which is likely to erupt into national politics again.

But the most damaging aspect has been the politicisation of the serving officers. By asking the chiefs of staff of the three services to mediate between the government and the agitating ex-servicemen, the government reduced the chiefs of the army, navy and air force to partisans in a political battle where they also had a huge conflict of interest. The entire process, from the manner in which promises were made to implement OROP (with the Prime Minister holding the Indian flag) to the manner in which the terms were haggled and brought down, has politicised the armed forces personnel in ways which can only be deeply damaging for the republic.

The OROP demand has been, in its political implications, like the proverbial Pandora’s box. We are perhaps not yet able to fully comprehend its long-term consequences. It would take statesmanship of a high order to repair the damage. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely as the present dispensation seeks to cover its missteps and mismanagement of the entire affair through public relations exercises like the vapid celebrations of the 1965 war with Pakistan, which, in the context of some of those jawans having to sit on a hunger strike to get the OROP status, would only seem venal to them

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