Since Field Marshal Ayub Khan ousted President Iskander Mirza in a coup in 1958, the Pakistan army has considered itself off-limits to any criticism by the media. Decades of invulnerability to public scrutiny have made the army in India’s western neighbour the principal reason why Pakistan is becoming a failed state. Fortunately for India, this country has remained a democracy (except for 1975-77, when the Emergency was in force), which has meant that the media could and often did turn the spotlight on individuals and institutions. Unlike in the case of Pakistan, the army in India is not immune from media attention and even blame, which was why it was a surprise when this columnist was shown a letter dated 16 July 2014 by a Brigadier Thapar, addressed not to the Editor of The Sunday Guardian but to the Managing Director himself.
Thapar, who is billed on the sheet of notepaper sent by him as being the “Addl Dte Gen of Pub Info” (whatever that means), insinuated that the Indian Army, no less, will begin “further action to ensure suitable recourse” against the newspaper. As the brigadier was referring to a report written by this columnist in the 14 June copy of The Sunday Guardian, and this being India, where legal proceedings can drain both finances as well as peace of mind for decades, it is likely that such is the “suitable recourse” being contemplated against this columnist. Clearly, such minor matters as freedom of the press do not need to enter into such a calculus.
This columnist has always been a booster of the Indian Army, including during the times when it was battling insurgencies in the Punjab and Kashmir, and counts several retired and serving officers as his personal friends. Hence it came as a surprise to be informed in the letter that he was guilty of “highly damaging” the army. More, that he “interacted with drug peddlers” and that, in a final flourish of hyperbole, he contravened, and execrably so, “recognized ethical canons of journalistic ethos and conventions”. What was this traitorous act for which this columnist is being excoriated?
For warning in The Sunday Guardian report that the ISI (through the narcotics lobby) was seeking to create pools of influence within the uniformed services, and that the latter ought to be vigilant in identifying possible bad apples who may be tempted by the blandishments offered by that organisation and its network of drug runners. Were GHQ in Rawalpindi to send a letter objecting to such a report, it would be understandable. But why no less a personage than the “Addl Dte Gen of Pub Info” of the Indian Army is livid about a warning about the ISI is difficult to understand. Does Brigadier Thapar regard as impermissible that an alert be sounded about the ISI and the narcotics syndicates operating in India?
Does he regard as impertinent the suggestion that although the Indian Army is overall a magnificent force, there could exist elements within it who are susceptible to temptation? Or is he displaying the same complacency that in 1999 resulted in the Pakistan Army stealthily taking over key Indian posts at Kargil under the nose of the army?
Brigadier Thapar’s implied assumption is that there is zero corruption in the Indian Army. But what about the spies found within the army who were working for Pakistan? What about those armymen in the Assam Rifles who were found guilty of narcotics smuggling during past years? And not just garden variety stuff, but methamphetamines from Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, smuggled into India in sizeable quantities?
What about the senior officers cashiered for scandals such as Sukna? Are they all victims of a smear campaign? Are they all innocent? The assumption that there is zero corruption in the army betrays a level of credulity that is dangerous in a force that needs to be ever vigilant to the possibility of subversion.
What is clear is that there exist some within Army HQ who want that they should be given the same free pass from the media as their counterparts in Pakistan. Sorry, Brigadier Thapar, this is not Pakistan but India. And threats of “further action” and “suitable recourse” will not stop this columnist from continuing to look into security threats, such as from the narcotics lobby.
Till now, this columnist accepted without question the official army version (of innocence) when confronted with reports of soldiers blamed for committing rape and robbery in locations such as the Northeast or Kashmir. No longer.