NEW DELHI: The Indian Army is trying hard to keep its head above the murky political waters it is being dragged into these days, by a section of the politicians and the chest thumping media. No more, enough, is the message coming from the men-in-uniform, retired and serving, who have been placed on a political roller coaster for quite some time now, much against their wishes.

In a polity seeking to re-define nationalism into a militaristic version, the Indian Army in particular finds itself at the centre of a game plan it does not want to be part of. There is deep disquiet amongst large sections of the retired officers about the manner in which the Army is being dragged into political controversies, when the effort should be to keep the soldiers completely out of the limelight.

The latest muddle is the attempt by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to politicise cinema, and drag creative art into the so called nationalistic discourse by bringing in the Army as well. In what is fast becoming competitive nationalism between the right wing political outfits Karan Johar’s movie Ae Dil He Mushkil was targeted for bringing in Pakistani actors, with MNS in a belligerent show of muscle insisting it would not allow this to be screened.

The face off between the MNS and Bollywood was finally settled with one of the conditions being that all producers who have used Pakistani actors in their movies should pay Rs 5 crores each into the Army Welfare Fund.

This has drawn a storm of protest from the Army with senior officers maintaining categorically that the defence service would not accept extortion money. Disgnisting, said a former general wondering what the country had come to. The protest, some of it voiced on the social media, by senior officers made the following three points:

1. This was ‘extortion money’ and the Indian Army does not accept such kind of funding;

2. The Army belongs to everyone and is not the appendage of any political outfit;

3. The Army wants respect not money that has been extorted from others.

Retired Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur was one of several who tweeted, “I served four decades in this country and never did I live on extorted money. What is this happening in my country.”

What indeed? The tradition in the military is to keep silent during service. Off the record briefings too are rare, with the Indian Army maintaining a certain discipline in its interactions with the media. But the veterans who have served long years in the service often give voice to what the serving officer cannot say, and in recent months there has been a churning within that has upset many who value the defence services of India as a professional and secular force.

In the new divisive version of nationalism being propagated these days, the Army is being dragged in for justifications and endorsements. The social media is flooded with posts and tweets seeking to make these linkages, and through these targeting citizens holding different points of view as ‘anti nationals’.

Several officers expressed deep worry privately about not just this approach but also about what they perceived as an effort to politicise the Army and make it take sides between citizens. This came, as a senior retired officer said at the time, from the aggressive effort to usurp the Army as “our territory” and thereby push all those speaking out against conflict and war into a manufactured anti-national space. This black and white approach, with the one claiming the Army as its own, the officer said was worrisome as it was compelling the soldiers too to make choices, essentially political in nature.

Reputed officers of the Indian Military, after coming out to welcome the surgical strikes against Pakistan, fell silent when the entire issue was take over by the ruling political dispensation and fed into the nationalism discourse. The statements from political leaders, the triumphalism evident on television and the social media, disturbed many of the veterans who quietly expressed deep worry about the impact this would have on a disciplined, largely apolitical force.

The neo-nationalism discourse that is militaristic at the core relies on the Indian military for sustenance and legitimacy. And as the surgical strikes showed, uses military action politically for the domestic constituency. As several Army men and even former Ministers pointed out at the time, such surgical strikes against Pakistan had taken place before but were not announced and used to mobilise domestic opinion in favour of the ruling establishment at the time. The open use of the strikes to gain voter support----as the posters in UP are proof of----has created considerable concerm amongst the veterans whose silence on this issue is more eloquent perhaps than words.