Much has been written about the Army being employed to construct three foot over bridges (FoB) including replacing the one linking the Elphinstone Road and Parel suburban stations in Mumbai. 22 people were killed and over 30 were injured in a stampede that broke out in Mumbai on September 29 during peak hours on the bridge linking the two suburban train stations.
The PM and Railway Minister took note saying the situation is being continuously monitored. Visuals showed people on the ground and passers-by dragging the injured down the bridge. But a month plus later the media went wild when the Army was tasked to build the three FoBs, especially after the ruling NDA’s own members, not just the Opposition, began questioning the decision to use the Army. Independent Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandersekhar tweeted what the PWD, Railways IRCON and richest municipal corporation BMC doing?
Media reported the Defence Minister saying that the Army Chief had agreed to ‘nation building’. Army Chief General Bipin Rawat received considerable flak on social media for having stated that he agreed to build three FoBs in Mumbai for building the image of the Army. One post on Facebook showed photo of a potholed-water logged road in front of a house, reading the dilapidated road built by the MCD could also be taken on by the Army, in case the Chief was interested in more image building. The Railways and the BMC received considerable flak accusing them of being useless organizations abrogating their responsibilities.
Vivek Sahai, former Railway Board chairman says, “It saddens me to learn that the Railways have to take the assistance of the Army for such a mundane work like construction of a FoB, which has been the USP of the Railways. I wish the Railways had taken up the challenge to build the FoB in the time desired by the minister”.
A Twitter post, showing photograph of Kerala’s first Army-made Bailey bridge opened at Enathu, Kerala earlier this year, read “When Army builds bridges in Kerala its celebrated, but outrage when its Mumbai?”. The post failed to elaborate who “celebrated” the bridge in Kerala laid by the Army. Not that the PWD has not laid Bailey-type bridges in the northeast, besides, how do you compare a Bailey bridge and a FoB anyway? Another post quoted the Bengal Engineers Group of Army officers saying they were proud to have been given the task of building these FoBs. With criticism mounting, a WhatsApp post, purporting to be from the PS of Maharashtra CM, argued that the FoB was on A-1 defence land and options were to either move the case for building the FoBs by the Railways after transferring the land to Railways (which Army would not agree) or employ the Army for construction – a crude and laughable attempt.
Obviously the Army Chief was asked to take on the task under ‘nation building’, an exercise that is clearly political. Why else would the Maharashtra CM, flanked by the Defence and Railway Ministers appear at the railway station in full public and media glare being briefed by flag officer of the Army in uniform at the railway station – to draw maximum political mileage? Surely, such briefing could have been done in the CM’s office complex. The reason being given is that the Army can do the task in ‘quick time’. But the unasked question is; was the Railways and BMC asked whether they could construct these FoBs by January 2017, and why were they not given fait accompli? Take the rail-cum-road bridge coming up over the Brahamputra close to Dibrugarh.
Construction of an individual section was taking two-three months till PM Narendra Modi directed that he would inaugurate the bridge in January 2018. Thereafter, Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways visited the site and kicked people around. Now no less than nine sections have added in the last two months and the bridge is being completed by December itself this year.
But the Army being used for political purposes is not new. This has been done by every government without any qualms. In 1971, when PM Indira Gandhi wanted the military to enter East Pakistan on forthwith basis, Army Chief General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, citing time required for mobilization and procuring ammunition, had also said, “Prime Minister, last year you wanted elections in West Bengal and you did not want the communists to win, so you asked me to deploy my soldiers in penny pockets in every village, in every little township in West Bengal. I have two divisions thus deployed in sections and platoons without their heavy weapons. It will take me at least a month to get them back to their units and to their formations”.
This is just one example, amongst many, of misuse of the Army for political gains. If there are civilian and government agencies that are equipped and tasked for certain tasks, then why are they incompetent? For that matter, isn’t the range of tasks that the Army is undertaking as part of Operation ‘Sadbhavna’ not ‘nation building’ where the civil administration is part defunct, if not fully.
But the question here is why the Army needs to build its image when the public holds it in high esteem because of what it has been doing over the years. In which quarters is the image of the Army not considered high enough and who is working towards lowering the Army’s image? Opposition parties apart, is this not the politico-bureaucratic nexus compounded by the anomaly of MoD being manned exclusively by bureaucrats? That the media is exploited by forces inimical to India from within and outside India too is an established fact, one example being the saleable journo, known to own properties beyond their means, who fabricated stories of an army coup some years back after reportedly being briefed by a Union Minister. To certain extent the malaise also is to deflect from the deep rooted corruption (MoD being part of it) as described in the 1993 Vohra Committee Report.
Not without reason Neha Thirani wrote in the New York Times on 2nd April 2012, “Corruption in India’s Ministry of Defense runs deep and wide, judging by the accusations made by defense officials in the past few months. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. In the frequent cases of corruption that have surfaced in the ministry over the years, incidents of graft have implicated everyone from petty officers to the highest ranks in the department.” And there are scams that have spanned multiple governments involving both major political parties of India. The beauty of the set up is that the polity is dependent on the bureaucrat for advice and the latter is not accountable and couldn’t care less. That is why we don’t even have a National Security Strategy and the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) has not been merged with the MoD – so that bureaucratic control without accountability can continue.
During the first Indo-US DPG meeting held at New Delhi immediately post 9/11 , the US delegation was flabbergasted that our MoD has no personnel from the military on permanent absorption or deputation. They wondered how our MoD could function in the first place. Later, the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Washington, had highlighted the “Indian Defence Ministry’s inability to discuss policy and strategy.” Excluding the military from crucial strategic decision-making and not reviewing the entire rubric of higher defence management and role of bureaucracy factoring the reports of scores of committees adversely affects national security. The present government too has done precious little to inject military professionals in MoD. The reported move to induct some mid-level officers in MoD is more of eyewash.
Despite the political exploitation of the military, as mentioned above, the liberation of Bangladesh saw 93,000 POWs being returned by India to Pakistan. But forget resolving the Kashmir issue with Pakistan or straightening the Siliguri Corridor through mutual consultation with Bangladesh, even return of our 56 military prisoners in Pakistani jails was not preconditioned against return of Pakistani POWs. In 2014, General VK Singh, former Army Chief, now MoS (External Affairs), went to lay a wreath at India Gate having duly informed Army HQ. But MHA launched baton wielding police forces and water cannons to prevent the wreath being laid under pretext that MHA permission had not been taken. Significantly, VK Singh was accompanied by a number of veteran Generals and Brigadiers wearing their regimental side caps, and a uniformed Colonel was present with the wreath. The foreigners visiting the area were naturally flabbergasted.
Not much has changed from the above treatment meted to a former Army Chief in 2014. On 14 August 2015, veterans peacefully protesting at Jantar Mantar were brutally baton-charged while attired in their regimental caps, medals and decorations of some pulled away by the men in khaki. There was no tweet or squeak from the government. In fact, Manohar Parrikar, the then Defence Minister had remarked that the OROP anomalies would not be addressed if a gun is held to the head – referring to the protests at Jantar Mantar. But even if the government doesn’t approve of protests at Jantar Mantar by a hundred-hundred plus veterans, is it justified to say anomalies will not be addressed for veterans at large, where 60,000 individuals retire from the Army alone annually
For bureaucrats, former PM Manmohan Singh (himself a bureaucrat) is a demi-God because in his time the rule was passed that any politician, bureaucrat or the spouse ‘with attendant’ could go abroad for medical treatment – all expenses paid by government; travel, stay, treatment. RTI reveals wife of a Chief Minister (presently serving) ruling a State incurred expense of Rs 11 crores for minor treatment of cancer abroad; treatment that is available in India. This is just one example and government response to RTI asking what has been such expense over the years is a one-line reply that such cases are approved judiciously – implying that the loot cannot be disclosed. When rule is in force, why would any state seek permission from the Centre?
Orchestrating the battering of veterans and lowering the status, pay and perks of the military, the bureaucrats are having the last laugh – the main ruling political party also losing out on some 11-12 million votes of serving and veteran soldiers and their families just for few hundred crore. Unofficially, the bureaucrats also boast this is their revenge to the screws being tightened on them with periodic performance reviews. In every pay commission, the bureaucrats have extracted the best for themselves, while degrading the military. So, while the government tasks the Army to construct FoBs, it again indulged in shoving around and manhandling veterans and ‘Veer Naris’ by the police on October 30 at Jantar Mantar.
So how can the image of the Army be enhanced, in an environment where there are signs of deriding the military in multiple spheres, with seemingly deliberate effort to place them even below para-military forces. Frankly no elaborate net assessment or appreciation is required. What matters to the polity are vote-banks, nothing else. The Election Commission of India has authorized every soldier who has served for one day or more on the day of election in any station in India, to vote in the state elections (of the State he is serving in) as well as the municipal elections of the municipality covering the place of the soldier’s current posting. Where exercising one’s franchise is a democratic right and a state like Gujarat has made voting compulsory, nothing can be more stupid than the Army denying exercising this right by ‘every’ soldier.
The Service Chiefs heading a 1.4 million military have a moral obligation towards this, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat having the major share while heading a 1.2 million Army. The image of the Army will automatically fall in place. The Service Chiefs haven’t shown such resolve in the recent Himachal Pradesh elections – can they make a beginning with the Gujarat elections? Can Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman make voting compulsory for the military, that none of her predecessors displayed the will to do?