A former army vice chief exasperatedly writes of the ‘loose cannons’ among the ‘highly active group of veterans’ who add their own experience-based ‘mirch-masala’ to events unfolding that involve the army, thereby distorting the picture. In the aftermath of the two recent incidents in Kashmir – the Chattargam killing of two youth at a check point and the terror attack at an army base in Uri - these ‘e-mail warriors’ are urged to ‘hold their horses’ instead. (http://www.thecitizen.in/NewsDetail.aspx?Id=1709).
The general’s concern is apparently also shared by the senior army general in Jammu & Kashmir who reportedly wrote to all his commanders explaining certain uncharacteristic army decisions that the veteran community had taken umbrage to. These were the verdicts of the courts martial in the Machhal case in which three innocents depicted as infiltrating terrorists were killed by the army in 2010 and, second, the apology made by the general in response to the army’s use of overwhelming force at the checkpoint in which the two youth in the car died.
Both cases were also somewhat without precedence in that they impinged on the impunity that critics saw as the bane of counter insurgency operations, under the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Media commentary originating from the veteran community had been by and large critical of both actions, holding that this would demoralise the army and amount to tying its hands behind its back when combating terrorism.
Consternation in the veteran community, expressed in their writing for the media and on social media, apparently forced General Hooda to explain himself to his men through their commanders. This best illustrates the growing influence of veterans and consequently requires understanding.
The growing visibility, if not power, of the veterans was not lost on the BJP that used it to good effect in its election campaign. Narendra Modi shared the dais with a group of veterans including former chief, VK Singh, to depict a strong-on-defence image during his campaign. This helped create the ‘wave’ that brought him from Ahmedabad to Delhi. In return, he cleared the long-cherished desire of the veteran and service communities for a national war memorial.
Modi has also crafted his national security policies according to the hardline blueprint, staple of the strategic writings of veterans. He has energised the defence production sector and has a $40-billion defence equipment shopping list. Environmental concerns have been summarily set aside as India embarks on strategic road building in the Himalayas.
While all this keeps the veteran community largely appreciative, its media savvy members and would-be strategists also project these as inevitable and desirable advances for national security, initiatives that awaited Modi’s displacement of the previous moribund regime.
It is the latter that is a greater cause for concern on the ascent of India’s veterans, who simply refuse to fade away. They are living longer, and in an age of liberalisation and information that gives them, respectively, disposable income to live actively and the reach to project their views. This makes them a useful human resource base in communities. However, there is an underside.
Since universally militaries vote conservative, the service community and veterans have had a soft corner for the right wing party currently in power. The nationalism that the regime espouses is also attractive to the patriotic vein in former military men. Also, being a part of the upper middle class that widely, and perhaps wildly, favours the BJP, the veterans form a reliable support base.
As with the rest of the middle class, they are swayed by the economic dividend they hope to achieve through Modi’s hitching of corporate power and politics. They are also vicarious recipients of the redeemed national glory that comes with the ascent of an unrepentant Hindu nationalist to power for the first time after, in their reading of history, a millennium. This makes them, as it does the wider middle class, blind to the seamier side of current day Indian politics, brought to fore and respectability by the ascent of the BJP to unchecked national power.
By no means do these elements have the power to shape policy. For instance, their limits can be seen in the ascent of the current army chief to the post was in face of bitter opposition by the V K Singh camp, even though V K Singh was in the government as a junior minister. Yet, they certainly serve as foot-soldiers for justifying policies, particularly on prime time from which, in any case, reasoned discourse has fled in fear of crusading television hosts.
A case in point is the ballast lent by veterans in outshouting their Pakistani counterparts to sell the new - harsh and arguably dangerous - turn to India’s Pakistan policy.
By no means would there be there any cause for concern if this was all that there was to the situation. After all, democracy is a playing field for different interest groups, with politics harnessing these to its ends. In this case, the politics of the ruling political formations deploys approbation of veterans for its ends. They serve as a useful conduit for the militarising of India, a muscular India to face down centuries of humiliation by invaders and to face up to the Chinese after six decades of it.
A recent instance is the celebration of Vijay Diwas with greater gusto in order to emphasise the military dimension of the 1971 War over its diplomatic and political facets, highlighted in the Congress years.
The problem is when veterans, armed as they are with a cultural transmission belt into the serving uniformed fraternity, transmit their politics alongside. This was mildly observable in the previous stint of the NDA regime in government when less-than-secular strategists made their first appearance writing for both in-service publications and journals of institutions patronised by veterans. The Vivekananda International Foundation, made famous by Doval’s move from its directorship to national security adviser position, took root then.
This time round, there is not merely greater acceptability for cultural nationalism, it is the dominant discourse. Anecdotal evidence indicates that e-bullying of secular voices on the Internet from the military fraternity started with the onset of campaigning in the last elections. The military has over the past decade also extended its domain of benign interest to cover veterans, deemed to be neglected by the ministry department that is mandated to look after them, Department of Ex Servicemen Welfare, thereby increasing the inter-permeation.
With the opening up of the travel segment, in particular air travel, and its affordability, the incidence of interaction between veterans and those serving has also increased. As a result, veterans are avid users of service facilities such as messes and institutions, the ethics of such (mis)use of service facilities notwithstanding. For instance, media informs us that former chief JJ Singh acted as convener of his course’s golden jubilee reunion at the Indian Military Academy earlier this month.
The potential dangers are already evident. News from the two passing out parades, from IMA and OTA, suggest that about three quarters of officers are from the North Indian belt, within a half-day reach from Delhi by train. Also, most are wards of servicemen, mostly of those from the ranks. This area is also the heartland of veteran political activism, symbolised by the ex-servicemen political rally at Rewari that really mainstreamed Modi at the outset of his campaign.
Veterans appear to be at the centre of much more going on in military affairs than catches the eye. The missive from the general in Kashmir to his men is warning of more to come.