Why you should care
Because a humanitarian crisis is unfolding.
As the most powerful Indian military boss in decades — and potentially ever — Gen. Bipin Rawat’s words carry weight. So when India’s chief of defense staff (CDS) spoke about “deradicalization camps” for Kashmiris at an event in New Delhi, it alarmed not just Kashmiris who have been under a siege since India stripped the conflict-ridden state of its statehood, but also ex-army men and human rights activists across the country.
Rawat’s explosive comment about camps for “radicalized” Kashmiri youth — reminiscent of what Uighur Muslims face in China — came at the Raisina Dialogue, a large foreign policy and strategic affairs gathering for heads of state, foreign ministers and policy wonks. “He has a tendency to shoot off his mouth,” says Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank. “He has done that several times in the past, without understanding or reflecting.” Rawat’s comments, Joshi believes, suggest that these deradicalization camps may already exist. (There are reports of camps for people in Assam who are unable to prove their citizenship under a controversial new law.) In any case, Joshi points out, Rawat shouldn’t be speaking about internal security at all — it’s not under his purview.
This isn’t the first time Rawat, 61, has landed himself in hot water. The sharp-tongued general atop the world’s third-largest military has frequently spoken out in favor of Modi’s most controversial policies, a breach of protocol for the army, which has long prided itself as avoiding political matters. But Rawat’s style has made him popular among supporters of the Modi government, and his recent comment on Kashmir was in keeping with a long line of such rhetoric. In 2017, he said of protesting stone-pelters: “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I [want to do].”
He is deeply damaging the ethos of the Indian army.
Ajai Sahni, Institute for Conflict Management.
In 2017 in Kashmir, Rawat gave the chief of army staff’s commendation card to Maj. Leetul Gogoi for his service in counter-insurgency operations. Gogoi had been in the news after he had tied a local Kashmiri to the front of his jeep in an attempt to prevent protesters from throwing stones at him, a shocking image for the country and the world. To those who believe India needs a more muscular approach to Kashmir, Rawat represents a military leader unlike any the country has seen.
Rawat was brought up in an army family in Pauri-Garhwal in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh). In 1978, he joined the same army battalion his father served, and went on to make his mark in counter-insurgency warfare. He graduated from the National Defense Academy and Indian Military Academy, rising through the ranks to become India’s chief of army staff in 2016. He was to retire from the army, but Modi extended the retirement age to 65 and offered him the mantle of CDS — a post Modi created to sit above the army, navy and air force chiefs. Rawat took over at the start of this year.
Even though he’s a lifelong army man, Rawat’s policies have roiled retired service members, whom Joshi says are “very critical” of Rawat in WhatsApp groups. “He is deeply damaging the ethos of the Indian army,” says Ajai Sahni, founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. The “Indian army’s long tradition is that it keeps away from politics. There is a strong tradition of secularism in the army.” Instead, Sahni says, Modi chose a version of himself to run the military.
To critics, he represents the politicization of the military that resembles what’s going on across the border in Pakistan, where the army chief — and not the elected government — is most powerful.
In response to such talk, Rawat recently told reporters: “We work on the directives of the government in power.” The general’s defenders say he’s being held to an unfair standard. “His comments were misunderstood,” says Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “He said that people who try and radicalize kids should be taken out of the system and put in deradicalization camps. It is a model followed in other countries, too. If other countries around the world, like Singapore, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., do it, it is OK. But if India does it, secularism is in danger.”
In his early days on the job, it’s unclear how Rawat will reform the armed services. Creating a CDS post had been long debated, given how the army, navy and air force are often at loggerheads. He will aim to optimize resources and joint procurements, given the military’s budget constraints — often a source of griping from service chiefs. Rawat also advises India’s Nuclear Command Authority, which handles its nuclear weapons arsenal.
And he’ll keep courting controversy.
“Every Kashmiri would like to ask him: How does he define radicalization?” says an admin who asked to remain anonymous for the Instagram page @standwithkashmir, which chronicles voices from the besieged state. The admin adds: “The global image of a yoga-loving Bollywood country is slowly eroding away … The Modi government has made it very clear that all they care about is the land in Kashmir, not the people. People like [Rawat] just reassure that belief.”
After appointing Rawat to the new post, Modi praised him as an outstanding officer who has served India with great zeal. The prime minister added, via Twitter, that the chief of defense forces “carries tremendous responsibility of modernizing our military forces.” What kind of modernity Modi has in mind is another question.