To the nearly two dozen who have died and hundreds thrashed or arrested by police in several states for participating in protests against the amended citizenship law, the Army chief has one message: you are at fault.
“...those who lead lead masses in arson and violence” are not “leaders”, chief of the Armed Forces General Bipin Rawat said on Thursday, triggering a political storm.
A unique feature of the ongoing protests is that there is no apparent leadership—mostly, people have poured out on the streets spontaneously against the government’s recent changes to the citizenship law.
General Rawat has made controversial statements before, and they are invariably in support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.
Rawat’s latest outburst was countered by politicians and the public alike, for being insensitive to the reasons behind the public anger.
Ever since the recent amendments to the citizenship law were cleared Parliament on 11 December 2019, people have hit the streets. They have faced a brutal crackdown, especially in the BJP-ruled Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi, whose police force is under central government control.
Rawat was strongly criticised for criticising the protesters on Thursday and for never critiquing the ruling party or its government. Social activists, lawyers, politicians and the Twitterati have consistently said that the amended citizenship law, coupled with the proposed National Register of Citizens for all of India, threatens to “divide” the country along communitarian lines.
The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and its follow-up policy, the NRC, have struck fear within the hearts of the ordinary citizens, Muslim and Hindu alike. But the Muslims fear that they have more to lose—they fear they would be at the receiving end of an insensitive and biased administration which is likely to be put in charge of taking stock of who is an Indian citizen, and who is not, under the NRC.
“Leadership is all about leading,” Rawat said at an event on Thursday in Delhi, held days before he retires in December. “When you move forward, everybody follows... But leaders are those who lead people in the right direction. Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate directions, as we are witnessing in a large number of university and college students, the way they are leading masses of crowds to carry out arson and violence in our cities and towns. This is not leadership.”
Responding to Rawat’s statement, Major General Sudhir Vombatkere (retd.) told Newsclick, “What is the “correct” or “appropriate” direction [for a movement] depends on the leader’s opinion.”
Vombatkere said that Rawat’s remarks assume that students are young people who are “uninformed enough to be led without questioning the leader.”
A hallmark of the ongoing protests is that they are not led by any particular political outfit, nor do they have a defined leader. They are led mostly by students of universities and colleges from across the country, and their protests have a strongly spontaneous character.
Ordinary people have also poured out on the streets, saying they fear losing their citizenship once the CAA and NRC kick into action.
Both students and ordinary people have accused the police of brutally cracking down on them and triggering violence by using high-handed tactics.
“Gen Bipin Rawat may possibly be correct if he were to refer to a military leader leading troops, but I feel it [his remark] does not apply to students in general,” Vombatkere told Newsclick.
Besides Vombatkere, General HS Panag (retd.) also told Newsclick on Thursday that remarks of the kind made by Rawat are contrary to the traditional apolitical ethos of the Indian military. “Politicisation implies that the armed forces identify with a political ideology and become an extension of a political party... The saving grace for India is that barring a few aberrations due to rogue actions and panic-driven violations of terms of engagement, the traditional apolitical ethos of the Indian military has prevailed, despite the political environment and unethical statements by a few senior officers,” he wrote in the digital news web site, The Print.
Brijesh Kalappa, a spokesperson of the Congress party said, “Army Chief Bipin Rawat speaking against #CAAProtests is wholly against constitutional democracy. If Army Chief is allowed to speak on Political issues today, it also permits him to attempt an Army takeover tomorrow!!”.