The Chief of Army Staff of India, General Bipin Rawat, has not minced his words. He was unambiguous and forthright. At a seminar jointly organised by the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies and the Ministry of Defence, recently held in Delhi, the army chief shared his thoughts on Northeast India. What was meant to be a talk of a professional soldier on 'Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders' of the region turned out to be an exercise in commenting on state politics of Assam with religious insinuation. More importantly for us, the general's observations betrayed the prevailing perception of an important section of the Indian establishment about Bangladesh.
Rawat expressed deep concern on the burgeoning popularity of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and attributed it to changes in population dynamics of Northeast India, particularly Assam. The increase in the number of Muslim-majority districts from five to eight or nine in Assam was presented as evidence. Claiming that the AIUDF has “grown in a faster timeframe than the Bharatiya Janata Party grew over the years,” he warned, “Finally, what will be the state of Assam, we have to take a call.” As a recipe to avert the impending crisis, the army chief put forward his theory of “amalgamation” of the people of the region with the mainstream through teaching them Hindi, an issue that is likely to hit a raw nerve in the Northeast.
At a time when respectable Northeast observers are stressing that improvement in human development indicators in Bangladesh (which in many cases surpassed that of India) has resulted in cessation of flow of undocumented migrants from the country to the region, the Indian army chief finds it critical to establish that such migration continues unabated because of Bangladesh's need for “Lebensraum”—the German word for “living space” first used by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. “Large parts of their areas get flooded … during monsoons. So they have very constricted areas to stay in, so people will continue coming into our place, into our areas,” notes the wise general.
He then unfurls his key point: Inability to stave off a stronger nation (India) through conventional operations has led its detractors to opt for “planned immigration” through a “proxy game.” “I think this proxy game is being very well played by our Western neighbour (Pakistan), supported also by our northern neighbour (China), to keep the area disturbed. We will continue to see this kind of migration happening,” Rawat surmises.
The chief's candid observations have triggered a wide array of reactions. The Indian army was quick to counter suggestions that General Rawat “had made any political or religious remarks.” “Army Chief just mentioned amalgamation and development in the seminar on Northeast,” it noted. When her attention was drawn, the Union Minister for Defence refused to comment on the matter. The ruling BJP leaders of different tiers almost unequivocally welcomed and extended their endorsement. Perhaps sensitivity of the issue led the Indian National Congress leaders to refrain from making comments. Quite understandably, the army chief's statement was widely condemned by the AIUDF, and other opposition political parties including those belonging to the political left.
The suggestion of covert support of Pakistan and China to various forces in the Northeast states has been a well-known rhetoric of the Indian security establishment. The general's revelation that Islamabad and Beijing have joined hands to encourage migration from Bangladesh to destabilise the region has taken that rhetoric to a new height.
The Rawat offensive raises some important questions.
Firstly, is the army chief mandated to monitor the rise and decline of a political party? Furthermore, in a democratic dispensation, if a political party begins to garner support, is it right to view this as the result of irregular migration of people of a particular faith? Has not the army chief risked stoking religious tensions in an already politically charged milieu?
Secondly, by commenting on political and religious affairs of a constituent state of the Indian Union, has not the general overstepped his remit? Can there be any doubt that the statement was indeed politically motivated and compatible with the BJP's divisive communal politics? Given the fact that bypassing two competent senior colleagues, Rawat was cherry-picked by the BJP administration in December 2016; was this a payback effort of the general?
Thirdly, by proposing “amalgamation” of the people of the Northeast into the mainstream through espousing Hindi language, has not the army chief been promoting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's educational and social agenda, undermining the constitutional guarantee of equal status of all languages of the land and the much-coveted concept of “unity through respecting diversity”?
Fourthly, has not General Rawat breached existing conventions and codes of conduct of high functionaries of the state?
Fifthly, if indeed there was irregular migration from Bangladesh, was not it incumbent on the general to furnish evidence to back his claim? While people are not surprised by irresponsible statements of politicians, should not they expect fact-based rational comments from persons holding high offices, such as that of the chief of army staff?
And finally, has not General Rawat's tagging of Bangladesh with Pakistan and China amounted to blatant aspersion on a sovereign nation? Does this not undermine good relations with a country that has done everything within its power to address, among other things, the security concerns of India pertaining to the Northeast and a country that is being enticed to collaborate on matters of defence?
The response of Bangladesh government to the Rawat offensive has been disappointing. The government is yet to come up with any formal reaction. Good neighbourly relations with Bangladesh deserve a clarification of this statement.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.