The Kolkata incident on the New Years Eve wherein the military and police clashed over the detention of two young army officers belonging to a Madras Unit, which has arrived at a peace station (Kolkata) after a tenure at Siachen, is not an isolated occurrence. Such incidents are an increasing phenomenon and most of them escape media glare.
This incident received wide publicity because it occurred in a metro city. Most disturbing is the fact that armed forces personnel on leave are arrested by the police in the rural areas and the concerned military authorities are not even intimated.
The Kolkata incident should be viewed in the backdrop of the growing hiatus and acrimony between the military and the police. It may assume serious proportions if not addressed in a considered and informed manner, and may undermine the vary edifice of the Indian Armed Forces whose professionalism and discipline has been hailed by the militaries and dignitaries from every part of the world including the UN.
Praise has even come from Pak military officials who had a chance to work with the Indian military personnel in UN Peace Keeping Missions. During World War II, the Indian troops were rated as the best disciplined force and the incidence of venereal diseases which was considered the barometer of discipline, was negligible amongst them. More recently, the Indian Army personnel while deployed to Sri Lanka, acquitted themselves most honourably even as they were in a different country and fighting the vicious LTTE.
Just a few years back following a train (Rajdhani) accident in Bihar, it was reported by a leading Indian daily that personnel from the Railway Protection Force instead of providing succour were busy in stealing articles and money from dead and injured passengers.
Some police officers find the system so incorrigible and murky that they choose to preside over their subordinates from a distance rather than dirtying their hands at the grassroots level, the level at which the general public and armed forces personnel confront the police on a day-to-day basis
The same newspaper next day applauded the Army personnel, most of whom were recruits, for their selfless and tireless rescue efforts. An ex-Colonel travelling in the ill-fated train despite having lost his daughter in the accident made most sterling contribution. In the recent earthquake in Kashmir, the assistance rendered by the Indian Army can be contrasted with those of Pakistani Army in Pak Occupied Kashmir. In Kargil the junior leadership of the Army (Captains and Majors) proved themselves as most sharp and audacious cutting edge of the Indian Army.
Assaults in high altitudes against well fortified and defended enemy entails total disregard for one’s life, which cannot be accomplished without an extremely strong sense of values and character.
Should it not therefore evoke a sense of disbelief when the same crop of young officers are accused of molestation by a SHO and propagated by the media. If at all, it has happened, it should be treated as an aberration and the military law must take its course if it has not, then it becomes incumbent on the administration and media to restore the dignity of the concerned officers, the unit and the army as such. Informal queries by this author from sources having close proximity to the parties involved and a plethora of contradictory reports emanating from the print media convey the impression that truth and facts have become casualties.
The Indian Armed Forces apart from serving in an exemplary manner in thwarting external aggression, in restoring internal order, and in reaching out to the people during natural disasters – has been the most potent symbol of national integration. It has also served as a powerful modernising agent in the post-independence life of India. India can boast of a highly evolved professional culture in judiciary and military.
However, the political and administrative culture (particularly the police) is still evolving and its present direction is debatable. Just as to how difficult it is to create or even resurrect the institution of military and its culture is best illustrated in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is struggling to create new armed forces after the old ones were dismantled and destroyed following Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ respectively.
The Royal Nepal Army and the Gorkha units of the Indian Army are composed of men from the same stock, and yet there is a world of difference in their levels of professionalism and military culture. It indeed speaks highly of historical, institutional and cultural ethos of the Indian Army and most importantly its leadership.
Imperatives of the military as an institution demand ethos and distinct culture, which has to be sustained and nurtured. The culture is predicated on soldierly pride, physical and moral courage, individual and organisational self-respect, and military discipline. To protect and preserve the unique attributes of good and potent armed forces, its personnel need to be insulated from processes that could be detrimental to their spirit and professional élan, which is so essential for soldierly and institutional vitality.
The insulation is common in most countries of the world regardless of the type of dispensation. It is for this very reason that the armed forces have judicial system of their own, which particularly in the Indian context is supplementary and complementary to the civil judicial system and not contradictory or antagonistic.
More than the laws, it is a matter of conventions in place that seek to insulate armed forces personnel – and any evolved society or nation is governed more by conventions rather than laws. Once these conventions break, the cross currents of laws can consume the very society and institutions that they seek to protect and preserve.
For instance under given circumstances, the law of the land empowers every citizen, the right to effect arrest, so does the military law empower a junior officer to arrest a senior officer, however the exercise of such powers are unheard of. It is the well established conventions and restraints that prevent such bizarre happenings and eventually the anarchy of law. Nevertheless the police since past few years, has displayed a propensity for blatantly disregarding such conventions while dealing with military personnel or even other segments of law abiding society who they perceive can do little in retaliation.
A son of a Chief Minister indulging in vandalism in a restaurant is honourably shielded, a justifiably angry mob in Nithari is allowed to attack a police station with impunity, and an officer of the Indian Army is not even extended by a SHO the conventional courtesy of informing about his custody — leave alone to military authorities, apparently not even to his higher-ups, who were expected to be on 24 hours duty on incident prone occasion like the New Years Eve. The senior officers of the civil administration, who are expected to exercise maturity and view things in the larger perspective belied the same, by issuing statements having narrow and parochial tenor. Some of the reasons that could be ascribed to the breakdown of convention governing the relations between the police and the military are discussed in this article.