Lock Step

The Modi government’s dangerous politicisation of the Indian Army

The former chief of defence staff Bipin Rawat pays obeisance at the Gorakhnath temple, with the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, looking on. As HS Panag, a former chief of the army’s northern command, noted at the time, Rawat’s actions compromised “the secular and apolitical status of the armed forces.” ANI Photo
18 July, 2023

The scenes were unusual, the response extraordinary. At around 2 pm on 24 June, an army column arrested 12 members of a Meitei separatist group, the Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup, in Itham, a village in Manipur’s Imphal East district. Among them was Moirangthem Tamba, the alleged mastermind behind a 2015 ambush that killed 18 soldiers. The army column was soon surrounded by over a thousand women, as well as a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator, who forced the commander to release the apprehended militants and leave the area.

The army tried to put a compassionate gloss on its retreat. “Keeping in view the sensitivity of use of kinetic force against large irate mob led by women and likely casualties due to such action,” it tweeted, a “considered decision was taken to hand over all 12 cadres to local leader.” Making no mention of the party affiliation of the local leader, the tweet claimed that the “mature decision” of withdrawing “shows humane face of the Indian Army to avoid any collateral damage during the ongoing unrest in Manipur.”

This excuse was scarcely convincing, as another incident, around twelve hours earlier, showed a different face of the army. At 2 am that day, soldiers of the 50 Rashtriya Rifles stormed two mosques in the Pulwama district of south Kashmir and forced the local muezzin and worshippers to chant “Jai Shri Ram.” Despite two former chief ministers tweeting their outrage, the army refused to officially confirm or deny the incident—acknowledging it would have necessitated taking disciplinary action against the personnel involved, which would have angered Hindutva ideologues and their political patrons. Instead, the unit’s commander offered a hush-hush apology to the villagers and moved the errant officer out of the area. The abominable episode has since drifted out of the public consciousness, which is par for the course at a time when even the lynching of Muslims hardly makes national headlines or begets public opprobrium.

Such impunity in Kashmir and pusillanimity in Manipur are two sides of the same coin. This is, after all, the army of Narendra Modi’s new India, where the top military leadership is in tune with the political imperatives of the ruling party, and the character of a formidable institution is being refashioned by disturbing traits of a majoritarian ideology. The nature of the army as an instrument of organised violence endures and its outward appearance of a professional force remains unchanged but, due to sociopolitical and historical contexts, its character is changing fast. In Kashmir, its actions often support the BJP’s agenda with scant regard for the humanitarian cost. In Manipur, where the BJP has chosen to persist with its chief minister, Biren Singh, who has transformed himself into a leader of the majority community, the army is choosing a soft approach instead of using a firm hand to deal with the Meitei groups targeting Kukis.