The controversy over Army Chief General Bipin Rawat's statement points to the institutional weakness of Indian democracy. In any country, the safety and security of its citizens and security forces are considered sacrosanct and are never made the subject of partisan political debates. Only in India do we find parties bickering over a non-negotiable condition while hoping to catch fish in muddied waters.
While to a certain extent such opportunism is understandable from separatist parties in the valley that are on Pakistan's payroll, it boggles the mind that India's grand old party would find itself boxed into such a corner. And yet be it during the JNU controversy, surgical strikes or on the question of interference with counter-insurgency operations, Congress has repeatedly emerged on the wrong side of the ideological debate. The only charitable explanation is that facing an erosion of mass base and national footprint, the party is acting out of political desperation. That would be a sad vindication of its downfall.
This is debate that shouldn't be a debate in the first place. Let's be clear. The army chief did not declare war on innocent Kashmiri citizens. A section of the media has predictably taken such a line by deliberately obfuscating General Rawat's statement. The Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) was actually quite categorical in his statement that stern action will be taken only against those local youths found aiding terrorists and interfering with counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir.
General Rawat, who has led many counter-terrorist operations and has huge experience of dealing with Pakistan's proxy war, was speaking in a specific context. The Indian Army has of late suffered a lot of casualties in terrorist strikes and his comments came at the wreath-laying ceremony on Wednesday where he went to pay tribute to four of his fallen colleagues, including Major Satish Dahiya.
Just the day before, three Indian soldiers had faced heavy stone-pelting at Parray Mohalla of Bandipore in north Kashmir while launching an operation against insurgents. As The Indian Express report points out, the stone-pelters bought terrorists some precious time by distracting the soldiers. As the security forces held their fire to avoid civilian casualties, the terrorists lobbed hand grenades and fired from automatic rifles leaving three jawans dead and some others injured. One terrorist gave forces the slip.
Firstpost had pointed out in its piece on Thursday that this is the latest tactic employed by Pakistan in its asymmetric battle against India. Local youths and flash mobs are mobilised by rabble-rousers who alert terrorists through their local intelligence network when a counter-insurgency operation from the CRPF, BSF or the Army is imminent.
What exactly did the General say?
"We would now request the local population that people who have picked up arms, and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism, displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them. We are giving them an opportunity, should they want to continue to then, we will continue with relentless operations may be with harsher measures."
By which measure or metric does it appear that the COAS is threatening all Kashmiri youths? If anything, he should be complimented for handling a sensitive situation with responsibility and empathy. By issuing a prior warning, Rawat actually tried to prevent misguided local youths from becoming victims of anti-terror operations. To say that the COAS shouldn't have said so is to expect him to suffer in silence as his charges keep on falling to terrorist bullets. Which General will allow that?
By calling the army chief's statement "intemperate", Congress has exposed its game. The party's senior leader P Chidambaram was quoted by DNA as saying: "The army chief's comments are intemperate. It is a political problem which needs a political solution and a political reach out. I am worried and I request the government to halt this approach and adopt a different one. More infiltration and more encounters are taking place in the state and things are getting very bad."
There is no doubt that military action must be complemented with political outreach to stymie Pakistan's designs, a point I made in my column on Thursday. But to call army chief's statement "intemperate" is cynical and wrong. It undermines the army chief's authority and drags him straight into a political slugfest, a situation that is always best avoided.
But there's more.
According to Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, the government is to blame.
"The government is to be blamed for the situation in Kashmir. Even we ran the government, why was it not so bad then? To threaten the Kashmiri youth like this is unjustified. Last year, 1,000 kids were affected by splinters, 1,200 kids lost their eyes,” he said. While Azad was saying this, his party colleague Ravinder Sharma struck a different note. The New Indian Express quoted him as saying: "Youth in Kashmir should also understand that security forces are there for safety of common people and they should not try to create hurdles during counter insurgency operations."
This is a party riven with self-doubt and at odds with itself. Caught between trying to derive political benefit out of an issue that concerns the nation's safety and security and trying to maintain its position as a mainstream political force, Congress appears rudderless and clueless. The party's collapse is none of our concern. It becomes worrisome, however, when it tries to frequently drag the army into the political ring.
As for the separatist forces, their protestations are a curious happenstance. Logic demands that they should be happy with the army chief's statement now that they have got a chance to whip up anti-India sentiment. But their protestations and hastily arranged stone-pelting incidents suggest General Rawat might have caught on to their dirty game.