Army chief Rawat’s statements ahistorical, poorly judged

Army chief General Bipin Rawat sparked a political row with his remarks that the All India United Democratic Front has been growing faster than the BJP in Assam because of support of Muslims, with Pakistan and China pushing Bangladeshi migrants into the North-east.

opinion Updated: Feb 23, 2018 07:25 IST
Srinath Raghavan
Srinath Raghavan
Hindustan Times
Bipin Rawat,Rawat on northeast,AIUDF
Army chief Bipin Rawat’s remarks about the rise of the AIUDF and changing demography in the northeast drew a sharp backlash from the Assam-based party’s chief Badruddin Ajmal, who called the comments “politically driven and shocking”. (PTI File Photo)

The Chief of Army Staff’s remarks on February 21 at a seminar co-organised by the HQ Integrated Defence Staff have triggered a flurry of responses. To understand why his comments are problematic, we need to unpack their content and place them in a wider context. Start with his analysis of the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh into the northeastern states.

General Rawat acknowledged that such movement of peoples happens owing to two reasons. The first is the sheer demographic pressure on the land in Bangladesh. The second, which he emphasised, is “planned immigration” taking place owing to the machinations of Pakistan with the support of China. Pakistan, he argued, was waging a form of proxy war: “they will always try and ensure that this area is taken over”.

Each of these assertions is open to question. The point about demographic pressure is well taken, though it is surprising that the army chief chose to use the word “lebensraum” to describe it: apparently he is unaware of the deeply distasteful association of the word with the policy of the Nazis in eastern Europe. More importantly, large-scale movement of people from Bangladesh is a long-standing trend going back to the late 19th century.

During the colonial period, the integration of rural eastern Bengal into global circuits of commercial exchange led to increased agricultural production — not because of better technology or higher productivity but by the sheer extension of the land under plow. By the end of the 19th century, this process had reached its ecological limits. It was in this context that migration of eastern Bengal began not only to Assam and Tripura, but also the Arakan (Rakhine state in Myanmar). This secular long-term trend has not been easy to control or regulate for the states in the region. To suggest that we are witnessing “planned immigration” overseen by Pakistan and China appears to be an absurd overstatement.

It is casts an unwarranted aspersion on the sovereignty of Bangladesh. The current government has made strenuous efforts to root out the ISI’s activities in the country and maintained a balanced posture towards China. Such observations could lead to avoidable diplomatic friction with China as well as Bangladesh. If the army chief does feel so strongly, it better to raise it within the councils of government rather in a public forum.

Equally surprising was General Rawat’s statement that the AIUDF was growing even faster than the BJP, particularly in the light of what he previously said. The claim that Pakistan wants this area to be “taken over”— seemingly by Muslim immigrants — is a serious one for the army chief to voice, as anyone familiar with the history and politics of Assam will recognise. The suggestion that a regional political party is the direct beneficiary of the “planned immigration” by Pakistan is a significant observation — especially in the context of the bubbling unrest over the preparation of the National Register of Citizens and incendiary claims that Assam is fast turning into a Muslim-majority state. Surely the Army Chief was not unaware of this political context?

This is not, of course, the first occasion when General Rawat’s remarks have occasioned criticism. The army chief is welcome to express his views on military and operational issues, but he has to be mindful of the domestic and international audiences that will interpret his statements and of the need to avoid venturing into the terrain of domestic or foreign policy. At a time when the credibility of our public institutions — ranging from the Supreme Court to the RBI—is under question, it is imperative that the army chief’s statements should comport with the apolitical character of his office.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

First Published: Feb 23, 2018 07:23 IST