National security planners have an unenviable task as they deal with an imagined and unknown future visualised as threats and opportunities. The challenge is compounded by the shortage of resources and the unplumbed possibilities of progress in science and technology. External threats are often better known and acknowledged. Internal threats that have manifested as insurgencies are troublesome but are usually within the power of the State to keep under control. But what could be unacknowledged and neglected and is generally allowed to simmer for long till it explodes like a powder keg is communal disharmony. For India, it holds the hazards of a live fault line.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat recently met certain individuals from the Muslim community. This was followed by his visit to a madrasa and a meeting with Mohammed Ilaysi, the head of All India Muslim Imams. Bhagwat’s meetings are perhaps indicative of the concerns regarding the state of Hindu-Muslim relations at the national level. Understandably, both sides were criticised for ulterior motives and a foray that must not be mistaken for any change of heart anywhere in the realm of religious politics.
Since the 1990s and the hoisting to prominence of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in India’s religious politics, the temperature of communal discord has been on a boil, with the control of temperature calibrated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporting organisations like the RSS on one side and a mix of Muslim entities on the other, some of which have acted and continue to act as proxies for Pakistan and other external radical religious groups. Overall, the pollution of communal harmony has been the outcome and so far, it has been mostly confined to sporadic explosions in isolated pockets. But maybe it is time to review the situation as we may be missing the real threat that is probably hiding in plain sight.
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Decoding the real threat
The contours of the real threat perhaps lie in the statement by Mohan Bhagwat made days after the Delhi outreach to an audience of tribal people in Meghalaya— “All people living in India are Hindus in terms of identity.” Political Hinduism, it seems, is drawing boundaries when none exists in its religious philosophy that is quintessentially pluralistic. The boundaries birth the ‘other’, which willy-nilly pushes it closer to Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam but excludes Judaism in our context. Such a shift, if popularised and deepened within the Indian societal fabric, is not only unconstitutional but can also be the breeding ground for internal strife whose potential magnitude should be of concern to the national security establishment.
This version of political Hinduism apparently believes that cultural identity viewed as a derivative of a religious base supersedes the national identity. Importantly, it is the ideological child of the elected government. But that cannot hide the constitutional threat that must be guarded by all elements under oath to do so. On that score, the ultimate responsibility could, in terms of imagination, lie with the Armed Forces, who are also duty bound to act under the ultimate constitutional authority – the President of India.
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Role of the Armed Forces
The keystone role of the Armed Forces in India’s democratic framework is based on its apolitical nature. In the constitutional structure, its ultimate loyalty lies with the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief. The elected government, being the executive arm, exercises authority over the Armed Forces by acting on behalf of the President. The powers and mandate enjoyed by the Armed Forces are bestowed on it by the constitutionally derived powers of the ruling government. In terms of civil-military relations, the broad understanding is one of military-political neutrality and voluntary subordination juxtaposed with civilian recognition of ‘autonomous military professionalism’. The underlying apolitical premise of the Indian civil-military structure is akin to Western liberal democracies.
The Armed Forces, quite rightly, have no say in the trajectory that political Hinduism is going to traverse. But can its leadership, being cognisant of the larger and long-term societal trend, remain blind to the issue? Should the Armed Forces assume that they are not expected to do anything in the matter and therefore do nothing? Alternatively, does ‘autonomous military professionalism’ mandate the military leadership to be duty-bound to strengthen and protect the national values of the military institution from being corrupted by dangerous trends in domestic politics? Shouldn’t the leadership sensitise itself and its rank and file on a continuous basis as one simply will not know where India’s religious politics is headed? And it has to do this without being seen as acting outside the powers conferred on it by the elected government.
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Taking action while respecting boundaries
This seems an arduous and virtually impossible task. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to pretend that no such problem exists or is likely to manifest in the future. It would not even be seen as a dereliction of duty as the sensitisation measures not undertaken have a long-term add-on impact, which cannot, in retrospect, be judged to be attributed to particular individuals holding the highest positions—like the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the three Service Chiefs.
But it would be difficult for the Indian military, as an institution, to be absolved of responsibility if its actions during prolonged and intense national communal disturbances were unable to restore law and order because it was itself undermined by religious bias from within. A bias that may have crept into the military concurrently with it seeping freely into the fabric of civil society when the leadership looked the other way by taking refuge in the belief that it was not their business.
The political leadership has, on occasion, used its power to jettison the seniority principle while selecting senior military leadership. If this move is combined with the search for military leaders on the lines of the ideological bent that Mohan Bhagwat recently espoused in Meghalaya, or they are chosen for expectations of pliability, India’s ability to face the communal explosion—if it ever occurs—may be weakened with consequences that could cost the nation very dearly.
As the tired phrase goes, the line between the party and the government is waning. With institutional crumble thrown in for good measure, the move towards a theocratic state may not be held off for very long. Therefore, the Armed Forces should focus on their innards and implement measures to protect and foster institutional values.
The military structure is steeply vertical. Hope lies in the fact that higher issues involving national security and morale are deliberated upon behind closed doors by the apex collective and Joint-Services panels. This should comprise the two top-most levels in the hierarchy—the CDS/Service Chiefs and immediately below them, the Chiefs of Command formations of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Depending on the stakes involved, the ethically successful outcomes of these deliberations would rest on the application of a righteous spirit of duty and an abiding commitment to the Constitution of India.
Admittedly, the higher duty for the military, as envisaged, may be overly conjectural and far too idealistic. Ultimately, the loftier force which can delay and arrest the religious slide is not the military but public awakening. But that cannot be a justification for the Armed Forces not confronting its own demons.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)