NEW DELHI: That Major N.L. Gogoi has earned the Army Chief’s commendation is not in doubt. He has received it for consistent display of grit in line of duty. As a Rashtriya Rifles company commander he can be expected to have led patrols, sat in night long ambushes, kept roads open through rain and fog, reacted to spot intelligence on terrorist movement and participated in events organized by his unit to bring the army close to the people.

He has evidently done all this at a time when the going has been getting tougher in the Kashmir Valley and the people are more hostile. There can be no envying him his recognition. But for the likes of junior leaders like him the Valley would have been lost to India a long time back. If the award was for his work preceding the incident that brought him fame – infamy to some – he can enjoy full credit for it.

Placing him in front of an array of microphones to tell his side of the story bespeaks of the army’s confidence that his act of tying the Kashmiri young man to the jeep in early April was an act in good faith. Gogoi for his part thought that was the best way to save lives which would have been the case had he shot his way out of trouble. It is possible that the court of inquiry that investigated the incident has found him credible.

Let us leave Major Gogoi at that without begrudging him his award. One can imagine him over at his company operating base or out on some patrol on election day. With the SOS coming in from the ITBP, the adjutant of his unit might have scrambled him to the location, not necessarily because he was closest but because of his hard earned reputation as a man of action. He proved as much in thinking on his feet, in his own widely telecast description of the event. The rest is beyond that of the fighting man.

The significant aspect of this story instead is the timing of the award. While usually awards await the Army Day, Republic Day and Independence Day, in this case, Gogoi got his out of turn. This is not unknown as commendations are a great way for the brass to exercise their morale building function. A good deed timely recognized by an award has a wider effect than merely pepping up an individual but of energizing a whole outfit. The Military Cross was pinned to Sam Manekshaw’s chest while many thought he might die of wounds without knowing of the acclaim of his peers.

By likewise handing the award bearing his stamp to Major Gogoi out-of-turn, the Army Chief has been bold to open himself to scrutiny. It has not been long in coming. The usual suspects have gone to town over the implications for human rights and humanitarian law and possible disrespect for Kashmiris. The liberal brigade has alighted on the side of the Farooq Dar’s story, the ‘human shield’ in this incident.

Allowing that the crowd of 1200 – in Gogoi’s numbers – was one kilometer deep, along his exit route, they wonder why Dar needed to be strapped down for the rest of his 25 kilometer long journey through three-four other villages. Also, what accounts for his beating that even now reportedly gives him the shivers at night?

If the inquiry did not address these questions, it does not hold water. To them, it is one of a piece of inquiries that litter the Kashmir record of security forces: beginning from the controversial Kunan Poshpora incident; not forgetting infamous Pathribal; and, to clinch these, the finding of yet another as ‘death by drowning’ of two able bodied women in Shopian, all in two feet of flowing water. They would surely have died from drowning if their heads had been held under water long enough. The inquiry did not pursue who might have wanted to do that and why.

All this brouhaha could easily have been anticipated. This Army has remained unfazed and it’s chief, rather brazen. It well knows that the ‘national’ media – as against the Lutyens’ media – would have lapped up the Gogoi press appearance. With fire assaults simultaneously on Pakistani pickets along the Line of Control broadcast in virtual real time, it is playing to the gallery in India’s heartland and hinterland.

Perhaps it thinks that this display helps prove its responsiveness to civil authority, doing what its acting minister set it to do in wake of the beheadings of its soldiers early this month. There is little else the Army could do on the Line of Control, in light of precedence dating to the late nineties. But surely it has gone beyond the necessary in the Gogoi case. It must know this is unnecessary additional wind in the political sails of its civilian masters that the Army did not really need to provide.

The problem is that it is not the Army’s mandate to be providing political ballast. The apex level must not only know that it has to keep the Army out of politics but also know how to keep it so. Even if the Army is not interested in politics, in India today, politics – right wing politics – is interested in the Army. Recall, in its earlier avatar, the BJP led NDA government had the Army organize Sindhu darshan for its homesick ideologue, LK Advani. This time round the right wing’s embrace of the Army has been more than just on election posters.

The Army brass has a representational function that entails ensuring the Army stays apolitical. The more it lends itself to providing egregious political comfort to its civilian masters, the more it opens itself to manipulation. The more it is manipulated, the less it is apolitical. A Chief who cannot understand this - leave alone one who is complicit in this - is not worth his salt.

Where does this leave the Army chief? He has two years to go, long enough to help line up his political masters for an extended tenure at the political helm. Or conversely, it gives him enough time to retest his ability to say ‘thus far and no further’, if not ‘no’ itself.

(Ali Ahmed, a former Infantry officer has served in the Rashtriya Rifles)