CAA protests: Army chief slams students, Opposition cries 'politicisation'

Army Chief Bipin Rawat. Photo: PTI
Army chief General Bipin Rawat, who will retire on December 31, unless the government elevates him to the newly-created post of ‘chief of defence staff’, has drawn charges of political partisanship by criticising student leaders involved in protests against the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA.


Addressing a gathering in New Delhi, he said: “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 in masses of crowds to carry out arson and violence in our cities and towns. This is not leadership.”


The Opposition parties have stepped up the attack, accusing Rawat of violating both regulations and tradition. The army’s basic rulebook, titled ‘Army Rules’, explicitly disallows all army personnel from commenting on any “political question” without government sanction.


Army Rule 21, which is headed ‘Communications to the Press, Lectures, etc’, states: “No person subject to the (Army) Act shall (i) publish in any form whatever or communicate directly or indirectly to the Press any matter in relation to a political question or on a service subject or containing any service information, or publish or cause to be published any book or letter or article or other document on such question or matter or containing such information without the prior sanction of the central government, or any officer specified by the central government in this behalf.”


The same rule debars army personnel from “Deliver[ing] a lecture or wireless address, on a matter relating to a political question or on a service subject or containing any information or views on any service subject without the prior sanction of the central government or any officer specified by the Central Government in this behalf.”


Asked whether the Army Chief had obtained “prior sanction of the central government”, required under Army Rule 21 to air views on a political question, the army’s public relations chief, Major General DP Pandey confirmed that Rawat had not obtained government sanction.


“The army chief was not speaking on a political issue. He spoke on the issue of leadership. He does not require government permission for this,” stated Pandey.


The Opposition has escalated the attack. “Since when have Army Chiefs started commenting about internal affairs? It undermines civil-military relations whose cornerstone is that Armed Forces neither comment or interfere in domestic politics. This has been our singular success going back to 1947,” tweeted Congress Party leader, Manish Tewari.


"Leadership is knowing the limits of one's office. It is about understanding the idea [of] civilian supremacy and preserving the integrity of the institution that you head," tweeted Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).


While Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members are defending Rawat’s right to speak as a citizen, both the Army Act, 1950, and the Army Rules explicitly curtail the freedom of expression that the Constitution guarantees to all other Indian citizens.


Army Act Section 21 endows the central government with “Power to modify certain fundamental rights” for persons subject to the Act. Meanwhile, Note 2 to Army Rule 19 states that the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution’s Article 19(1)(a) and (b) are denied to army personnel “because of the nature of duties performed by the members of the regular Army and for the maintenance of discipline among them.”


Rawat’s statement on the CAA protests are not the first by a senior army general. On December 14, the chief of the army’s Kolkata-headquartered Eastern Command, Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan had pubicly stated: “The current (BJP) government is keen on taking hard decisions that have been pending for a long time… The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed despite reservations from a couple of northeastern states. It would not be hard to guess that some hard decisions on Left-wing extremism may be on the anvil after this.”

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