Everything in life has a foil, an exact opposite which by contrast gives meaning to an object or idea. Thus a hero has an anti-hero, a thesis has its antithesis, an action a reaction, a yang has a yin, a point is contrasted with a counter-point, and so on. In the context of the post Pulwama – Balakot period no one even noticed the total silence on the part of our retired military top brass till the foil was provided on the 8th of March by Admiral (retired) Ram Das when he publicly protested against the politicisation of the armed forces by sundry political parties and asked the Election Commission to prohibit it. His solitary cry in the wilderness suddenly brought into sharp focus, by contrast, the mute quiescence of the rest of his distinguished fraternity – the retired generals, air marshals, admirals. To be sure, there was a surfeit of them in the TV studios, expounding on tactics, strategy, compellance, but not a single voice condemning the contemptible appropriation of the armed forces by petty politicians, the merchandising of their valour and discipline for votes, the End Of Reason Sale initiated by the Prime Minister himself at Churu in Rajasthan barely hours after the Pulwama attack.
Never before in the history of this country has the politician made such cynical use of the soldier, even a dead one. Images of the dead CRPF jawans are used as a backdrop on the stage for a political rally, a former Chief Minister openly counts his Parliament seats along with the dead soldiers, a captured pilot is used to build up an election pitch, even the Prime Minister cannot resist making a ghastly pun on the word “pilot” to buttress his warrior credentials. The sins of the Rafale deal are visited upon the Air Force by casting doubts on the MIGs and Sukhois (and their pilots). The President of a BJP state unit has the temerity to don an army uniform while campaigning for votes. One former Congress Minister even took credit for Wing Commander Abhinandan’s skills and bravery by saying that he was recruited and “matured” during the term of his govt.! The Defence Minister robs the Airforce of its due credit by stating that the air strike was “not a military operation.”
And it was not just the politician that made mercenary use of the military. The media revealed every bit of information that Abhinandan steadfastly refused to give to his captors, TV anchors bayed for the blood of our own soldiers by hysterically creating an eco-system of war mongering, anyone advising caution and restraint was shouted down by these toilet seat warriors. The BCCI decided to send the Indian cricket team for the ODI in Ranchi wearing army caps, a hollow symbolism- it would have done better by donating a few of its thousands of crores of rupees to the families of those who had died to sustain the TRPs, votes and entry fees. Any part of a military uniform is a hallowed object and it should not be used to score brownie points.
Which begs the question- given this mass disrespect and discourtesy for the armed forces, why did senior military voices not speak out in protest and anguish? It is, of course, understandable that serving officers could not raise their voices, but what ailed the thousands of the retired ones? It is not that they have not protested or been publicly critical of the government before- just a couple of years ago they were out on the streets and holding candle light marches on the Boat Club lawns in Delhi to press for OROP. Pensions are important but the abominations released after Pulwama and Balakot are much more vital to the military’s dignity, pride and essence. Even more, they are dangerous, for they portray the armed forces as dispensable fodder for the politician and TV anchors, dead or alive. In the words of the American diplomat George F Keenan, what the ruling party and government is seeking to do is to raise war mongering to “ the status of a vast (national) addiction”: this would be unwise at any time, but is positively diabolical when there is an election to win. For the price of war is always paid by the soldier, not the pontificating elite or the avaricious politician.
Yet, no one spoke up. The only voice we have heard so far is that of Admiral (retd) Ram Das, though in his letter he claims to speak for other, nameless colleagues. But this is not a time to shelter behind anonymity. These colleagues must come out and be counted, seen and heard. Individual voices tend to get lost, so they must band together into a collective, a pressure group, a segment of civil society that draws red lines which even the govt. and media should not cross. In this they can learn much from a part of the civil administration the military generally looks down upon- the IAS and other central govt. services. The latter have formed a group of hundred odd retired Secretary level officers which has, from time to time, conveyed to the union government and the Prime Minister its apprehensions, disapproval and distress at some of its more deleterious and damaging policies and conduct. These communications have been released to the press and public and every single officer has appended his or her name to them. The govt. may disregard these missives but the public will take note of them. The retired Generals need to do something similar. A conscience is worthless if it will not speak up, a name or rank commands no respect if it will not stand up and be counted.