Newsmaker: A General For The Masses

Tags: Newsmakers, News
General Bipin Rawat would have retired last year had the government not broken precedence to make him army chief over two generals senior to him at that time. Rawat was deep-selected in a move that is not unusual but used sparingly by the previous governments. Only in the sixth month of his tenure, the general has put the army on the unusual path – singing to the tune of public sentiment.

“Our government rests in public opinion,” said Abraham Lincoln in his famous speech in 1856. “Public sentiment is everything,” he went on to say. “Whoever can change public opinion can change the government. It is the public opinion that settles every question here.”

When young army officer Major Leetul Gogoi resorted to an unusual way of dealing with a blood-thirsty stone-pelting crowd in Jammu and Kashmir by picking up one of the alleged miscreants from the crowd and strapping him onto the jeep to dissuade others from attacking troops and a trapped polling party, he was instantly hailed as a hero by the dominant voice of public opinion.

Union ministers backed this voice to the hilt and soon it became evident that the officer’s action had the government’s approval despite a hue and cry from local Kashmiris and the motley crowd of human rights watchers. The army nevertheless ordered a court of inquiry as is the usual practice in such cases. Amidst the raging debate whether the army had crossed its line while dealing with insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, a section of the media reported that Major Gogoi had been given clean chit by the court of inquiry.

The army rushed to issue a strong denial saying its probe was still not over and the media should refrain from jumping to conclusions without the culmination of due process. Then something unusual happened. Even as the CoI was to be concluded, Major Gogoi was decorated with the chief’s commendation. Not only that, the general went public endorsing his young officer’s conduct justifying that dirty wars need to be fought in innovative ways.

The unusual approach continued when Major Gogoi was made to appear before the media in full combat gear to defend his action. This has to be a first as never before has an officer facing a CoI gone public even before the conclusion of the probe.

As the chief of army staff, General Rawat has the right to keep the morale of his men and officers high as they are dealing with an extraordinary situation in Jammu and Kashmir. But the tearing apart of the cloak of secrecy on such an occurrence does little help other than catering to the public opinion.

There have been a dozen chiefs since the 1990 when the trouble in Jammu and Kashmir started. They all came up with their own military strategies to deal with counter insurgency operations in the state. After the extremely violent times of the early 1990s, the army was able to stabilise the situation effectively. During the mid-2000s, the military strategy was dominated by “iron fist and velvet glove” philosophy. The iron fist here is meant for the foreign terrorists but misguided locals were treated with velvet gloves. This distinction seems to have blurred. Former army chief general Bikram Singh in an article last year elaborated this people-friendly approach in carrying out what he termed as “clean” operations with full respect to law and human rights.

General Rawat has taken a line that is distinct from his predecessors. Probably the generals before him did not face the kind of mob fury as the troops are facing today though the dynamics of a proxy war were as relevant as they are today. The iron fist and velvet gloves have been replaced with the jackboots approach as the emphasis now is to instil fear of the army in the minds of the people who prevent soldiers from carrying out operations against terrorists.

Public opinion can be the oxygen for the political establishment but when the army gets swayed by the chants of the masses, it can lead to adding an additional burden of raised expectations.

The transformation of the army’s operational philosophy is visible. Surgical strikes and punitive assaults on the LoC and innovative ways of dealing with stone-pelters in the hinterland are military actions accompanied by media projections to satisfy the chest thumping public sentiment.

General Rawat is cut out for the job. Apart from being a fine officer, he also holds a doctorate in military-media strategic studies. In his unusual way, General Rawat made all his army commanders fly down to Srinagar for a meeting of the military heads.

In this day and age, there is an instant expression of public opinion and it can be gauged 24x7 on a real-time basis. Every individual has access to it, from the troops on the ground to the commanding officers. The army is in for tough times as the volatility of this monster in the making can jeopardise decision-making.

gautam.datt@mydigitalfc.com

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