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The Indian Army Head Count Fiasco

Many have written and condemned the recent head count of Muslims in the Indian Army. Ostensibly, the government of India wanted to provide better/equal economic opportunities to the Muslims in India. To many, this was another low in appeasing the minority, aka vote-bank politics. Others saw this as another audacious attempt to violate and destroy a respected institution. But millions of Indians saw this as another attempt to undo India. The government finally had to call off the head count after facing unprecedented protests.

The Army, Navy and the Air Force in India are truly apolitical institutions. Unlike the civil and police services, they are highly respected for their professional excellence Not that the civil and police services are less capable – only their pathetic track record has shown them to be more pliable to the political masters than the armed forces. The controversy itself was not surprising because this is not the first time the Indian Army or any of the Services, for that matter, faced such actions. Several talented senior officers have been denied the top job because they were upright and would not allow themselves to be cowed down.

There is nothing wrong in seeking data on the number of Muslims and their job profiles in the Army. But in a country where Hindu-Muslim relations are at best sensitive, such a move was unwise. Coming in the wake of a host of measures that were playing to the minority gallery like declaring Aligarh Muslim University a minority institution, reservation for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, etc, many saw this as the proverbial last straw. General J.J Singh, the Chief of the Army needs to be commended for his guts and will to stand up to a political leadership that was hell bent on creating divisions even in an institution that was admired and respected by all Indians. Generations of Indians will remember this act.

This fiasco in many ways was unique and unprecedented. Many, particularly the political class, are oblivious to the powerful undercurrents to this sad episode. Notice that the General was one of the first to speak out on the issue. He stuck to his guns even when the defense minister told the press that there was nothing wrong with the head count. Then there was this volley of protests from retired generals like Gen.Sinha, Gen. Raghavan, and Gen Kadiyan. Many ex-servicemen took to the streets to protest. This opened the flood gates and every opinion maker – big and small - raised his/her voice. It served as a powerful catalyst to mould public opinion. All over the country, people started expressing disgust. Also notice the absence of stone throwing or burning of buses and rasta-rokos.

In a free society the will of the people is respected. But in practice this rarely happens. Whose will? Power brokers and lobbies or select constituencies of political interest groups!! More so in a fractured polity like today’s India. With a wafer thin majority in Parliament and coalition partners waiting to pull the government down, India today probably has the one of the weakest government ever. Such instability has engendered feverish partisan and short sighted gambles by interest groups within the government. They only know too well their tenure is limited. So who cares for long term interests?

The lack of good political leadership is too obvious to repeat. Their myopia has blinded the impact of opinion makers standing up and voicing their protests. With the electronic and print media having unprecedented reach in India, these opinion makers have made waves – nay tsunamis of public opinion. Remember 700 million Indians are below the age of 35 and a huge portion of this young India is still impressionable; most are better educated, better informed and have better jobs than their parents. These stand up opinion makers – from armchair editorialists to bloggers to internet news portals – themselves have not fully gauged their impact. They are impacting this new India. The result was a huge wave of public discontent and anger at these moves. This is a phenomenon that future politicians have to keep in mind. Gone are the days where you could, by artful word play, obfuscate real issues. Information has empowered even the poorest of poor citizens in remote India. Granted huge areas remain outside the reach of this new information age. But my bet is that it will be increasingly difficult for the politicians to continue to dupe their constituencies. This is to be seen in the regional elections that are coming up in the next few months.

Public opinion has suddenly taken the centre stage in India. One would expect this to happen in a healthy democracy. It has been late to arrive; but arrive it did with a bang. The government called off the head count because of stand up public anger. Witness the national outrage at the Jessica Lal case; Stand up scientists protested against what they feared was against India’s interest in the nuclear deal with the U.S. Well, these scientists were not fired. They were heard by the Prime Minister and that probably forced him to take a tough stand. Stand up scientists in India is a new phenomenon. Stand up public opinion has suddenly added new inputs and variables in the political calculations. This is distinctly different from the stone-throwing bus-burning variety. They live side by side in India; but we have a new kid on the block and we all need to watch and hear what this kid has to say. There are many who do want to have their say and the free flow of information has made this possible – cheap and easy!!! Either way, they have found a way to be heard. At last!!!

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