No country for servicemen

| | in Oped
No country for servicemen

For some, winning elections is more important than sovereignty or defending India’s territorial integrity. But if the decline of the military continues, who will be held responsible for another debacle?

The anti-Sterlite agitators in Tuticorin turned impatient after 100 days of agitation and the subsequent violent confrontation with the district administration that led to the tragic death of 13 protestors while leaving scores injured. The end result was a public declaration by the Tamil Nadu Government to close the plant in question, despite the legality of such a move being questionable.

Compare this to the ongoing peaceful protests by military veterans, now in their third year, against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to honour his own promises and implement the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme as the Parliament had decreed. Despite the Prime Minister’s prevarications and public insistence that all promises have been kept, the report of the one member Commission formed to go into anomalies raised by the veterans after the Government’s partial implementation remains in deep freeze. This clearly suggests that if the report were to be released in the public domain, the Government would be caught and also find itself embarrassed.

The irony is that while their grievances may be genuine, their sacrifices are immense and their disciplinary conduct exemplary. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even images on national television of 80-year-old war veterans and their wives being beaten by policemen failed to shake the conscience of our citizens, let alone politicians. There has not even been an outcry against the Government’s not so subtle diktat prohibiting media coverage of the mega rally held at Jantar Mantar on May 20.

This attracted an estimated 50,000 plus ex-servicemen and their families from across the country. Apart from the veterans it draws, it seems nobody else, liberal or patriot, supports their cause and so is undeserving of candle light marches to India Gate or young students spouting fiery rhetoric in their support. That seems to be kept only for causes dear to the Hindutva brigade or the liberal lobby. The inconvenient truth is that we are not too troubled by our conscience; instead our greatest fear is of mob violence and the possibility of being inconvenienced. Roads being blocked, banks and shops closed, sweltering in traffic jams, missing flights or trains, give us nightmares, and make us angry, an anger we take out against the ruling dispensation. That is chiefly the reason why all agitations tend to be rewarded.

It is only when they turn violent that the Government is suddenly aroused from its self-induced stupor and forced to act, and more often than not, concede. Thus, it would not be wrong to presume that success has eluded the military veterans because of their complete abhorrence for violence. But while this may seem as an unexpected behaviour from former soldiers, they have the first-hand experience of having seen how easy it is to rouse passions and the consequences of what inflamed mobs can do.

It is their adherence to ethical conduct and discipline that differentiates soldiers from mobs. In any case where would this Government, or any other for that matter be if the 25 lakh military veterans and their families took to the streets?

Most of them also fully comprehend that the refusal of this Government to grant OROP in full is only just the tip of the iceberg, a minor aberration when compared to the untrammelled interference in every aspect of the Armed Forces functioning that we see today. From making combat units pick trash in high altitude tourist destinations and providing labour for placing yoga mats on Rajpath on World Yoga Day to building railway foot bridges in Mumbai; surely the Railways were not short of engineers? Even a solemn military tattoo like the annual ‘Beating the Retreat’ has been turned into a semi Bollywood tamasha with police bands to boot.

Over the years, a combination of benign neglect and fear of over-ambitious generals usurping them has made a wary political class keep its distance from the military. This allowed the bureaucracy to ride roughshod over them, not least with the help of over- ambitious generals (and their equivalents) who succumbed to either inducements of post retirement sinecures or unabashed flattery.

Modi, with his overarching ambition and autocratic ways has taken it upon himself to single-handedly defang the military. He has permitted his closest advisors, Arun Jaitley and Ajit Doval among them, to declare open season against the military, an all-out assault by politicians and the bureaucracy that has left the Forces bruised and battered as never before.

The latest outrage is to open up cantonments without any thought to the safety and security of military families whose husbands may well be deployed in Jammu & Kashmir or elsewhere along the LOC and are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. There will be those who may have concluded that this was a move that had not been thought through, aimed at gaining public sympathy, especially after the civil-military confrontation over road access in Secunderabad/Hyderabad.

While efforts to enlarge their vote bank may well be at play, the fact is that cantonment land has grown extremely valuable as cities have grown and enveloped cantonments over the years. The politician-real estate mafia has always coveted huge tracts of land that fall within cantonment areas, but have been unable to make any headway in usurping it, given strict entry controls that are in place. Opening up the cantonments may well be the first step towards commandeering this land for their own nefarious ends, national security be damned. The rapidity with which this move has been pushed through clearly shows up the active connivance of the MoD bureaucrats including those with the Defence estates. The fact that the Army Chief, who has routinely raised controversy with  his public statements that came thick and fast, has suddenly been struck dumb bodes ill for the Army.

Finally, our political leadership is not delusional and fully understands the consequences of degrading our military capabilities. That the Armed Forces are broke and incapable of waging war for more than 10 days is well known. While ministers may continue to insist that status quo prevails at Doklam, they forget to add that of the 89 sq km of disputed territory involved, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has subsequently occupied 69 sq km. Clearly keeping silent on this issue is one of the measures adopted to placate China after Modi’s kowtowing at Wuhan. Others actions being ensuring the Dalai Lama keeps a low profile and keeping Australia out of the Exercise Malabar.

Despite all his supplication at Wuhan, it has not stopped the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang from recently stating: “I can tell you that China's position on the India-China boundary is consistent and clear cut. China never recognised the so-called Arunachal Pradesh.” This was while briefing the media on the large-scale mining operations being undertaken for gold and other precious minerals in Lhünzê County, along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh.

Clearly for some, winning elections is more important than issues of sovereignty or defending our territorial integrity, more so when the military is worse off than in 1962. Nobody quite wants to be held responsible for another 1962 type debacle, do they?

(The writer is a military veteran and Consultant with the Observer Research Foundation)

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