by Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas
I have been a proud member of the uniformed fraternity for nearly forty-five years before retiring as Head of the Indian Navy in 1993. The present turbulence in our top academic institutions together with continuing manifestations of mob violence, totalitarian behaviour and intolerance, impel me once again, to speak up and share my concerns through this open letter. My two recent letters to the President and Prime Minister have not elicited more than a routine bureaucratic response. I am well aware that I may be one of the few from the fraternity of retired military veterans who continue to take public positions which might not always be in support of government policy. However, I see this is both a right and a duty of a former serviceman and a citizen like myself. I am well aware that serving members in uniform cannot express themselves as per the service conduct rules. However, we veterans out of uniform certainly can and must. If people like myself are quiet today, my grandchildren will ask me “If not you then who”, “if not now, then when”, Thatha?
I refer to the train of events that began with the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) in December 2015 and continues till today with the unresolved JNU saga. The unprecedented entry of police into the Campus, the ensuing high decibel, high voltage “trial by media”, and subsequent student arrests under serious charges ranging from sedition, anti nationalism and terrorism, has hit headlines across the country. This has created an avoidable polarisation of views thanks to the entire episode having been handled with a lack of sensitivity and blown into a full scale crisis where students are being demonised and conspiracy theories abounding. Thousands of students and civil society groups as well as journalists, have been out on the streets of Delhi taking out some of the biggest, peaceful rallies seen in recent times.
Let me briefly rewind to my personal profile so as to better understand where I am coming from.
I joined the fledgling Indian Navy in January 1949 – barely 16 months after we gained our independence. It was a time of great expectations, big dreams and opportunities. The selection for entry into the Armed Forces of a resurgent India at the end of the sustained struggle against British colonial rule, was heady indeed for a young fifteen year old. Those 45 years in the Navy provided me a panoramic view of events that have unfolded across the world stage. And certainly I had a ring side view of events in an India that had been traumatised by the unprecedented brutality and slaughter of partition – the scars of which linger on in my personal and our collective consciousness on both sides of our borders.
Brick by brick, step by painful step, leaders and citizens together created and built a vision of a new and a free India. This vision, the product of long and tough debates within the Constituent Assembly, sought to encompass the huge and often conflicting diversities that had to be accommodated within the framework of a path breaking Constitutional document. Incorporating the often divergent views of an impressive range of thinkers and visionaries, the Indian Constitution firmly rejected a narrow, exclusionary monoculture in favour of a revolutionary definition of nationhood that was inclusive, confident and transformative under the guiding hand of Baba Saheb Ambedkar.
Armed Forces and the Nation
The Armed Forces of this newly independent nation were an equal part of this combined effort of nation building in a variety of ways -trained as we were to conduct ourselves with discipline and professionalism combined with compassion and a sense of our common humanity and purpose.
The unspoken and sacred credo has been that those in the armed forces will remain a-political. Indeed we forgo many of the normal rights as a citizen, enshrined in the Constitution when we join the Armed Forces. The accepted practice of honouring the principle of political control over the armed forces has been followed without exception ever since independence. However, the quid pro quo of this arrangement, unwritten as it is, implies that the government of the day will discharge its responsibilities towards the people [including the military] with honour and integrity.
After retirement each of us uniformed persons reverts to being a citizen of India, with all the implications of rights, duties and responsibilities that citizenship implies. The Regulations Navy/Army/Airforce are no longer in force. Whether in or out of uniform – we veterans have valued our right to vote – the hall mark of our democratic polity. Exercising our vote does mean that each of us would also choose a particular political position or perspective. The four decades of service in a maturing yet turbulent democracy most certainly impacted my political thinking post retirement.
Man of War to Man of Peace
After my retirement in September 1993, I moved to a village in Alibag, Maharashtra, where I practice organic farming and continue to live till today. Living in rural India has been a total re-education and one which has given me profound insights . I have shared the ups and downs of the life of an ordinary farmer – influenced by the vagaries of weather and pollution, local politics, threats of being evicted for so called development under SEZ, and much more. My years in uniform and first hand experience of two wars, together with a closer understanding of the imminent agrarian crisis which affects some 70% of our population, has directly influenced my belief that true liberation or “azadi” from poverty and hunger, will only come when and if the elites of this land demonstrate greater integrity and less greed. Recent disclosures by the RBI in response to an RTI question by the Indian Express revealed that an amount of 2.11 lakh crores of loans are still owing to the public sector banks by Industry. It has been reported that nearly half of this amount has been written off between 2013 and 2015 by the Govt as bad loans. Surprisingly neither this information nor its impact on the economy has yet been divulged by the Finance Ministry. And yet we have heard strong criticism about the petty amounts granted for education of scholars from weaker sections , in JNU and other universities, as examples of tax payers money being ill spent! We seldom question the fact that loans too come from tax payers money.
To achieve a more just society based on sustainable development, we must build peace through better neighbourhood management. This means finding political solutions to existing problems. Then alone can we reduce our spending on armaments, regulate consumption, balance energy demands, and provide citizens with food , shelter, education, health and employment. I have led and been part of a sustained movement against SEZs in Raigad, and continue to push initiatives for renewable energy. Concerns over safety, cost and waste disposal, have contributed to my active engagement with the movement for Nuclear Disarmament and to end nuclear power by finding carbon free and nuclear free solutions. Efforts to strengthen the peace dividend have led me to take on leadership of organisations like the PIPFPD [Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy]and IPSI [India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace] . Both PIPFPD and IPSI have promoted people to people contact and better relations with Pakistan. I am also totally opposed to Capital Punishment and the Death Penalty, as also the continued imposition of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act [AFSPA ] – about which I have written and spoken publicly in several fora.
In my view each of the above, constitute areas of engagement which we as citizens not only have a right but a duty to address, even if it is against the policy of any particular government of the day. Does any of the above make me or anyone else anti national? Or less patriotic ? or a Desh Drohi?
I believe not.
My stand on this derives from the principle that political parties and governments alike are bound by the Constitution of the land. Every citizen has the right and the freedom to think and express views without fear of reprisal. The obsolete colonial law of sedition has no place in a modern democracy.
Therefore the question arises : why are we arraigning a Rohith Vemula, a Kanhaiya Kumar and an Umed Khalid under charges of being anti-national, seditious or terrorist activities? From available material it appears that these three young men were only acting to further the objectives outlined in our constitution and not indulging in any anti-national activity.
Nationalism And Who Defines It
In some ways it is a good thing that the death of Vemula, the arrest of Kanhaiya and the witch hunt against Umed Khalid, have actually led to a public debate about the definition of national and anti national, as also of the deeper and more intractable issues around caste, religion and discrimination in our society. The linked question regarding who, if anyone, has the right to decide on my nationalism or lack of it, is equally vexed and needs a longer, more mature discussion. To the best of my knowledge this has not been done since Independence. The existing laws and practice on this are largely inherited from the colonial period and were never addressed in a contemporary framework. This is critical for a mature democracy. Jingoism, waving the national flag, and shouting slogans , are not equivalent to a certification of patriotism. Upping the ante and making allegations of seditious behaviour and terrorist ties – may not pass judicial scrutiny. Many have publicly disagreed with the sloganeering and forms of protest, but none of this is new or radical . Certainly it is ludicrous to think that a few students can threaten the unity of the country, as is sought to be established by some media houses and their invisible paymasters.
If anything has been a matter of deep concern to someone like me, it is the spectacle of alleged members of the legal profession being allowed to run amok in the courtroom and to both threaten and actually assault scribes, students, teachers and Kanhaiya Kumar. All this, while the large numbers of police present apparently stood by and did nothing from all accounts. This is unacceptable from a uniformed, and a so called disciplined police force.
I have been through the wide range of written reports, and audio-visual material available in the public domain on the JNU and HCU imbroglio. The real tragedy to me lies in the fact that this entire exercise of raising the alarm on foreign funded, possibly terrorist and seditious activies, has been orchestrated in order to demand the shutting down and ‘sanitising‘ such a prestigious institution. One is forced to conclude that this smacks of a ‘false flag exercise’. And this is serious. By all means investigate the matter; allow the university officials to handle the students with appropriate disciplinary action. But great discretion and caution must be exercised before calling in the police; and worse , to make serious charges of sedition.
Those who are leading the clamour for shutting down and/or “sanitisation” of JNU seem to have no idea of what this implies, and are exhibiting a frightening tendency to follow the mob blindly.
This might be a good moment to remind ourselves that in addition to being held in high esteem internationally, JNU is also among the few universities in India which recognises the courses run by Military Institutions like the NDA, NDC, the Naval Academy and others. Ties between service institutions and university departments have been carefully forged in order that our military personnel continue to benefit from these interactions and remain at the cutting edge of the latest strategic thinking. There are several service personnel who have had the benefit of attending academic courses at JNU and indeed are among the Alumnii. There are also civil servants and police officers who are in a similar category. I have intentionally mentioned this so that my band of brothers and sisters amongst ex-service veterans will carefully weigh the consequences of any hasty actions such as returning degrees and awards.
I have outlined at some length the many reasons for why I write this note today. It is imperative that senior public figures like myself and others speak out, to raise an alarm, before it is too late. Recent history has shown us that totalitarian regimes have come to power because good people chose to keep silent. Above all else it is imperative that we must preserve our democratic spaces and the freedom, indeed the right, to question, to dissent and to debate – especially in our institutions of higher learning. JNU has been a frontrunner in producing thinkers and professionals who are not scared to speak out. Frankly, after listening carefully to the speech of the young union leader – Kanhaiya – it left me with a reassuring feeling that all must be well in this complex and disparity riddled country if a young man in his twenties can speak with such compassion, intellect and passion about the real challenges and dangers we face in this land.
Far more than saluting a flag [which of course I continue to do with honour and respect] – it is the thoughts articulated by young idealists like a Rohit Vemula, a Kanhaiya Kumar, a Shehla Rashid and yes a Umar Khaled all of whom together with the many unnamed and unsung women and men across this country, embody the true spirit of nationalism and patriotism. We must collectively ensure that we not only protect those who have not yet been pushed to take the extreme steps like Rohith Vemula, but ensure that justice is promised and done to those presently in custody or forced into hiding, for fear of their lives.
In the ultimate analysis , human security is the best guarantee for National Security.
Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas is a former Chief of Naval Staff. This article first appeared on The Citizen.