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The timing of Army Chief's baffling comments is as important as their context

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 22 February 2018, 17:00 IST

It is hard to recall when was the last time in India's military history that a serving Army Chief faced as much flak as General Bipin Rawat is facing right now.

The General gave a short speech at a seminar on the 'North East Region of India' and managed to send a series of controversial signals in a matter of less than 8 minutes .

From political analysis to language divide and from demographics to foreign affairs commentary, the General was all over the place. With enough ammunition for controversy on multiple counts, he has left observers, analysts and commentators either angry or baffled.

Speaking on bridging gaps in the region and securing the country's borders, Rawat appeared to stress that the region's population dynamics were a problem and then went on to expound on how to solve the problem.

Firstly, it is hardly the Army Chief's place to speak on 'population dynamics', the rise of one political party versus another, use of one language as a unifier and blaming neighbouring countries for a “proxy warfare”.

So far, these issues were hit upon by politicians in election rallies to reach out to their respective vote banks. Does the Army Chief have a vote-bank to speak to?

If not, what did he intend to convey by trying to sound alarm bells about the rise of the regional party, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)? Is he essentially saying that the rise of AIUDF in Assam means that the Muslim population is rising faster than that of Hindus and that this must be stopped?

That does seem to be the case because he went on to say that Muslims from Bangladesh have altered the demographics in Assam and that this was the result of a conscious strategy deployed by China and Pakistan.

This is a deeply troubling insinuation in a state where widespread anxiety is prevailing right now on account of the process of updating National Register of Citizens in Assam. Many fear summary eviction if their names do not make it to the list.

In fact, there are reports of detention centres operating in the state where those declared 'foreigners' have been camped. The General's statements run the risk of adding fuel to the fire in the state and deepen the 'native-outsider' divide.

This is also the time when three states in the region are going through elections to their respective state assemblies. Polling has already been held in Tripura and it will take place in Nagaland and Meghalaya soon. These states were not specifically mentioned in the Army Chief's speech, but he did talk about the region at large.

If that wasn't enough, he went on touch upon another fault-line in the region – language. Talking about the need to 'amalgamate' people from the region into the Indian mainstream, the General implied that Hindi could be a tool for this because people in Arunachal Pradesh know Hindi well.

What is the need to 'amalgamate' people from the region and why does Hindi have to be imposed on them? These are questions that politicians from the Hindi heartland have often been grilled about and they have been forced to baulk. Who will question the Army Chief?

Also, the General's statement on China and Pakistan deploying demographic change as strategy for proxy warfare in the region might lead to diplomatic repercussions soon. It will be interesting to see if the government will turn to the Army Chief then.

First published: 22 February 2018, 17:00 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.