Indian analysts, newspapers and several opposition parties have slammed army chief General Bipin Rawat's controversial remark that “a planned influx” of people from Bangladesh into Assam as part of “a proxy war” by Pakistan with Chinese support has led to the growth of a Muslim party in that state.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen criticised General Rawat's remarks, but the main opposition Congress party chose not to comment.
However, ruling BJP spokesman Sambit Patra defended the army chief, saying he “should be saluted for his talk”.
Some BJP leaders, who requested anonymity, conceded that General Rawat's remarks were in consonance with the party's political stance on the influx of migrants into Assam.
The dominant view in India is that if the army chief had felt so strongly about the influx of people from Bangladesh into Assam, he should not have gone public with it and raised it within the government.
Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research, said “each of his assertions is open to question.”
He pointed out that though the migration of people from eastern part of Bengal had been on since the 19th century, “to suggest that we are witnessing a 'planned immigration' overseen by Pakistan and China appears to be an absurd overstatement”.
“Such observations could lead to avoidable diplomatic friction with China as well as Bangladesh,” Raghavan said.
He termed “equally surprising” General Rawat's statement that All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) headed by Badruddin Ajmal was growing in Assam faster than the BJP. And the claim that Pakistan wants this area to be taken over by Muslim immigrants “is a serious one for the army chief to voice”.
“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 National Register of Citizens and incendiary claims that Assam is fast turning into a Muslim-majority state,” Raghavan said, adding “surely, the army chief was not unaware of the political context.”
The army chief “should 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 and foreign policy,” he mentioned.
Security analyst Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow of New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation, said General Rawat's comments were “over-the-top”.
“Rawat had no business to make a public assessment of the politics of Assam. Just why a party grows faster than another is dependent on a variety of factors, not in the least the possibility that it is gaining at the expense of another party in the region.
“The rise and fall of political parties have more to do with election dynamics than any insidious migration,” he added.
“The army chief or anyone else has zero proof that Pakistan and China were master-minding the alleged influx… the entire Bangladesh border is fenced and patrolled, and if he has questions on its porosity, he would do well to take it up officially with the Border Security Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs,” he said.
Joshi noted, “Army personnel have all the right to discuss politics and have views, strong or otherwise. But their conduct rules are strict about making public comments on political issues.
“Senior officers are often called on to speak on various issues in seminars and conferences. … Sensitive issues involving politics can be taken up with the proper civilian authorities but this is best done through official channels away from the media,” he mentioned.
An editorial in The Indian Express described General Rawat's remarks as “disturbing”, and said they “threaten to hurt the balance of India's relations with Bangladesh, China and Pakistan and undo the gains.”
It also termed “problematic” the army chief's use of the word “lebensraum”, “given its close association with the Nazi policies in Eastern Europe in the 20th century”.
The editorial agreed that General Rawat's public statements “can potentially sharpen the anxieties and insecurities” at a time when the National Register of Citizens is being updated in Assam.
The Indian Express said that while the army chief “is bound to have views on matters that directly affect the employment and well-being of his men but those views must be shared with government officials or the political leadership behind closed doors, not announced publicly.”
“The apolitical nature of the army and its chief is essential to the character of Indian democracy and any shift in the balance of civil-military relations would be disturbing,” it said.
The Times of India in its editorial described General Rawat's remarks as “totally unnecessary”, saying “as a serving army chief, Rawat ought to refrain from making public political comments.”
“Rawat's choice of words, irrespective of actual intentions, creates the impression that he views AIUDF as Chinese-Pakistani proxies.
“It is not part of his job to meddle in politics; that must be avoided at all costs,” said The Times of India.
“Commenting on a political party muddies waters and creates opportunities to cast aspersions on the institution of the army. Rawat must strictly maintain the army's political neutrality -- else we would become a bit like Pakistan,” noted the editorial.
While Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman declined to comment on General Rawat's remarks, BJP spokesman Sambit Patra told a TV channel the army chief was commenting on “important aspect of national security.”
“It is only natural that the socio-political, demographic, cultural aspects should be discussed,” he said, adding “in fact, the army should be saluted for his talk”.