No Holy Cow in a democracy

Sankara Narayanan

There is a general tendency to name anyone questioning the activities of the armed forces engaged in war with an enemy nation as anti-national. This labelling also extends to the reporting of commission and omission of the armed forces operating against native Indian combatants in conflict zones such as Jammu & Kashmir, North-East and Central Indian States.

This tendency has increased leaps and bounds during Modi rule. Even questioning the government of the day on border clash is treated as a serious anti-national act. The rulers and the middle class consider it inappropriate to doubt the intentions of the government of the day. Because it amounts to doubting the integrity of our ‘brave soldiers’. Intellectually empty at best and authoritarian at worst. The distinction between the army, govt and nation is not at all appreciated.

Reasons cited against questioning the operation of army: “The soldiers are risking their life to serve the nation. Hence they should not be questioned. They cannot be treated on par with civil servants and general public. If done so, that will damage the morale of the armed forces defending our borders under severe constraints”. In short, Army is a Holy Cow and beyond any criticism or probe. This is a dangerous Nazi opinion to make India a police state.

Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju rightly observes: "In a democracy the people are supreme and all authorities, whether President or the Prime Minister, Chief Minister, other ministers, judges, legislators, bureaucrats, police, army and so on are nothing but servants of the people." Once the principle of democracy is accepted, people being the masters have a right to criticise the political rulers, civil servants, judges, generals, army men, police etc just as a master has the right to criticise his servant. A democracy has no Holy Cow.

Undue glorification of the Army
People serve in the armed forces for livelihood. There is an occupational hazard in military service. Not that a soldier alone is doing national service. A teacher or a doctor or a nurse or a farmer or a sanitation worker is also doing national service. Death or disability met with by a soldier during operation is compensated by the state. Occupational hazard in military service cannot sanction immunity from inquiry or punishment in case of any wrong doing. For that matter, we have lost nearly 5 lakh farmers since 1995 through farm suicides. Sanitation workers are regularly perishing in the gutters while serving us hazardously. Will anyone venture to say farmers and sanitation workers, being in the national service under risky situation, are above scrutiny if they are committing any crime?

The state and very many educated elites oppose even the prosecution of some of the soldiers and officers found guilty of committing heinous crimes (killing/maiming unarmed civilians through fake encounters, raping women etc..) by judicial commissions. An army Major Nitin Gogoi had tied a Kashmiri civilian to the bonnet of a jeep as a "human shield" against stone pelters in the Kashmir Valley in May 2017. This is a punishable crime as per national and international laws. But he was awarded commendation card by the then Army Chief General Bipin Rawat for 'sustained efforts' on counter-insurgency operations. Gogoi was later given a clean chit by the Court of Inquiry.

On March 16, 1968, a platoon of American soldiers brutally killed as many as 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai in South Vietnam. Army command ordered that all who were found in My Lai could be guerrillas or active sympathizers and were told to destroy the village. Some American soldiers and journalists helped in collecting evidence of their own military’s brutality. The culprits were later prosecuted in America. No immunity was given to the soldiers though they acted as per the orders of their superiors. Just before Emergency Jaiprakash Narayan cited My Lai massacre case and cautioned the army and police not to kill unarmed civilians as it was against the law of the land and army & police manuals. JP was immediately crucified by Indira Gandhi’s supporters as anti-national creating mutiny in the armed forces and police. 

The BBC and the Falklands War
The BBC’s reporting of the Falklands War in 1982 was considered ‘treacherous’ by the Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher was outraged over the BBC's coverage of the war. She accused them of not supporting the war effort in the South Atlantic. The govt felt that what was broadcast by the BBC about the Falklands conflict was against the Britain’s national interests and the morale of the country and the troops. 

The Prime Minister, who had staked her political reputation on reclaiming the islands from Argentina, believed that – during the crucial second month of the conflict - the BBC had ‘exaggerated the case of a few dissidents'. BBC's refusal to refer to British troops as 'our boys' during the conflict was the tipping point.

The BBC’s director general and chairman were summoned to appear before a meeting of the Tory MPs’ Media Committee. During the meeting, MPs were so furious that one accused the BBC of being ‘obsequious’ (SUBSERVIENT, SERVILE, SLAVISH) to Argentina. In a separate row, Thatcher also accused the Corporation of ‘treacherously’ calling the troops ‘the British troops’ on Newsnight, rather than ‘us’ or ‘our’.

DG and the chairman of the BBC flatly refused to oblige the govt. They told that calling the troops ‘the British troops’ on Newsnight, rather than ‘us’ or ‘our’ was based on official BBC guidelines, which went to everyone at the Corporation. They went on to assert, "We should try to avoid using ‘our’ when we mean British. We are not Britain. We are the BBC. We are not a wing of the govt. Our commitment is to truth and not to the British govt".

Anti-war activism
While questioning or criticising the government and armed forces itself is considered unpatriotic in today’s India, let us see how free societies treated their citizens for holding anti-war and anti-state views.

American teachers and students were at the very forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War fought by their own government. They rejected the government’s notion of patriotism. Their right to dissent was not questioned even by those who condemned their views. Boxer Mohamed Ali's firm no to join the Vietnam War and his subsequent win in the US courts are etched in golden letters in the liberal tradition of America.

Economist and Gandhian thinker J C Kumarappa was studying in Columbia University in 1920s for his business administration degree. American govt was recruiting soldiers in Church campuses at that time. Though he was an immigrant student, he held demonstrations along with other friends condemning the govt for recruiting people for war during Sunday prayers in Church premises. He was neither arrested nor deported for this anti-recruitment and anti-govt demonstration.   

In 1933, the Oxford University Union held a famous debate on the motion, ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country.’ The Union voted for the motion by 275 votes to 153. This ‘Oxford Pledge’ was later adopted by students at the universities of Manchester and Glasgow. This sent shock waves through Britain. But none dreamed of arresting the students for committing treason.

Howard Zinn, an American professor, play write and civil rights and anti-war activist, once wrote, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

American government did not file cases against Prof Zinn for this daring non-conformist view. If Prof Zinn is around us today and has written the above lines in Indian shores, he will be facing thousands of sedition cases.

When JNU students were hounded for anti-national activities by the upstart desh bhakts in 2016, noted columnist Swaminathan Aiyar wrote, "I seethe with rage at politicians, officials and media stars who define what is patriotism and condemn all others as anti-national. I know fully what is and what isn’t a free society. Patriotism is not merely the last refuge, but the first refuge of many scoundrels".

His rage is absolutely justified amidst the current anti-national rants against those criticising and questioning the functioning of the govt in the ongoing Indo-China clashes.

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Jun 27, 2020

Sankara Narayanan

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