This post is a result of the 140 word tyranny of Twitter which, while well suited for one-liners and retorts, handicaps expressing of a complex idea coherently. I was trying to refute a view that serving soldiers of the armed forces are banned from expressing political views on social media, and after trying to argue my case via serialised tweets, decided that it called for a blog post instead.
Let’s get some basics sorted out first. The Indian Army is, and MUST remain, an apolitical organisation. No two ways or arguing about that. My book ‘Riding the Raisina Tiger’ is about a scenario where it ceases to remain such, and the consequences. However, that should not and does not mean that individuals who form part of the organisation also need to be bereft of any political views as individuals, or that they should be prevented from legal expression of those views in their individual capacities. This is part of their fundamental rights as citizens.
It is true that on joining the armed forces, an individual agrees to some of his or her fundamental rights being restricted. These are laid down in Army Act Section 21 , which accords the Central government “Power to modify certain fundamental rights in their application to persons subject to this Act.” Sub section (b) empowers the government to “make rules restricting to such extent and in such manner as may be necessary the right of any person subject to this Act to attend or address any meeting or take part in any demonstration organised by any body of persons for any political or other purposes.” There is therefore no restriction for them to have and express political opinions as individuals.
Since the Army Act dates back to 1950, much before the advent of social media or the internet, it does not cover the conduct of persons subject to it online. This gap is filled by instructions issued be service HQs covering the Do’s and Don’t for serving personnel while posting online. The are as under.
So, in effect, there is no rule prohibiting armed forces personnel from expressing their personal political views on social media individually. And that, I believe, is the way things should be. For in the army of an independent democracy, the solider is also a citizen with voting rights. He therefore is expected to have a political opinion to be able to exercise his franchise judiciously. And in this day and age of feedback driven world, wouldn’t it be unfair both to him and to those who represent him to deprive him of the freedom of expression which would convey his opinion to the political class and allow the same to be an input in their decision making process.
That brings me to the disturbing fact that a large number of people suffer from this misconception, probably stemming from an idea of what they feel ‘ought to be’. They seem to associate, or rather mix up, the apolitical nature of the organisation with the political awareness of individuals who form the organisation. This point of view possibly originates from within the army itself, which was traditionally a colonial force with rules framed to suit the colonial masters. Ever apprehensive of a mutiny and aware that the army was the lynchpin of their ability to maintain their rule, it made sense for them to bar not only political activity amongst soldiers, but also discourage harbouring of any political thoughts or opinions at all. That was also the reason why traditionally soldiers were isolated in sanitized cantonments and discouraged to fraternise with civilian population of places where they were posted.
Post independence, this mindset was difficult to shed by senior officers themselves, having been brought up in such an environment, and therefore they continued to discourage political thought. This also suited the leaders of the nascent government, in whose minds the colonial regime’s fear of mutiny was replaced by dread of a political coup by the army. The fact that till recently, there was no concerted effort by either the military or the civilian leadership to ensure that soldiers got to actually exercise their right to vote , is demonstrative of this.
Today, almost seven decades after independence, things have changed in a couple of ways. The army has remained an apolitical organisation, having repeatedly proved itself in war and in peacetime turmoils. The spectre of a military takeover doesn’t haunt the political leadership (or at least, given the track record, it shouldn’t). Also, and significantly, the soldiers and officers today are more connected with the ‘outside world’ thanks to increasing awareness and availability of improved tools including mobiles, internet and social media. To say that a soldier of the 21st century would not have a political opinion would be naive. And to deny him the expression of the same, within the framework of existing rules, would be curbing his fundamental rights over and beyond what is laid down in the Army Act.
Enlightened democracies world over have rational and liberal rules in this regard. The policy in the US armed forces with regard to political activities by soldiers is illustrative.
Not only are they explicitly allowed to express their “personal views or public candidates” but, unlike restrictions still in force in India, they are even permitted to “join a partisan or non-partisan political club and attend its meetings when not in uniform.” The riders to these are that they do so in their personal capacity, and as individuals not collectively as a group of soldiers.
It is time, therefore, to shed our outdated perceptions about what does and does not constitute an apolitical army. To put the record straight, it implies that while collectively and as an organisation participation in politics and expression of policial views are proscribed, there are no restrictions in doing so in an individual capacity.