Kudos are due to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for the finesse and alacrity with which opening of closed roads in all 62 military cantonments across the country was announced, overnight Cantonment Boards put up boards ‘Road Open to Public’, and presto orders were implemented – an act equaling the surgical strikes. This time was easier because there was no requirement for a strategic partner to provide precise locations. Cantonment Boards under MoD control didn’t even require any homework.
According to a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release, the decision was taken in a meeting convened by the Defence Minister with Members of Parliament and elected Vice Presidents of 62 Cantonment Boards on May 4, for reviewing various issues, in particular those relating to closure of roads in the Cantonments. The release goes on to say the Defence Minister “also” reviewed the matter with Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra and senior officers of MoD.
The ‘carefully’ worded press release however fails to explain the following: cantonment boards are directly under MoD but which were the Members of Parliament the Defence Minister had discussions with? Rightfully, it should have been the Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence, but were it so it would have been prominently mentioned. Besides, If the Defence Minister was discussing with MPs and Cantonment Boards issues, in particular those relating to closure of roads in the Cantonments, how come the Army Chief wasn’t part of that discussion? At the subsequent “review”, if Rawat was told in presence MoD’s galaxy that decision to open the roads has consensus of MP’s and Cantonment Boards, could he protest? Whether he would have spoken up if he was part of the Defence Minister’s meeting with MPs is another matter, but either way, it can be safely assumed that the reasons why concerned roads were closed in the first place were not analyzed.
As an example, did Sitharaman and Rawat bother to examine why during NDA 1 regime Major General NS Pathania, then GOC Delhi Area closed the public road through Delhi Cantonment, why he was supported by then Army Chief General S Padmanabhan as also by then Defence Minister George Fernandes? And, this was despite Kanwar Singh Tanwar then crying blue murder, who is now dancing with joy. Despite huge demonstrations and slogan shouting, Tanwar was simply told to shut up by the NDA 1 hierarchy, albeit the mafia made sure Pathania never made it to the next rank, which is not surprising. After all, George Fernandes established HQ Integrated Defence Staff in record time with intention of it being part of MoD, but even he was stopped from the merger, and instead forced to step down under false allegations of ‘Coffingate’, of which he was absolved many years later.
Taking of Delhi Cantonment, why NDA 2 reversed decision of NDA 1, many theories are being discussed, like, one, possibly Sitharaman and Rawat have superior IQ compared to their abovementioned counterparts during NDA 1, and; two, Delhi was perhaps under such grave terrorist threat in those days that Tanwar was given the shut up call. But now with Pakistan tamed and possible relocation of Hafiz Saeed to West Asia, permanent peace is achieved. After all the infiltrators are perhaps tourists taking shortcuts. So huge posters by Tanwar eulogizing Sithraman; proclaiming what Sitharaman has achieved has never ever happened. Not to miss the ‘victory parade’ with musclemen outriders sans helmets (police dare not check the goons), distribution of sweets, photo-ops, you name it.
But then there are other theories doing rounds that appear more plausible. With complete focus on 2019 elections and the debacle in Karnataka, data is circulating of BJP having only 1516 assembly seats of 4139 in the country (with 950 of BJP MLAs from six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, MP, Rajasthan) signaling BJP has clear majority only in 10 state assemblies out of 29. Then the entire she-bang opposition is aligned against PM Narendra Modi, and even reportedly rallying 10 crore farmers against BJP. Vehement pre-election announcements of bagging 44 plus seats in J&K and 130 in Karnataka fell flat. Sure NDA II’s plank is development and Bloomberg says Congress is terribly short of cash, but latter doesn’t appear true since no country wants a strong India; so rest assured enough money is pouring in.
Obviously 24×7 deliberations are on how to enlarge the vote-bank. Therefore, the meeting chaired by Sitharaman would have been with the ‘chosen few’, not with Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence which appears in disfavor by again reiterating defence allocation are lowest since 1962. The idea of opening up all 62 cantonments to public for attracting larger vote-bank would have already been primed by likes of Kanwar Singh Tanwar. Besides, there have been recent anti-Army jibes like that by CM of Uttrakhand for Army ‘purportedly’ having placed drums on a helipad (disused) he wanted to land on and his cavalcade stopped, Then you have Nirmal Kumar Singh, former Deputy CM of J&K, now Speaker, mighty annoyed why Army asked him to stop construction in the prohibited zone adjacent to an ordnance depot and approaching the High Court to get the construction stopped. The deep rooted politician-land mafia of which the Defence Estates and Cantonment Boards are the executors is no secret. Volumes can be written on land grabbing of defence land, bungalows included. The ‘chosen few’ and Vice Presidents of the Cantonment Boards, therefore’ completed the quorum.
The MoD went ahead and issued executive orders. The Army followed up with an elaborate three-page letter to cover pusillanimity of its hierarchy, with instruction like the roads can be closed in case of emergent situations. Interestingly, the PIB release is dated May 4 and the Army Headquarters letter is dated May 21 quoting the ‘review’ having been undertaken on May 19. Perhaps, Sitharaman did think of the possibility of terrorist strikes with opening the cantonments, but the quorum would have responded, the blame can be deflected to the local army units and commanders, and it is better to keep them busy in their own inquiries and court-martials. Besides, it would contribute greatly towards downgradation and humiliation of the Armed Forces, which has been the hallmark of NDA 2.
With one stroke of pen, Sitharaman has made lives of soldiers, their families and children, especially those living in separated family quarters, vulnerable to anti social, anti national elements and terrorist,. Kanwar Singh Tanwar may be regaling Sitharaman’s ‘historical first’ but Pakistan’s ISI and the likes of Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar, Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi and Hurriyat must be amazed at this God-sent opportunity. If 10 terrorists killed 166 and injured over 300 during 26/11, if JeM terrorists could enter family quarters in Kaluchak and Sunjwan, imagine the massacres that can happen in cantonments now. Even the opposition would love to see such incidents to show the Modi Government in poor light, and may even solicit our adversaries to so act.
Short sighted politicians will do anything for votes. Lives of soldiers are of little consequence to them, and they care two hoots how soldiers manning borders would feel knowing lives of their families are no more safe, but what about the Army hierarchy? Cantonments are prime targets for terrorist attacks simply because of the propaganda value of hitting such areas. The bit about roads can be closed in case of “emergent situations” is bullshit because terrorists can come by vehicle loads, carrying heavier arsenal, and don’t even need combat uniforms anymore. We must be big idiots if we discount such possibility. Besides, if NDA 2 has made the environment so very safe, how about the politicians discarding layers of personal security? How about dispensing with blocking the road to airport and every time a VIP goes on official or pleasure trip. In Japan the road is blocked only for the Emperor for two-minutes; the PM halts at the red light.
On assuming appointment of Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman announced her two core objectives were ‘Make in India’ and welfare of soldiers and their families. Recently, within a space of 20 days, the SC lambasted the MoD twice for blocking the disability pension of soldiers, imposing a fine of Rs 1,00,000 on both occasions. Then the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) literally rebuked MoD for not compensating an officer who had lost a leg and an eye in 1960s. Yet, Sitharaman told Parliament MoD will not withdraw legal cases against disabled, war veterans and widows. In 2013, the MoD had hired a consultant from the Disabled Soldiers Fund for fighting cases against disabled soldiers. Today, MoD’s Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) reportedly has a galaxy of 10 lawyers being paid Rs 2 lakh each (from defence budget) to fight against disabled, war veterans and widows. Action is already on to curtail the powers of the AFT and make it ineffective, as reported in media. Sitharaman will not permit any military representation in DESW and MoD for obvious reasons. Gujarat was the first state to make voting compulsory. Soldiers are authorized to vote, but Sitharaman won’t make voting compulsory for Armed Forces and the Service Chiefs, with Rawat commanding the lion’s share of manpower, dare not.
George Fernades was by far the best loved by soldiers. Sitharaman is shooting into fame much faster but for different reasons altogether. Meanwhile, an audio-clip of a cab driver’s conversation with a reporter circulating is interesting; the cabbie says he will not drive on cantonment roads because if the country cannot assure soldiers on the border, safety and security of their families, what is the point? But then the cabbie hardly can understand the games of the hierarchy.