Friday, September 14, 2007

Saving the Indian Soldier

Many years ago, I began my working life with the Indian Air Force. At that time, the armed forces were the pride of the nation and people looked upon servicemen with a rare respect and honor. It was the dream of many young mean to be part of the Armed Forces as officers or as soldiers. The civilian population typically loved the serviceman with the same ardor worth which they disliked the police which they viewed as an instrument of corruption, coercion and harassment. In times of trouble – be it riots, floods or earthquakes or any thing else, there was no one else you would like to have on your side than the army man.

The civil administration knew this and called on the army with unfailing regularity to its aid. The police was perceived to be biased and riddled with caste and religious prejudices and often known to be politicized; the army was above all that in being every thing that the police was not – secular, disciplined, apolitical and fair. Every body loved a soldier and many wanted to be one and partake of all the love and affection.

That was then. Today it seems to be a different world with hardly a day passing without allegations of fake encounters, sexual harassment, rape, illegal confinement and what have you being hurled at the once venerated army from all sides. Things have come to such a pass that what once considered an extreme aberration is now splashed about as headlines in the international media to such a length that denials are now passé. Even the government has decided to take notice of allegations of fake encounters leveled against security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and the Court of Enquiry had been instituted in a number of cases. The Indian Army of course has a hoary history with the origins of some of its units going back to the East India Company. However after 1857, when the crown took over the governance of India, they basically set up two kinds of security agencies. The first one was the police to look after law and order and look after their interests with in the country’s borders. The Indian Police Act of 1861 which still provides the legislative backbone for the police was enacted around this time.
The second security force the British created was the Army for external warfare. The army saw action in the British Afghan wars, Anglo-Sikh wars and many others and of course in the First and Second world wars. Post independence the Army was engaged in operations in Kashmir following the tribal invasion in 1948 and then of course in 1962, 1965, 1971 and in a limited way in the Kargil operations.

However, post 1971, the army has slowly lost its direction as the distinction between the work the police did and the army was increasingly being called upon to do began to blur. With the nuclearization of the neighborhood, conventional warfare has become an unlikely possibility. At the same time with increasing unrest and insurgency with in the country’s own borders and the conventional police unable to cope, the temptation to turn to the Army to do the same policing jobs was high and the establishment succumbed leading to a collective schizophrenia in the Army.

The soldier’s induction and training are all geared towards annihilation of the “enemy” who is not one of “us”. This is reinforced by the British engineered cantonment system where the Army is largely invisible to the common man and is exposed only in military parades and as a savior in times of calamity. This limited exposure added to the aura and the mystique of military life. Once that mystique disappeared with increasing exposure to the civilian population, the fear and reverence for the soldier slowly began to evaporate.

With conventional warfare unlikely in view of the developing strategic scenario, the political as well as the military establishment both need to think of reinventing a modern role for the Armed Forces in view of India’s larger geo political positioning and emerging identity as an economic power. Using it as a quasi police force to quell internal insurgencies is not will only lead to more repression as the Army’ psyche is to defend the nation against external threats and asking them to battle their own country men produces an internal contradiction in the soldier’s mind which is not easily resolvable.

No comments: