Indian soldiers participate in a war exercise during a two-day 'Know Your Army' exhibition in Ahmedabad on August 19, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave
Indian soldiers participate in a war exercise during a two-day 'Know Your Army' exhibition in Ahmedabad on August 19, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

Relations between the Indian military and the civilian leadership have always been bound by strict rules and codes. Since India gained independence in 1947, it was always believed that its destiny lay in a democracy that is nurtured by a civilian political leadership. As a result of that ethos, the Indian Army has been strictly apolitical and has always maintained a strict code of never commenting on, let alone interfering in, decisions that are in the political domain.

But politicians in India seem to be increasingly unmindful of such decorum. As many cases in the recent past have demonstrated, some politicians use the military cynically for their political convenience, and even denigrate it at times.

A recent case that occurred in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand is symptomatic of this new malaise.

Two days before the Indian Air Force was to commence practice landings last month at Jolly Grant Airport, close to Dehradun, the capital of the state, a disturbing drama was unfolding. The local and national media on February 19 filed numerous reports about Uttarakhand’s chief minister (CM), Trivendra Singh Rawat, objecting to the way the army “created obstructions” when a helicopter carrying him landed in the cantonment-area helipad.

One news report stated that Rawat took strong exception to the behavior of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Uttarakhand Sub Area, who “misbehaved” with the chief minister’s staff.

The chief minister’s media coordinator, Darshan Singh Rawat, said the CM would soon lodge a formal complaint with the federal Defense Ministry. Another news report said Sanjay Bishnoi, the CM’s chief security officer, had lodged a complaint at the Cantonment Police Station alleging the army had blocked the helicopter landing site by placing drums on the runway. The pilot spotted the obstacles late, and barely managed to land the helicopter nearby, it was claimed in the police complaint.

A third report talked of a major security breach by the army by placing drums on the helipad, which the “alert” pilot spotted in time. Sanjay Bishnoi also alleged that in the morning when Trivendra Singh Rawat was entering the helipad, a car allegedly occupied by a high-ranking army officer blocked its way for some time until informed that the CM was in the fleet.

Local media in the state reported that the CM had lodged a complaint with the police against a senior army official for jeopardizing his security on the helipad on February 18. The complaint charged the GOC of the sub-area with “endangering the security of the CM.” An official press note said the CM’s program was intimated to the army a day in advance whenever he was scheduled to take off from the army helipad.

Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Utpal Kumar Singh and the state director general of police, Anil Kumar Raturi, met with army officials on February 20, who denied all charges. The army was systematically painted as the villain by the CM and his bureaucrats and the police.

A tale of two helipads

But what actually happened on that day?

There are actually two helipads in the state capital, close to each other. One is no longer used by the army because of its proximity to buildings that could endanger the rotors of a helicopter. It was from this helipad that the CM took off for the mountainous town of Uttarkashi on the morning of Sunday, February 18. Before takeoff, the army told the pilot that this helipad was dangerous and should not be used when the CM returned. Instead, it pointed out would activate the other helipad.

The army placed drums on the “disused” helipad to ensure that the CM’s helicopter did not land on it by mistake and that it instead use the functional helipad. But this has now sparked off a major row, with the state bureaucracy asking for a senior military commander’s head.

A welfare function for families of the Cantonment Sub Area was organized in the evening adjacent to the disused helipad. But in the evening, the pilot landed the helicopter at the disused helipad again despite clear instructions not to do so.

Whether the pilot had impaired vision that prevented him from locating the operational helipad, or he chose to ignore the safety warnings, is not known. But the pilot clearly risked the CM’s life by landing the helicopter on the unsafe helipad.

That he could not even see the tents and the gathering of families next to the disused helipad is unpardonable, raising questions about his professional capabilities. His unsafe landing led to a chaos as the rotor’s down-wash blew the tents away. Luckily, there were no casualties.

The fact that the chief minister of a state that is one of the Indian Army’s largest recruitment grounds, and which houses two major infantry regiments and the Indian Military Academy, can make such allegations is in poor taste.

Strained relations

But this is not the first time that politicians have attacked the army. In the past a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament stated that those in the army are “meant to die anyway.” Another BJP-backed legislator made controversial remarks about army wives getting pregnant when their husbands were deployed in field areas.

Civil-military relations in Uttarakhand have been strained ever since a former sub-area commander in Dehradun started taking action against illegal encroachments. Ironically, some chief ministers have an impression that the army is subservient to them. But CMs like Rawat would do well to understand that the army’s loyalty lies with the Indian constitution.

India’s military traditions have ensured that it has always remained a democracy, except for a brief period of the Emergency in the 1970s, when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended fundamental rights and imposed a dictatorship. Unlike Pakistan, which has seen a total of nearly 40 years under the military, India remains a civilian-led democracy. It is imperative that politicians learn to respect the ethos and professionalism of the nation’s military.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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