Army Chief General Bipin Rawat on Thursday found himself in the midst of a massive row after he publicly criticised people leading protests over the new citizenship law, saying leadership is not about guiding masses to carry out arson and violence across the country.
His comments evoked sharp reactions from opposition leaders, activists and military veterans who accused him of making political remarks, thereby compromising the long-held convention in the Army of not wading into political matters.
"Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate directions, as we are witnessing in a large number of university and college students, the way they are leading masses of crowds to carry out arson and violence in our cities and towns. This is not leadership," the Army Chief said at a health summit.
"A leader is one person who leads you in the correct direction. Gives you the right advice and then ensures that you care for the people you live for," he added.
Gen Rawat, who is due to retire on December 31 as Army Chief, is tipped to be India's first Chief of Defence Staff who will be the single-point military adviser to the government on tri-services matters. In his three-year tenure as Army Chief, he has faced allegations of not remaining politically neutral.
Since both houses of Parliament approved amendments to the citizenship law earlier this month, protests - sometimes violent - have taken place across the country during which many protesters have died, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
"What is so complex about leadership, if it is all about leading. Because when you move forward, everybody follows. It is not that simple. It appears simple, but it is a complex phenomenon," Rawat said in his speech.
"Even amongst the crowd you find that the leaders emerge. But leaders are those who lead people in the right direction. Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate directions," he added.
However, Gen Rawat's comments triggered a massive row.
Former Navy Chief Admiral L Ramdas said Gen Rawat was "wrong" in making such remarks as people in the armed forces must follow the decades-old principle of serving the country and not any political force.
"The rule is very clear that we are serving the country and not political forces, and to express any political views as we have heard today are quite a wrong thing for any serving personnel whether he is the top gun or at the bottom rank. It is not proper," Ramdas told PTI.
Section 21 of the Army Act prohibits any Army personnel to attend or address any meeting or to take part in any demonstration organised by anybody for any political or other purposes. It also bars them from communicating to press or to publish any book relating to any political question.
The Army Chief's comments also evoked sharp response from political leaders.
The CPI(M), in a statement, asked the General to apologise to the nation for his "indiscretion", holding that his remarks will have extremely adverse ramifications for the constitutional arrangement in the country.
The Politburo of the party said the General has "directly indulged" in condemning the student protestors who have been opposing the Citizenship Amendement Act and the proposed pan-India National Register for Citizens.
"Army Chief's statement underlines as to how the situation has degenerated under the Modi government where the highest officer in uniform can so brazenly breach the limits of his institutional role. It is, therefore, necessary to raise the question as to whether we are going the Pakistan way of politicizing the military. Such obnoxious interference in matters of democratic struggles from top ranking military professionals is unheard of in the history of independent India," it said.
Congress Spokesperson Brijesh Kalappa too slammed Gen Rawat for his remarks.
"Army Chief Bipin Rawat speaking against #CAAProtests is wholly against Constitutional democracy. If Army Chief is allowed to speak on Political issues today, it also permits him to attempt an Army takeover tomorrow!!," he tweeted.
After his remarks generated a storm, Army issued a clarification, saying the Army Chief has not referred to the CAA.
"He has not referred to any political event, personality. He was addressing the future citizens of India who are students. (It is his) righteous duty to guide students on whom shall depend the future of the Nation. In Kashmir valley, youths were misguided the first, by people whom they trusted as leaders," the Army statement said.
Rights activist Yogendra Yadav said: "I agree with him, yes leaders should lead (people) in the appropriate direction. I am absolutely sure, he has the prime minister of this country in mind when talking about that."
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said leadership is about knowing the limits of one's office. "It is about understanding the idea of civilian supremacy and preserving the integrity of the institution that you head," he said.
K C Tyagi, leader of the JD(U), an ally of the BJP, also criticised Gen Rawat for making "political comments".