Sandeep Dikshit made a terrible mistake but he’s also paid for it with an embarrassing public apology. He was wrong to equate the army chief with a sadak ka gunda. This wasn’t just an insult to General Rawat but, more importantly, to the office he holds. The institution of the army chief – although not necessarily the incumbent – must be treated with respect even whilst criticising it. Dikshit breached this critical rule. It hardly matters whether he did so inadvertently or deliberately.
However, Dikshit has apologised, fully and unreservedly. If his offence was serious his apology is unequivocal and that is why it should bring the matter to an end. In a civilised society the offence must cease when an apology is delivered. That, after all, is a key rule of gentlemanly conduct.
However, Dikshit has raised a far wider and more important issue and even if it was not his explicit intention to do so I, today, am deliberately choosing to elaborate this more significant point. The army – and that very definitely includes the army chief – is not above criticism and must not be protected from legitimate and sincere critique.
In a democracy every institution of state must face criticism when it’s justified and deserved. If that includes the prime minister – and it most certainly does – how can it possibly exclude the army and its chief? This point is not just self-evident and obvious but, I would add, incontestable. I know of no credible democracy where this is not the case.
During World War I and, perhaps, more significantly World War II, whilst Britain’s forces were suffering reverses, its army and generals were subjected to damaging but justified criticism. It was, in fact, a test of Britain’s commitment to democracy and the principle of free speech, even in the face of a rampaging Adolf Hitler.
But why go so far back in time? After the worst reverses in the 1962 India-China War, Atal Bihari Vajpayee demanded a special session of Parliament to which Nehru readily agreed and the performance of the Indian army was sharply, if undeservedly, criticised. This wasn’t just painful but also self-inflicted yet the debate was justified and, even if the criticism mistaken, no one disputed the right of the critics to make it.
Unfortunately, that seems like not just another era but almost another country. Today, as Lieutenant General HS Panag, a former Northern Army Commander has written: ‘The army as an institution has been accorded a halo – that it can do nothing wrong and nobody should criticise it. This is the worst that could happen to an army. It prevents the army from undertaking reforms which are always necessary for the betterment of any organisation.’
Not for a moment do I believe any army officer – and that includes General Rawat –would think differently. Our army has nothing to hide and almost everything to be proud of. This is why it would welcome questioning, including criticism even when it’s sharp and hurtful. And I write that as an army son who knows what he’s talking about.
Finally, a word of advice to the untiring soldiers of social media who, at the first hint of criticism, valorously rise to the army’s defence: cool it. You don’t know what you’re talking about nor do you understand how you’re indefensible behaviour diminishes our army. In fact, remember, the army needs you like it needs a hole in the head.