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  • When individuals win and institutions lose

    Posted On March 11, 2018

    By Karan Thapar

    Could it be that former holders of high constitutional office, where neutrality is a sine qua non, are unconcerned about the message their post-retirement behaviour sends out? Are they oblivious of the possibility their conduct could raise disturbing questions about the institution they used to head?  Or do they simply not care?

    I’m writing this with specific reference to Gen. V. K. Singh, who served 42 years in the army and rose to be its chief. But, sadly, he’s not the only example. He’s just the latest.

    Recently, photographs of Gen. Singh, now Minister of State for External Affairs, dressed in full RSS uniform and surrounded by other RSS members have been widely circulated. They came as a rude shock not just to me but many others who want to protect the secularism of our army. Alas, that’s not a principle the RSS respects.

    Whilst the RSS does not accept the separate religious identities of India’s muslims, christians, sikhs, buddhists, parsis and jains, insisting they’re all hindus, the army has the deepest respect for every individual religion. Regiments of the Indian Army, depending on their character, have their own mandirs, masjids, gurudwaras or churches. They have regimental maulvis, pandits, granthis and priests. Indeed, I’m told if a unit has 120 soldiers of a particular religion it will automatically have a religious functionary of that faith.

    Army Commanding Officers participate in all religious festivals. On Eid they will happily wear a topi, on Diwali a tikka and on Gurupurab a pagri. In fact, the army is the only place where a maulvi will conduct the proceedings on Janmashtami if the regimental pandit is on leave!

    None of this is true of the RSS. Actually, it’s perceived as the complete opposite. So what does it mean when a former chief embraces this organization? Was he a secret RSS member during his years of military service? Was his commitment to the army’s principle of religious neutrality hypocritical? And, most worryingly of all, are there other RSS-supporters masquerading in uniform who the army is unaware of?

    When a former chief allows such questions to be raised about the institution he recently served it’s more than disillusioning. It’s distressing. It suggests he was unfit for the uniform he wore. That also means he didn’t deserve the respect he got as army chief.

    However, Gen. Singh is not unique. We’ve had chief election commissioners who, on retirement, have joined politics and gone on to become cabinet ministers. Yet M. S. Gill was unconcerned about the questions this raised regarding his neutrality as CEC or, for that matter, the institution itself. We’ve also had chief justices of India who’ve accepted partisan political membership of the Rajya Sabha and the party discipline that imposes on them. Yet Ranganath Misra didn’t care about the doubts this created for the Supreme Court and judiciary.

    The errant General, it seems, is part of an inglorious tradition. It also includes comptroller and auditor generals who became MPs and Supreme Court judges who became Lok Sabha Speakers or Governors.

    In each case the individual may have benefited but the institution lost out. Even greater damage was done to the morality that should underpin our public values and democracy. When propriety is ignored in the pursuit of self-interest the idea of India is diminished. And when that happens at the hands of former army chiefs or judges an apology is insufficient. But do these people even feel sorry for what they’ve done?

    (A third collection of Sunday Sentiments columns called As I Like It was published on Wednesday by Wisdom Tree.)

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