Army chief Bipin Rawat should speak more: The nation needs to know
Finding a political angle in the statements of the Army chief exploits the silence of the Army.
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For decades, the Army had been a “holy cow”, untouched by media. It had remained an enigma, ensconced in its cantonments, out of the public eye. It came to public eye and performed its tasks when required and vanished quietly back into its cantonments. This, however, slowly changed with time. Its exposure in the public domain, involvement in the insurgency in Kashmir and quick response to any crisis made it the most sought-after institution for media.
Any news concerning the military is bound to garner space in media. Even an extra-marital affair, involving an Army officer will find space in every newspaper, whereas similar actions by any other official belonging to any other service would never be news. News of J&K operations and/or Doklam is bound to be featured on the front pages.
In many cases, the nation is fed with one-sided views until the Army issues its version. Its success or loss in operations are informed by simple statements or an interaction at the local level by those involved.
In recent times, events have placed the Army in the limelight, but for the wrong reasons. The human-shield incident, involving Major Leetul Gogoi, Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s comments on stone-pelters, the buddy system (pairing of two soldiers), construction of FOBs (foot-over-bridges) in Mumbai, and most recently, his statement that field marshall Cariappa should be awarded the Bharat Ratna, are some of the examples.
Press conferences, generally conducted by the service chiefs, project the military’s view and logic. A recent example was the decision to construct foot-over-bridges in Mumbai. The decision of asking the Army to build three railway bridges in Mumbai drew flak from politicians who said it would divert the defence resources of the country.
The controversy was put to rest only when the Army chief clarified that the Army had agreed to build the bridges to enhance the “Army’s image”.
The Army chief remains an easy target of the politicians. He has been called a “sadak ka goonda” by a politician. In his article in the Indian Express, historian Ramachandra Guha has recently advised the Army chief to interact less with media. The earlier service chiefs preferred to avoid media for their personal reasons, whereas Bipin Rawat is always willing to break shackles, and place the Army’s views before the nation, seeking to clear doubts. He has been candid, frank, and has openly conveyed his decisions, which have irked many.
Being a soldier, he is unmoved by critics who view his comments negatively. Insulting or criticising the military is easy, as neither the chief nor his service responds, since it remains bound by rules. It is only the veteran community, which may respond. However, their words do not represent the official version, hence; do not carry the requisite weight.
There are many columnists and politicians, who would desire that the Army remains quiet and accepts criticism thrown at its way, like it was in the past. This would open doors to them to hit at the only apolitical and the most-revered force in the nation, solely to gain a few brownie points. The national press, on the other hand, seeks more information as military actions are always areas of interest.
Like other services, the Army has its own public information department, which releases statements to media, or clarifies rumours or information which may be harmful to national security, before they are published. They rarely give press interviews. Even after the surgical strike, the director-general of military operations (DGMO) read out a statement, refusing to answer questions, thus creating a plethora of doubts.
While the Navy and the Air Force chiefs have traditionally remained away from the limelight, because of the smaller size and scope of their service, same is not true for the Army chief. As the Army remains the most visible government agency, the Army chief's interviews will give an official seal to issues, which hog the limelight. There are interviews by other senior functionaries, but these remain limited in scope, solely pertaining to their area of operations and are generally sidelined by the national electronic media.
The nation becomes aware of larger issues pertaining to the military when the media interacts with the service chiefs. It also provides media and the nation a balanced view.
Some statements made by Rawat may hurt a section of the society, but are aimed to convey the Army’s version. These have no political bias as the armed forces remain apolitical. Giving it a political veneer, as Guha has done presently and Karan Thapar and Kanti Bajpai had done after the Gogoi incident, is only exploiting the silence and non-committal approach of the armed forces.
There should be no embargo on service chiefs addressing the media, despite negative comments by some ill-informed commentators like Karan Thapar and Ramachandra Guha. The nation needs to know what the Army does, why it does and what it plans to do, as after all, the armed forces exist for the nation and have nationalists as its members. It remains the most respected force in the country, despite a section of the government, bureaucracy and political commentators trying to run it down.