CAA is a political issue. Use the Indian Army with care
The nationwide student protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have acquired a scale and intensity that is reflective of India’s deep democratic resilience. Some complex questions about the constitutional validity of the Act have been raised by citizens, particularly the young. A placard summarised the core of the student protests in a pithy manner: “We support Gandhi’s India and reject Savarkar’s India.’ One hopes that there would be an empathetic dialogue with the students in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation that debate and peaceful dissent are the way ahead, even as the Supreme Court deliberates over whether the CAA is ultra vires of the Constitution or not. Embedded in the CAA-related developments of the last week are two elements specific to the Army that merit objective scrutiny for their long-term national security implications and the integrity of Indian democracy.
On December 11, when the first protests broke out in the Northeast, the Army was called in. This may have been done as a precautionary measure in the event the police were unable to deal with the unrest. Consequently, two columns of the Army were deployed in Assam and Tripura, while another was kept on stand-by. However, the situation appears to have stabilised and no further Army deployments have been requisitioned as “aid to civil power”. This is to be welcomed.
Concurrently, Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan, the Army commander of the Eastern Command, made a statement about the CAA that raised eyebrows for its political overtones. Speaking in Kolkata on December 14, he observed: “The current government is keen on taking hard decisions that have been pending for a long time.” He further added that the CAA was passed “despite reservations from a couple of Northeastern states”.
Both elements merit a recall and contextualisation apropos the Indian experience of the last 72 years. “Aid to civil power” is a duty that the military has to carry out, as and when called upon to do so by the civilian authorities. The more common of these is humanitarian assistance and disaster relief tasks.
In recent decades, the primary duty of the military — defending the nation from external threats, and managing low-intensity insurgencies — has been rendered more complex by the transmutation of the internal security (IS) challenge with the arrival of religious radicalism and jihadi terrorism. Pakistan’s support to such terrorism and the penchant of its deep-State to fish in troubled waters was noted in Kashmir in early 1990 and continues.
Hence, the conclusion, that, for India, the external and internal strands of security are now braided in an inextricable manner and the security establishment has been dealing with an opaque proxy war for decades. Kashmir and Khalistan have become symbols of such manifestation and the Army has set up special Rashtriya Rifle (RR) units to deal with this complex challenge.
Given India’s geography, regional politics, and the distinctive South Asian demographic density, borders have become porous and dealing with the steady influx of illegal immigrants or refugees has been an abiding socio-political and security challenge for Delhi. This peaked in 1970, when almost 10 million refugees from East Pakistan sought shelter from the persecution and genocide that ensued at the time. The Northeast was flooded in a visible manner and the “outsider” problem has continued to fester. The illegal immigrant morphing into an armed infiltrator or emerging as a militant, jihadi terrorist is a concern for security, and the post-9/11 global anxiety is common to many nations. Hence, the genesis of the CAA is not devoid of latent security concerns. Lieutenant General SK Sinha, a former army vice chief and later governor of Assam, was among the first to articulate these concerns in relation to the Northeast.
How this matter will be resolved in an equitable and sustainable manner is an issue that calls for astute political initiatives, imbued with integrity and commitment to the national interest, that are framed within the spirit of the Constitution. This has remained both elusive and contested as the current student protests demonstrate. In the interim, it may be useful to recall the muddy politics-security linkage. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Congress nurtured the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. While this initiative may have given them short-term electoral advantage in Punjab, the nation paid a heavy price by way of the negative impact this opportunistic policy had on the internal security fabric and the collateral damage to the fauj.
Yes, the military must stand by to provide “aid to civil power”, when called upon but excessive tasking of the Army will blunt its salutary effect in domestic exigencies. An apolitical and professional military is vital for democratic integrity and it would be prudent if top military commanders refrain from making public statements that stray into the political domain. The CAA must be negotiated with the citizen, and it is desirable that the soldier remains outside this mediation.