Three equally serious issues regarding the Indian armed forces demand our attention at this juncture. The first was sparked off by Shekhar Gupta's opinion piece on the non-compliance with the cabinet approval of the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, and the implications for civil-military relations. Since Gupta has been following military developments since India's peacekeeping foray into Sri Lanka and has even spent a productive year at the reputed International Institute of Strategic Studies, his perspective cannot be easily discounted.
The second development, a more muted step, is the development of 'second strike capability' by India. India has tested the silo launched version of the K 15 missile called Shaurya, that had earlier been tested from an underwater launch platform.
Each of these two developments require greater public attention, but it is the third that has caught the eye of the media and the public. Daily revelations in the case of Lt. Col. Purohit's association with terrorist activities have grabbed the headlines. Virtually every news item on this topic begins with the preface that Purohit is the 'first ever serving officer to have been arrested for such a crime. It has prompted the legitimate question as to whether his case is an aberration, as the Army has put it, or if it is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The worry is that if Purohit's activities are only one instance of something wider, then the Army has a real problem - namely, the penetration of majoritarian religious ideology into the defence forces. It is not an issue that can be wished away by a default reliance on the professionalism of the armed forces. It can be hazarded that since this issue has not been examined very much earlier, even the services would not know enough to judge whether such a threat has developed within their ranks. There is no information on this aspect available in the public domain, either, with the dominant view being that the services are - and have always been - apolitical and secular.
Nonetheless, we must contend with the evidence of the Lieutenant Colonel. If there is one Purohit, despite the army's professionalism and secularism, why not more? To answer this question, it behoves the military leadership to make an objective assessment, and if necessary institute corrective procedures right away.
It would be logical to expect that the armed forces would also be a focus of any ideological project, since these forces would need to be diluted or outflanked before the new ideology could take full power.
As a political effort this may be unexceptionable, but the manner in which this political power is attained, and the ends it is then put to, internally and externally, are certainly questionable. This is a global phenomenon, not limited to Hindu majoritarianism in India. The corresponding tendencies elsewhere are the Jihadi enterprises in Muslim countries out to convert these states into fundamentalist powers.
It would be logical to expect that the armed forces would also be a focus of these forces. Being the 'last bastion', it would eventually be the armed forces that would require to check their accession to power, particularly if it is unconstitutional at any future juncture. The armed forces are also where the majoritarian ideology would need to mount its greatest effort, since the culture of the forces has historically been apolitical, professional and secular. Therefore, this culture would need to be diluted over time, without which the eventual success of the project could not be achieved. Therefore, it is unwise to believe that the armed forces would have escaped the radar screen of the nebulous leaders and planners of the project.
The armed forces are also unlikely to be able to detect the subtle nature of the effort. Historically, they have never seen themselves as being under threat of subversion. Secondly, their professional training and limitations of political understanding makes them less able to detect the myriad forms of penetration. Thirdly, the penetration itself may appear altogether a good thing, for it would appear, to begin with, in the guise of nationalism and morale-enhancing stress-relieving religion. Lastly, but no less important, is the increase in acceptance of the hindutva philosophy over the last two decades among the middle classes that contribute most of the officer corps. This would likely make the social space in the military tend towards that of the wider society, even while not mirroring it.
Contending with militants and mercenaries claiming to be engaged in a jihadist enterprise can only serve to heighten this tendency, as was the case with Lt Col Purohit, during his tenure in Kashmir. As to the extent of this possibility, the military would require to check and satisfy itself.
It is a well known theoretical insight from the field of military sociology that the conservative tendency of the military as an institution, and of military men as individuals, gives it a bias towards conservative-realist political persuasions. In the Indian context, this has been brought out in a book by Lt Gen Mahajan - A Career in India's Armed Forces (New Delhi: Ocean Books, 2000), thus: "Military ethic is conservative and therefore is naturally attracted to rightist political ideology which may appear 'good for the defence forces'. Both the rightist politicians and higher military commanders must be made wary of this affinity which paves the way for the politicization of the armed forces (p. 131)."
The political program of the conservative right can be expected to have a greater acceptability and following in the military. Whether the military would be able to differentiate the extreme right agenda is moot. Spotting this as a possible threat would require the military to first be sensitive to the possibility of the threat. This has now been unmistakably been revealed by the Purohit episode.
The onus on the military is thus to institute internal checks and procedures. The Army would be remiss were it to confine these to the instant lessons from this case, such as checking that the war material recovered in counter insurgency operations is deposited and that secret military intelligence funds are not misappropriated. Instead the most efficacious measures that need to be taken lie in its cultural domain.
The threat of the Hindu Talibanisation of India is real. Some of the blasts that were earlier attributed to terrorist groups originating in the minority are now appearing to have been perpetrated by elements of the saffron combine. Remember that these attacks were not claimed by the groups, such as Abhinav Bharat, and were instead designed to further implicate the minority as a potential fifth column. Therefore, the attacks should be seen as a prelude to a takeover of the state itself. There is therefore greater urgency to understand the phenomenon accurately.
One important difference between these states and India is in the manner of the state's response. Arab and North African states, and of late even Pakistan and Bangladesh have been relatively harsh in checking the Jihadist challenge. India on the other hand is more alert to minority-perpetrated terrorist challenges, as against the more dangerous one that aims at eventually changing the constitutional complexion of the state itself. Instances of the Purohit variety instead tend to be regarded as vengeful in motivation, and also as aberrations.
But such attitudes gravely underestimate the risks, and also overlook the evidence. These terrorist activities cannot be wished away as instances of revenge, for it they were mere revenge attacks they would have been claimed as such. Nor can they be wished away as aberrations. Even if references to 'aberrations' are made for public consumption, the military would do well to quietly use the opportunity to conduct a thorough spring cleaning. This would deter future 'aberrations', while reassuring the country that the Army remains capable of fulfiling its ultimate role as the 'last bation'.