Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat, who hails from a family that has served in the military for generations, is under attack for his remarks on tackling civil protests in restive Kashmir.
One historian compared him to an infamous British general who ordered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of Indians in 1919, while a Communist party newspaper said his views reflected those of a federal “government which seeks to suppress the people of Kashmir.”
These outbursts raise the question of how far intellectuals and politicians can go in attacking an army known for its apolitical and secular character.
Let us take the views of the historian first.
Partha Chatterjee claimed his article, which was headlined ‘In Kashmir, India Is Witnessing Its General Dyer Moment’, was not intended to suggest General Rawat’s motives are the same as those of Gen Reginald Dyer.
He finds similarities, however, between Gen Dyer’s arguments in defending the massacre of locals by the British Indian army and Gen Rawat’s defense of Major Leetul Gogoi, who recently used a Kashmiri protester as a human shield to control a mob in Budgam.
The situations in Jallianwala Bagh and Budgam were far from similar.
Gen Dyer faced an unarmed crowd of about 20,000 in a garden while Major Gogoi confronted a 1,200-strong mob armed with petrol bombs and stones at a polling station.
If the army’s acts are sometimes glorified, that is only to boost the morale of young officers such as Major Gogoi who are operating in a difficult environment
Gen Dyer’s troops fired 1,650 rounds, over the course of 10 minutes, to disperse the crowd, killing at least 379. Major Gogoi quelled the mob without firing a single shot. He tied Farooq Ahmad Dar, a stone-pelter (not a passer-by), to the bonnet of an army jeep to deter the mob from throwing stones then drove poll officials to a safe place. Dar was subsequently let off unharmed.
Gen Dyer wanted to prove the white man’s dominion over Indians and teach them a lesson. So he ordered the firing. Major Gogoi wanted to tackle the mob without causing any bloodshed. He acted on the spur of the moment, and succeeded.
Gen Dyer had – in his own words – a “horrible, dirty duty” to fulfill. As a white man, he did not want to make himself a fool and be laughed at by the crowd.
Gen Rawat’s duty is to hold the morale of his team high as they fight terrorism, militancy and stone-pelters – as he reminded media. To preserve its authority, he said, the army must be feared. Should soldiers remain silent when locals kick them, snatch their rifles and abuse them?
Equating Gen Rawat’s actions with Gen Dyer’s makes for catchy headlines. But Rawat’s ‘General Dyer moment’ will never arrive. Then why all this fuss?
The Congress party and the Communists – both currently marginalized – are trying to put the army into the political crossfire because there are hardly any corruption charges against the present government to shout about. With elections not far off, they fear any narrative about the army doing good work in Kashmir or elsewhere will further bolster the image of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
By comparing Gen Rawat to Gen Dyer or calling him a mouthpiece for the government, his critics, led by Prakash Karat, hope to give Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists succor in their fight against India.
Opposition parties and intellectuals should leave the army alone. Let the soldiers do their job in Kashmir and India’s Maoist-infested regions. If the army’s acts are sometimes glorified, that is only to boost the morale of young officers such as Major Gogoi who are operating in a difficult environment.