Analysis: Political comments by CDS (Chief of Defense Staff)

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India’s Ex-Chief of Army Staff and now the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat, in uniform, while addressing a health summit event in New Delhi, on December 26, 2019, commented on the quality and values of a responsible leader while citing the incendiarism, violence, and destruction of public properties during demonstrations against the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

There is no doubt that while this comment had not indicated any personality related to a political group, the comment had a clear context, that of CAA. The comment raised the following issues. First, what do Indian regulations and other nations like the US and UK rules say in this context?

Second, is this against the issuance of civilian control of the military doctrine of a stable liberal democracy? It also raises the question of the political activity of military persons while in active service.

Besides, former Navy Chief Ramdas termed CDS Rawat comments of being `wrong’ as well as being `partisan.’ The words `wrong and partisan’ have been used to view that the feedback was not politically-neutral. It leads to the third issue, why should the army be politically-neutral and non-partisan, and what do we mean by the term `partisan?’

Regulation: Army code of conduct and comparison

The Indian Army Act, Section 21 rules do not allow a military person to address at a meeting organized for a political or any other purpose by anybody or any organization. He is not allowed to speak to a press without prior government approval or publish any political book without prior consent.

In comparison, the US Military regulations have clear, strict rules to follow the Civilian Chief Commander irrespective of personal bias, including a defined preventive `partisan’ political activity and a defined allowed `non-partisan’ political activity.

This non-partisan political activity includes any issues not identified with any political organizations but also includes issues with constitutional referendum and amendments and without uniform. Alternatively, a partisan political activity is supporting issues identified with political parties or any organizations.

In the UK, army rules clearly state that a military person cannot participate in any political party or demonstrations subject to the condition that there is no such restriction if no uniform is worn, there is no disrespect to the service, and the duty is not blocked.

Reasons: A politically-neutral army

In political science, we find the existence of the doctrine of civilian control of the military that leads to a stable and thriving democratic state. In support, Kohn, in his essay on `civilian control of the military,’ views that the existence of the military is not to define the society, but to defend the society, while the Clausewitzian view of war emphasizes that the military should implement policies rather than formulating it.

Similarly, Huntington, in his book titled `The soldier and the State’ focuses on the objective of civilian control and a politically neutral soldier with a sense of distinct professional attitude that also prevents political interference.

Around the world, NATO prescribes a civilian control of military doctrine for its members as a precondition. Even the Maoist supports the party as the supreme and the military being subordinate to the party. No doubt, a lack of civilian control of the military leads to `a state within a state’ also synonymously known as the military dictatorship in an extreme form.

It is imperative to have a politically-neutral army in a country like India. Traditions of time-tested neutrality, highly co-related to professionalism, take years to build up through self-restraint, and impartiality. And India is a classic example of this.

Even in today’s contemporary short-life, dynamic social-values, hyper-polarised political environment, and spectrum, the army’s standing as a trusted altruistic professional institution serving the nation impartially, has the highest confidence of the nation’s public, and politicians. It is this army that provides security and confidence to vote without any fear and pressure. It endorses the peaceful change of power including civilian supremacy.

The army in turn, also requires the brightest and the best people with different political views but without any political test to remain professional and powerful. It will ensure that military personnel management will be non-political and non-partisan. If this approach is sacrificed, the first loss in this continuum will be the professionalism of the army.

At the same time, preference expressions by superior will impose limitations and uncertainty in the command structure leading to decision making based on trust or preference. The last loss will be a coup or a revolt.

And, finally, a uniformed military personal making a non-partisan (per US Rules) political comment will undermine the best efforts and ethos of the military.

Reaction: Public outcry

CDS Rawat’s leadership comments educed strident criticisms from various sources and on multiple media. It includes opposition and allied political parties, opposition leaders, retired military personals, activists, and on social platforms, online news, TV news and newspapers.

Summarily all the comments showed concern on the indictments of breaking the conventions by the Army Chief by commenting on internal affairs and thus violating the civilian control of military doctrine.

Of these, retired Navy Chief Ramdas elaborated on the code of conduct prescribing neutral political views for all military persons. Politician Sitaram Yechury of CPI(M) used Twitter to comment on a military person in uniform breaking the military institutional role. Politician Digvijaya Singh of the Indian National Congress (INC) used the opportunity to use a post-truth political comment on the ruling government based on the Army Chief’s comments on leadership virtues.

Besides, politician Brijesh Kalappa of INC used twitter to make remarks on constitutional democracy violation. He also commented upon the possibility of ruling government allowing military dictatorship. While politician A Owaisi of AIMIM showed concern on the professionalism of the army as an institution and civilian supremacy. Even politicians like KC Tyagi of JD(U), an ally of the ruling government, showed concern on the issue. All this was equally echoed by all TV news channels, leading newspapers, and online news portals through various activists.

Conclusion: The future and the implication

In conclusion, we find the emergence of two concerns. First is the Indian army personnel coming up with partisan or non-partisan political comments leading to the anxiety of losing the professionalism of the army and civilian supremacy by the political fraternity.

Second is the code of conduct itself. These are age-old rules and restrictions. Though military laws across the world including the Supreme Court of the US, have clearly said that the army does not have universal rights for speech. For them, the nation comes first. At the same time, we find that the army code of conduct in the US and the UK have more freedom than that of India. The Indian rules are of the British era which then had a different objective.

The solution to both the concern is through the development of ethical norms and professional norms than through legal restrictions to political comments. Europe and the US, are already onto this through human rights activists and organisations like OSCE, working on the frameworks on political expression restriction and guidance for such citizen-soldiers or service members to provide more political and civil autonomy through such merging of military people voices with the general community for full integration of total population.

Author: Shaily Baag from National Law University, Odisha.

Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala.