Unfortunately, there is now a build-up of the perception that the Army is no longer the last resort but is fast becoming the first one because other institutions have abdicated their responsibilities.
Extreme emotions appear to dominate the reactions around the decision of the Defence Ministry and Railway Ministry to hand over the construction of pedestrian bridges at a few Mumbai railway stations to the Army. The decision was prompted by the unfortunate deaths of 23 people in a stampede on a pedestrian bridge at Elphinstone station a few weeks ago.
However, the response did not even wait for the details to determine whether it is a supervisory responsibility or end-to-end job being handed over to the Army. The primary responsibility of the Army lies at the borders, but the secondary responsibility remains open-ended: from controlling civil strife to disaster management, pulling out infants from bore holes to simply anything no one else in India seems to be able to do.
The rancour on social media is a reflection on the state of civil-military relations in India today. It reflects the high regard for the Army and the extremely poor opinion about civilian government agencies and their ability to perform a job in time. Most importantly, it also indicates the existing bitterness.
In the recent handling of the agitation after godman Ram Rahim’s arrest and the Jat reservation issue, the Army stood out for the way it performed its duties. It is the self-assured discipline and confidence of our Army which makes it the instrument of last resort.
Unfortunately, there is now a build-up of the perception that the Army is no longer the last resort but is fast becoming the first one because other institutions have abdicated their responsibilities. Is it any wonder that in routine surveys, so many Indians opt for military-style governance as their preferred choice?
In a politicised environment, it is difficult to find any rationale, but what is generally accepted is that the Army can step into any situation when it is an emergency. The issue then is about determining and defining these emergency conditions.
I am aware that J&K-based examples aren’t the best because emergency conditions seem to exist there forever. Yet, the example of Army Goodwill Schools (AGS) constructed under Sadbhavna, illustrate the rationale on both sides of the divide.
Under the rules, all projects of Sadbhavna are supposed to be handed over to the civil authorities once the Army completes them. However, in the case of AGS, the Army decided to run them due to public demand. For the last 20 years, the Army has run schools all over J&K, not for the children of Army families, but for local people. It is the price the Army pays for its reputation and efficiency.
In 2005, thanks to its impeccable integrity and reputation, the Army was requested by the MLA of Baramulla to oversee the construction of a footbridge over the Jhelum. The engineer unit aided in the design, financial planning and subsequent monitoring of quality.
It was a perfect example of a project that was completed on time with no physical Army involvement. This was not an emergency situation, but it was prompted by the goodwill the Army enjoyed, which obviously doubled after the project.
The stress on infrastructure in Mumbai is severe and puts lives at stake every day. This should prompt the state government to raise its standards and ensure the timely delivery of high-quality projects that are foolproof. So, those questioning the government’s failure to get its act together are not wrong. But when public safety is in question, it can be considered as an urgent situation.
Many also raised the issue of unfair demands being made of the Army, and how such unthinking demands in the past (pre-1962) led to a compromise in quality of soldiering in the Army.
This sharply divided debate would not have taken place if the Army’s larger fraternity (serving soldiers, veterans and families) were given their due for what they do for the nation. The failure to accommodate their just demands, lowering their status in the hierarchy of protocol, allowing the bureaucracy to play havoc with their self-esteem and letting the Delhi Police manhandle veterans – these aren’t the finest ways to motivate the institution that Indians respect and admire widely.
Our fine Army deserves better and will give its best back to the people. But people must also become arbiters to ensure that their Army is given what it deserves, and not be treated as a below-par government service.