The row over outgoing Army Chief’s remark on recent protests is quite unfortunate and has unintentionally brought the security forces in the narrative
The controversy over remarks by outgoing Army chief General Bipin Rawat is a clear case of interpretation doing more harm than the original statement. With all shades of opinion joining the acrimony, the armed forces have been willy-nilly drawn into the highly politicised issue of citizenship laws.
"Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate direction. We are witnessing in large number of universities and colleges that students are leading masses and crowds to carry out arson and violence in cities and towns. This is not leadership," the Army chief said at an event in New Delhi.
But for the various interpretations, this could have been considered an innocuous statement: a kind of aphorism that causing damage to public property is a highly objectionable act. Given that the national television channels have been airing footages of violence by members of the crowd protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act and related legislation, any duty-conscious citizen would be justified in feeling upset.
So, the comment by the Army chief on his way out, when generally people get a bit philosophical about life and perhaps the office that one is about to remit, could have been taken at whatever it was worth. And, even if he had meant what has now been ascribed to him, it would have been 'lost in translation'.
But with political parties and leaders pouncing upon the veteran soldier, the comments have acquired a dimension that looks indeed dangerous. Whether General Rawat intended it that way or not, if the Army is shown to be taking sides on a highly political issue, it would do no good to either the security forces or the country that they have been defending with unimpeachable commitment and integrity.
The retiring Army chief had every reason to be upset about the disturbing visuals on the television channels. Vandalism in the form of stone-throwing and hurling of bricks, use of sticks and similar weapons of attack and setting public property on fire are all highly objectionable conduct. How can he be faulted for describing it as 'inappropriate' behaviour?
In fact, he was only reflecting on a fundamental duty of the citizens to 'safeguard public property and abjure violence', which is enlisted in Article 51 A of the Constitution. Similarly, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, explicitly makes damage to public property by an individual punishable with a jail term of six months extendable up to five years.
The Supreme Court itself has spoken sternly against agitators holding the country to ransom during protests and expressed serious concern over damage to public property during agitations.
"No one can hold the country to ransom during agitations. Whether it is BJP, Congress or any other organisation, they must realise that they can be held accountable for the damages to public property. Whoever is holding protests, they will collect the money and pay for the damages. What is happening in this country? This is happening everywhere now," a bench headed by Justice J S Khehar had had said in 2016 in the wake of widespread damage to public property in the Patidar quota agitation in Gujarat and the Jat agitation in Haryana.
The court also asked the Central government to prepare guidelines on how to effectively deal with such violations. The two agitations had claimed 18 lives, fewer than the toll in the ongoing protests against the citizenship laws.
The guidelines were supposed to include directions to fix accountability for the damage done to public property during protests. The court favoured making those who issued the call for the protest to pay for the damage to public property.
But this is easier said than done. Whenever such incidents occur, the organisers of the protest claim that the violence is caused by outside elements and despite the advances in technology, it is often difficult to identify the perpetrators. So, the Supreme Court is not convinced about the excuse.
In fact, Chief Justice SA Bobde had refused to hear petitions relating to the Jamila Millia clashes during the protest against CAA, until violence and damage to public property stopped.
"Just because they happen to be students, it doesn't mean they can take law and order in their hands, this has to be decided when things cool down. This is not the frame of mind when we can decide anything. Let the rioting stop," Justice Bobde had said.
Yet, nobody accused the Chief Justice of taking sides with the ruling alliance. General Rawat, therefore, should have been shown a certain generosity for his comments. But unfortunately, these have been blown out of proportion, and in the process, the security forces have been dragged into the narrative.
Views expressed are strictly personal