The Indian Army Chief Crossed Democratic Line of Control

The cry for an abnormal Muslim population growth in Assam is a hoax. It is factually busted time and again but the political forces which find it suitable as polarization tool keep propping this issue as campaign material. An Army General should have avoided any public rhetoric on such politically heated issue.

By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

The Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat on Wednesday, 21 February, created an uncalled for storm when he made comments about a political party. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is a popular political party in Assam.  General Bipin Rawat claimed it had grown faster than even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Given that Rawat was speaking about migration from Bangladesh, the implication was that the AIUDF has grown as a result of this alleged migration.

Here the army chief has crossed the democratic line of control between civilian governance and a professional army functionary. His comments were, largely, not taken positively by both Indian intelligentsia and media. A series of reactions followed from all corners of the country and rightly so because India has been a strong democracy in the world where the role of army and civilian politics is well defined and seriously practiced unlike its neighbours – Pakistan, Myanmar and China.

The online newspaper scroll.in put a detailed article and points out:

“Rawat referred to the alleged migration as an act of “lebensraum”, the German word that means “living space” – an ideological principle used by Nazi Germany to support the country’s territorial expansion. As if this wasn’t enough, Rawat blamed Pakistan and China for pushing Bangladeshi migration.

Lebensraum, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the AIUDF: there is a lot to unpack here. However, far more than important that what was said is the fact of who said it. The chief of the Indian Army making adverse observations about an Indian political party or commenting on the foreign policy aims of India’s neighbours is highly irregular. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: it is part of a larger trend of the politicisation of the Indian Army. Increasingly, the army is not just a fighting force but is a participant in public debates as well. This would be a troubling phenomenon in any democracy, where politics should be conducted exclusively by civilians.”

Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, a staunch political rival of AIUDF, criticized General Bipin Rawat’s remarks on the rise of Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF in the state and said no Army Chief should indulge in making comments on political parties.

“Since Independence, I’ve never seen an Army Chief making a comment on political parties. The Army’s main role is to maintain the security of the country and repulse any attack by the enemies of the country,” Gogoi was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

The former CM added, “It is not their (Army’s) business to look into the political affairs.”

“After retirement, no chief or general of Army should be allowed to join politics for five years, they can do so after five years,” Gogoi said.

“All India Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi also hit out strongly at the Army General and said it was not the latter’s work to comment on the rise of a political party,” reported national English daily Indian Express.

AIUDF president and Dhubri MP Maulana Badruddin Ajmal came strongly against Rawat’s out of the way comments. He said it is “shocking” for an Army Chief to indulge in politics. “General Bipin Rawat has made a political statement, shocking! Why is it a concern for the Army Chief that a political party, based on democratic and secular values, is rising faster than BJP?” his social media posts read. “Alternative parties like AIUDF, AAP have grown because of the misgovernance of big parties. By making such statement, isn’t the Chief of Army Staff indulging into politics which is against the constitutional mandate given to him,” Ajmal said in his Facebook and Twitter posts.

General Rawat is factually incorrect

The extra concerns that the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has put on the rise of a small political party led by a ‘Muslim’ which he tried to link with alleged ‘planned’ migration of Muslims from Bangladesh; thus making it a sensational ‘security issue’ is factually incorrect. Assam with 3.12 crore population has 1.06 crore Muslims, forming 34.22% of its total population. Muslims are majority in almost 9 out of 32 districts of Assam according to 2011 census.

There is more growth in Muslims ratio comparing to their Hindu counterpart but their growth rate is less when one compares it with Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Cast in the same state during the same time period. Thus this Muslim growth rate is normal; it is due to lack of proper education, poverty and better fertility rate among Muslims; and not at all due to any legal or illegal infiltration of people from neighbouring Bangladesh. This fact is extensively argued and rationally established by Prof. Abdul Mannan, former faculty of statistics at Gauhati University in his book ‘Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement’.

The all India growth rate of Muslims between 1971 and 1991 was 71.47%, just a little lower than the 77.42% that the Muslims of Assam clocked in the same period. The growth rate of Hindus in the same period in Assam was 42.00%, Scheduled Tribe 78.91% and Scheduled Cast 81.84% thus putting the Muslim growth rate in Assam on number three. Did the ‘extra’ number of people from SC and ST communities also migrate from Bangladesh?

Notably, in the same 1971 to 1991 time period Muslims in some other states of India have even got a better growth rate than in Assam. For instance, in Himachal Pradesh their growth rate was 77.64%, in Maharashtra 80.15%, in Madhya Pradesh 80.76%, in Haryana 88.36%, in Rajasthan it was 98.29% and in Punjab it was as high as 110.32% Muslim growth rate between 1971 and 1991. Did the Muslims in all these north and central Indian states also ‘illegally’ migrate from Bangladesh?

The cry for an abnormal Muslim population growth in Assam is a hoax. It is factually busted time and again but the political forces which find it suitable as polarization tool keep propping this issue as campaign material. An Army General should have avoided any public rhetoric on such politically heated issue.

AIUDF’s rise in statistics

All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) with Maulana Badruddin Ajmal as its president was formed in 2nd October, 2005. 2006 Assam Assembly election was its first electoral battle. Where Congress won the state with 53 seats, it fought in 120 and got 31.08% vote share, BJP won 10 seats out of 125 it fought, with 11.98% vote share and AIUDF (then AUDF) won also 10 seats out of 69 it fought, with 9.03% vote share. Assam has 126 assembly seats.

In 2011 Assembly election Congress again won the state decisively winning 78 seats out of 126 it contested, with 39.39% vote share. BJP won only 05 out of 120 it contested, with 11.47% vote share. And AIUDF won 18 out of 78 it contested, with 12.57% vote share.

In 2016 Assam Assembly election the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has won the state for the first time winning 60 seats out of 89 it contested, with 29.51% vote share. Congress lost with 26 out of 122 it contested, with 30.96% vote share. And the AIUDF also came down to 13 seats out of 74 it contested, with 13.05% vote share.

Assam has total 14 Lok Sabha seats. In 2009 general election Congress won 7, BJP 4 and AIUDF one, sending Maulana Ajmal to the parliament for the first time. In the 2014 general election BJP won 7, Congress 3 and AIUDF 3. The present three MPs from AIUDF are Maulana Badruddin Ajmal himself returned from Dhubri, his younger brother Mr. Sirajuddin Ajmal from Barpeta and Mr. Radheshyam Biswas from Karimganj Lok Sabha constituencies.

Here a school boy can easily compare the political rise of AIUDF vis-à-vis BJP in Assam with aforementioned statistics in hands. BJP from 5 MLAs in 2011 came to power with 60 MLAs just after 5 years in 2016. AIUDF had 18 MLAs in 2011 came down to 13 in 2016. Did some of the AIUDF voters run away to Bangladesh following 2011 election only and never returned to vote in 2016? The question may sound rubbish, then how come a serious man in uniform put such an argument in the public domains!

Muslims are more than 34% in Assam and AIUDF got only 13% of total votes in 2016, less than half of total Muslim population, that too when it is considered that only Muslims are the AIUDF voters which is again plainly incorrect. The party has considerable voters from all sections of the Assamese society; of course, Muslims are its major chunk. From working president to MP, to MLAs, to party officials, the list speaks it all. Muslims and Not-Muslims, ST, SC, men and women, all are in the list. The Army General’s comment was simply unwarranted, the least one can say.

This is a troubling development. Militarism is fatal for any democracy. Politics must be based on competition of ideas. BJP and AIUDF are political parties and they are winning or losing in democratic civil battles where army must not try its nose. The men with the guns have a crucial role to play in national security – their entry into politics is unwelcome. Pakistan, for example, has been ruled by the army for nearly half of its existence. However, it is widely acknowledged even in Pakistan today, that army rule and more broadly militarism has held back the country and serious democratic practices have helped India to progress. India and its army need to be careful to avoid the Pakistan trap. We cannot allow our country to be a China or Myanmar either.


The author M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is a Mumbai based Assamese native and editor of Eastern Crescent magazine.