We have just watched on television some excerpts from the Press Conference (without any press!) held by our Chief of Defence Staff – General Bipin Rawat, along with the serving Chiefs from the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
Since then, we have received several calls and messages from friends and colleagues who shared their disappointment, surprise, even shock, at the nature of the remarks made by our senior most military leader on national television. We are witnessing this at a time when the nation and our people are facing one of the most critical situations since partition. This is a matter of concern, especially for me as one of the senior most former Naval Chiefs alive today. The situation brought on by the Corona Virus pandemic has undoubtedly hit countries and peoples across the globe in various ways – economic, social, psychological, political and several dimensions too many to name. But my concern here is with how this might impact our country and our people.
Let me first of all commend the CDS and Chiefs of Staff for having taken the initiative of addressing a Press Conference on the subject of COVID 19 and the role of our Armed Forces in these circumstances. When the first notification about talking to the press popped up on our phones and computer screens, around 4:45 to 5 pm, we were full of anticipation. I was sure that our top Brass would announce some additional plans by the Armed Forces to meet the current challenge. This would include relief, rehabilitation and assistance in handling and managing the huge exodus taking place across the country.
I had addressed two letters to the Prime Minister, copied to the RM, as also the CDS and Heads of the three Services. My first letter was dated March 27, and the second one on April 14, Ambedkar Jayanthi. I had suggested in both letters that the considerable resources of the Armed Forces might be tapped in a number of ways to deal with the unprecedented situation, brought on by the manner in which Lockdown was announced and executed. I had specifically mentioned the organizing and running of Community Kitchens and food distribution in the first letter. By the time of my second letter, the situation with respect to the farm and migrant workers and large numbers walking home for thousands of miles had grown much worse.
My letter had flagged the fact that from all accounts, there was more than enough rice and wheat available in our reserves with the FCI, and that these should be released without further delay to feed our people. Some reports that sanction had been given by the Cabinet to diverting grains for the manufacture of ethanol and hand sanitizers was truly alarming!
Given the continuing and open targeting of some sections, like care givers, doctors and nurses etc, and our Muslim citizens, especially after the Tablighi Markaz incident, I had requested the Honorable Prime Minister that a signal from him was urgently required in order to put a halt to this deplorable and avoidable communal colour being added to a tragic health pandemic.
So, it was indeed with a deep sense of dismay and disappointment that we watched the rather prosaic address by the CDS, thanking the ‘Corona Warriors’ and Citizens for ‘being disciplined’ and keeping people safe. The speech went on to details of how Tri service appreciation for the above would take the form of a series of events on May 3 – like fly pasts and helicopter showering of petals by the Indian Air Force; illumination of Indian Naval ships in harbours; and band performances in hospitals and other venues by the Indian Army. For most of us from the Armed Forces, these events are usually conducted to celebrate victories – and in this case we are far from that day.
As has been pointed out by many, here were the top Brass of our Armed Forces who could have marshalled and provided the best facilities, equipment, PPEs and much more for the same ‘warriors’ on whom they would now be spending vast amounts of money by way of the ‘flying machines’, fuel and flowers, for organizing all of the above events outlined by the CDS! That there was not even a token reference to the grim situation being faced by lakhs of migrant workers on May Day, who were hungry, jobless and desperate to get home , many of them choosing to walk and some of them dying along the way, is a sad indication of the insensitivity of our privileged to the trauma and travails of the vast masses who toil to keep the wheels of our system going.
My immediate concern however is to address the role that the Armed Forces of our country could and should be playing at a time of national crisis which is no less than a war scenario. Indeed, we are using military terminology of this being a ‘war’ against the Corona Virus. I have long held the view that while we in the Armed Forces maybe soldiers, sailors and airmen, we are fundamentally citizens of this country. Though our basic rights are held in suspension while in active service – the fact that we exercise our political right of universal franchise by casting our vote during elections, also emphasizes our responsibility and duty to safeguard the well-being of our people. Let us not forget that ensuring justice and equality for all as promised in our Constitution, is the primary goal and objective that we should be striving for.
I wish to briefly examine the content, the tone and the impact of the statement made by the CDS to the Press this evening – two days before the end of this phase of the Lockdown, and literally some minutes before the announcement from the Ministry of Home Affairs announcing a further two week extension to the Lockdown.
Frankly as a former serviceman, it would have gone down extremely well had each of the service chiefs used this opportunity to inform the public of the many innovative and commendable steps they have already carried out in each service with respect to ‘the war’ against COVID 19.
Furthermore, in my humble opinion, at a time when all our resources are fully stretched, we could have better utilized the money that will be spent on the events detailed above, towards assisting those most in need at this time, to reach their homes safely and thus minimize the pressures on them. Imagine the visibility and interaction with the personnel from the Armed Forces – and the building of relationships between civil and military.
Finally, let me say why I have felt impelled to pen these few words on this issue today.
I mean no disrespect to my colleagues in uniform who are in the ‘hot seat’ today. However, having ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ so to speak, I believe it is important to point out that we, as senior veterans, have a bounden responsibility to act as “conscience keepers” at times like the ones we are experiencing today. I continue to take positions on several issues which may or may not be to the liking of the regime of the day. There are several letter and articles by me available in the public domain. I am against India having gone Nuclear; I am also strongly in favour of building strong relations with all our neighbours in the region. Taking a view that is different or dissenting, does not mean that I disrespect those in high office. Rather I see this as part of my right and responsibility as a loyal citizen in a democracy, and a core element of my “Constitutional Dharma”.
Looking back over my career of over 45 years in the Indian Navy there are several instances where I have been faced with tough decisions of a personal ethics and conscience versus political expediency. To illustrate what I mean – let me share just three examples:
In 1984, when I was commanding the Eastern Fleet based in Vizag, my wife, who was in Delhi, got deeply involved with the relief, rehabilitation and reporting on the problems and challenges of the victims of the 1984 Pogrom against the Sikhs. She asked me if testifying before a Commission of Enquiry would adversely affect my career, which was advice she was given by several of our well-meaning friends in the Navy. I told her that she should follow her conscience and not worry about my career.
In 1990, our eldest daughter asked for our blessings to marry the young man whom she had got to know while studying in the USA. The young man in question was Muslim and of Pakistani origin. We had always respected our daughters’ views and decisions – and so we said she should go ahead. I was then Commander in Chief Eastern Naval Command – again based in Vizag. I informed my Defence Minister – Dr Raja Ramanna, and my Prime Minister – Shri VP Singh. Both were unanimous in their view that who my daughter married had nothing to do with my track record in the service – and formally gave permission for us to travel to the US for her wedding in Chicago. Most people thought I was throwing away my chances of being selected for the top job. But I was clear that our daughter’s happiness was important. To our surprise and delight my name was announced as the next Naval Chief in October 1990.
In 1992, during the build up to the Ram Mandir issue in Ayodhya, I advised both the Raksha Mantri, and others present that I feared the Babri Masjid would be demolished if we did not take prompt action. But neither the political leadership nor even the late Dr Abdul Kalam – Scientific Advisor and a wonderful colleague – were prepared to take a stand. I did my duty and gave my honest advice – but alas the rest is history.
I do believe that the Indian Armed Forces can and must play a role in Nation Building. In 1980, as part of my course at the NDC – National Defence College – my Individual Thesis as a Commodore, was on the Subject “THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN INDIA’S NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT”. It was increasingly clear to me, that if we were to indeed work to fulfill the promise of our Constitution and the Directive Principles, it would mean finding the right balance between Defence and Development. There was never any doubt in my mind that the term National Security could only be realized if we all worked to achieve Human Security. For me, Human security is the well-being of the last woman, man and child – regardless of religion, caste, class, gender, ethnicity, or community.
Before assuming office as Naval Chief in November 1990, I visited Rajghat to pay my respects to the Father of the Nation, prior to the monument of the Unknown Soldier at India Gate as per the then existing tradition. The words inscribed at Gandhiji’s Samadhi have always inspired me. His mission was to wipe away every tear from every eye – and to do so he advocated that we should “Think of the poorest person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any use to him”. It is my hope that all of us who serve our country, in or out of uniform, will always keep this principle uppermost, and have the courage to stick by his or her conscience, regardless of what the political establishment of the day might decree.