Role of the Army and civil power

Many veterans are alarmed by the increasing deployment of the Army as the first choice in response rather than last resort. This stems from the role of the forces and its use of combat bridging for an organisation that requires a thorough examination. After all, a coin has two sides.

The primary role of the forces is to ensure national security and unity, defending the nation from external aggression and threats, and maintaining peace and security at its borders. The secondary role is to assist civilian administrations in times of distress - when called upon. On the completion of duty, soldiers return to their barracks and get back to the performance of their primary role. The construction of two pontoon bridges over the Yamuna for the Art of Living foundation does not fall under either the soldier’s primary or secondary concern.

It is an event organised by a spiritual guru for his foundation. Those defending the deployment have argued that the Army was recently used to lay a bridge for the Commonwealth Games. But it was only deployed after the bridge was broken, and as a last resort. Moreover, the event was of national importance, where the Union Government spent money from its own budget and contestants marched under the national flag. One cannot compare apples with oranges. Will the US Army deploy combat engineers to support the Ford Foundation?

One has witnessed a steady deterioration of the soldier’s role and position in the public eye. This is because the soldier is often bound by orders from the political class and cannot say no. But the local politician commands more respect from the soldier, even as the latter’s role is often forgotten. The soldier has always delivered, especially in the events of natural disasters. 

During the devastating Uttarakhand floods, the rotors were not switched off till the armed forces rescued the last pilgrim. The Army has also rescued infants from deep tube wells and quelled rioters in the recent Jat agitation. Suffice to say, the Indian Army is omnipresent. But it is now being used for unnecessary civilian tasks, such as laying down mats for a Yoga festival. There is even talk among certain quarters that the Army could be used in an operation to clean up the Ganga. A similar situation had prevailed before the 1962 war against China. Back then, soldiers were used for agriculture and the construction of houses, among other civilian activities. It is now well-known that the Indian Army suffered heavy losses in the 1962 war. 

There is another argument, which sees the Army as an apolitical and secular organisation. Where will the line be drawn tomorrow, if some other guru of any other faith conducts an event? Will the Army be deployed there too? The Army is in the business of nation building and remains scrupulously apolitical. It is in the Army’s interest to maintain a safe distance from any religious or cultural event. It has only one religion—soldiering. The Army has earned the people’s trust and they represent all faiths and not just the majority. It acts as a beacon of hope in far-flung border areas, from the delivery of medical facilities to welfare projects. This is the Indian Army where we all eat together, pray together, and stick to one another’s side through thick and thin. The civilian establishment must not apply its standards to us.

The Army personifies positive secularism and a national building ethos, which should not be used to justify such a deployment. It also embodies the spirit of tolerance, secularism, and genuine national integration. Thus, a voice must be raised against its deployment for what is essentially a religious event. Such a deployment could prove counterproductive to its role in dealing with people of diverse faiths, who live on our borders.

Combat equipment is meant to be kept battle-ready and preserved. The equipment cannot be used for purposes that could adversely affect its battle-worthiness. The role of the Army does require to move back to basics. Employing it in religious events will erode the deeply apolitical and secular credentials of the forces. Such small deployments also adversely affect their battle-worthiness, especially in the context of training. Why keep an Army if one is not sure if it shall win a war one hundred percent? Sportsmen win or lose, but the Army just cannot afford to be anything but battle-ready.

(The author is a retired Brigadier. The views expressed are personal.)
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