Officials of senior ranks should not wear military heritage on their sleeves while navigating the rough and tumble of politics.
The Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra is supposedly inviting about 8,000 people for the Ram Mandir opening ceremony on 22 January 2024. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Reliance chairman Mukesh Ambani, the list includes prominent figures from varied fields as well as families of 50 ‘Kar Sevaks’ and a representative each from 50 countries. The invitation has also gone out to former chiefs of the armed forces, a step worth recounting in the broader framework of civil-military relations.
It is verified that a flag rank veteran called up the former chiefs, seeking to ascertain their inclination to attend the function. It is understood that most of them declined. Those who indicated their willingness or did not directly turn down the invite have received a formal invitation. In terms of civil-military relations, the question that arises is an ethical one: How will the attendance of former chiefs at the 22 January event impact the secular and apolitical foundations of India’s military institution?
Before attempting to answer this, it becomes necessary to underscore the current political and religious scenario at the national level. India’s constitutionally secular foundation has been under contestation for some time now, deepening religious polarisation. This divide is increasingly reflected in the conduct of domestic politics, unravelling the national social cohesion. This is especially after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu mobs supported by political communities seeking a constitutional interpretation that favoured a Hindu majoritarian agenda.
The Ayodhya temple issue has found legal closure both symbolically and historically. But the 22 January consecration ceremony marks a major ‘victory’ for a significant portion of the Hindu population over the perceived ravages of ‘Muslim rule’ in pre-Independence India. The timing of the consecration is expected to provide electoral tailwinds to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The context is not only religiously charged but also carries definite political implications.
Importance of protecting military values
The presence of former Service chiefs at the Ram Mandir inaugural event carries a message that is potentially at odds with the secular and apolitical values of the military institution. Even if they are retired and attend it purely out of personal religious faith, the chiefs have to be mindful of the impact it could have on serving military personnel. Especially when these personnel are part of a social fabric that has been transformed steadily by varying doses of communal disharmony generated by domestic politics. Such transformation is expected to be stemmed and managed by the current leadership.
However, chiefs and senior ranks continue to play a role in guarding the values of the military organisation and are not easily detached in retirement. They exercise influence and are obliged to continue to treat all faiths equally. They are guided by a moral compass that preserves their oath to the Constitution.
Senior military leaders have the right to join politics. However, it is unrealistic to expect that they would then adhere to the institutional values of the military, especially in the existing religious and political context. Political parties and their connected organisations have encouraged and invited senior military leaders to join them on several occasions. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has hosted retired senior officers at its headquarters in Nagpur and at gatherings presided over by organisation chief Mohan Bhagwat. Some of these military leaders have been appointed as heads of various institutions and party organisations where they are expected to act as agents who promote the stated ideologies.
Retired officers have a special role
Ethically, what could be expected from senior-ranked officials is that they do not wear their military heritage on their sleeves while navigating the rough and tumble of politics. This is difficult in practice as they are onboarded precisely to use their rank by trading military prestige for political gain. This tension, unfortunately, takes away from the special role they ought to play in guarding the military’s reputation.
Post-Independence, India’s retired Service chiefs and three-star rank officers have mostly managed to maintain a reticent and measured stance on political issues. But over the past decade or so—perhaps marked by the ‘One Rank, One Pension’ agitation—officers across ranks have been openly expressing their political views and participating in political activism.
They appear on primetime TV debates and on social media and flash their military lineage by liberally showcasing their side caps and medals. What impact this has on serving personnel is not known. Of course, quite often, political activities have context-based elastic boundaries that are also subjective in interpretation. Most of these officers are convinced that they are merely exercising their democratic rights. But the fact that they also have to pay heed to the responsibility of preserving military values seems often lost on them.
Serving senior leaders need to think this through and address it as part of their pre-retirement procedure by formulating guidelines aimed at sensitising the rank and file. There is a huge difference when a four- or three-star officer makes a public statement or participates in political activities and when a colonel does so.
On 22 January, as the grand spectacle of the consecration ceremony is flashed around the world, the camera can be expected to focus on VVIPs and other important attendees. Former chiefs and senior officers in attendance would, in all probability, fill the frame too. The camera will also show hordes of saffron-clad, ash-smeared sadhus, religious leaders and families of Kar Sevaks. If senior military officers in attendance look around, they might well feel discomfited by the company they are keeping.
Military leaders should avoid such religious congregations in retirement. Their presence at such functions runs the risk of overtly sending messages that could be detrimental to the time-tested apolitical and secular values of the military as an institution—the last bastion of the Indian State.