Armed forces

Elements of a Garrison State Have Begun Encroaching on the Indian Republic

Legitimacy, political respectability and electoral advantage are being sought to be derived from the soldier and his martyrdom, while unthinkingly, new space, new respect and new autonomy are being ceded to the army brass and other security forces.

Representative image of Indian soldiers marching. Credit: Reuters

Representative image of Indian soldiers marching. Credit: Reuters

It is the Diwali day. The text message landed at 9:17 am: “Happy Diwali! Mins of YAS Sh Vijay Goel will celebrate Diwali with Army Jawans today 11.30am Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre, Delhi Cant wid NYKS students. Pl. cover.” At 4:30 pm, there is another text: “Hello Kindly check your mail box for Press Release — “Vijay Goel celebrates Diwali with Army Jawans” along with pictures of the event”.

It is possible to infer confidently that the other 60-odd cabinet members were celebrating Diwali similarly in the conspicuous company of this or that army unit. Nor can any one of them be chided for this PR overkill because they have been commanded to do so. In fact, advertisements had been appearing for days prior to Diwali, drawing attention to a PMO-directed campaign, called ‘Sandesh-to-Soldiers’, exhorting the citizens to remember this Diwali “our courageous jawans who constantly protect our nation. Lakhs of people have already sent their messages, have you?”

A few days earlier, the chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, was reported to have decreed that all officers be appropriately respectful to the soldiers and ex-soldiers whenever they visited a government office. The Economic Times (October 27) had reported how the BJP was preparing to send out Diwali greetings to soldiers’ households in Uttar Pradesh. Both Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are due to have assembly elections in a few months’ time.

And, then, a few days after Diwali, we had on Wednesday a retired army subedar committing suicide in support of the demand for one rank, one pension (OROP). That a retired army man should commit suicide was sad enough; it is even sadder and uglier that professional political leaders have sought to draw political mileage out of this tragedy. Earlier, the non-BJP political leaders were tut-tutting the government for wanting to do a bit of khoon ki dalali, now it was the turn of the BJP to pretend that a veteran’s suicide was nothing to get excited about and that it was in bad taste that someone should want to ‘politicise’ the death.

How are the republican voices and constituency to view this extraordinary state-sponsored glorification of the military men, values and demands? Are we in the process of re-arranging the ensemble of institutional preferences? Examine, for instance, the income tax department’s sales pitch. It takes out advertisements showing a solitary soldier standing guard over the forbidding mountainous border: “He is doing his duty…How about you?” The “he” is the army jawan and “you” is the “tax deductor”, who is sternly reminded that TDS procedures must be totally complied with.

It is not too complicated to break the code of a new civil-military chemistry. Legitimacy, political respectability and electoral advantage are being sought to be derived from the soldier and his shahadat (martyrdom). Unthinkingly, new space, new respect and new autonomy are being ceded to the army brass and other security forces.

In the post-surgical strike days, various ministers and authorised spokespersons have made it clear: (1) it is for the army to decide whether or not to give the lie to Pakistan’s preposterous claim that there were no cross-border raids; (2) it is for the army to decide what should be the response to provocations, if any, from Pakistan; and (3) that what the army says or claims ought to be accepted, without any kind of reservation or dissent.

The republic finds itself at a fork in the road, an unfamiliar stage, which could, in the long run, produce only democratic unhappiness. After all, all these years, generations after generations of Indians took pride in the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru and other democrats saw to it that the army stayed in the barracks and that the civil authority was firmly in control of matters of war and peace.

The political crowd did not need to piggyback the soldiers. The fundamental reality was that the constitutional and political legitimacy accrued to the political elites only because they could garner for themselves a mandate to govern, and that too, in an open, fair and transparent electoral contest. There was a sacredness to this authority from the citizens and it entitled them to obedience and respect. “We, the people of India” were to be the ultimate and only sovereign.

And, the political leader was deemed to be endowed with certain laudable skills and attitudes. He was respected as “a politician” because he undertook to understand the people’s issues and grievances. A political operative who aspired to be recognised as a “leader” had to have the willingness to harmonise conflicting social values and claims to produce a kind of “public good.” Coercion was not to be his calling card; persuasion and motivation were to be his first, second and third preferences. Only autocrats rely on force and intimidation.

All these years, there had been a complete consensus that the armed forces were a valuable institution, deriving its authority and parameters from the constitution and, that, as an institution, the armed forces were committed to democratic and secular values. The armed forces, to be fair, never asserted that they were outside the ambit of democratic accountability; nor did they demand a lion’s share in the national resources. Unlike in our neighbourhood, the armed forces never subscribed to a grammar of entitlements. This despite the fact that in the last three decades or so we have come to depend heavily on the coercive arm of the Indian state to restore a semblance of order in large parts of the country.

Yet, we find ourselves witness to the process of re-arranging some of the working assumptions that have served the Indian republic well for all these years. Unlike in Pakistan, where it was the army generals who made the judgment that the politicians were incompetent and incapable of safeguarding the best interests of their nation, we are not just deferring too much to the generals, we are also redefining ‘competence’. Suddenly, it would seem that competence of a leader is to be judged by his willingness to allow the use of force. And, a willingness to let the ‘security forces’ be the judge of how to use force, when to use it.

And, once we let the security forces write their own ticket, the others who have the capacity to initiate and inflict violence also take a cue. If the army can give a “bloody nose to the Pakis”, so can the BSF; and if the BSF can be allowed to overreact, why can’t the cops in Bhopal go on a shooting spree and gun down a few SIMI boys?

All this adds up to a new but troublesome acceptance of violence. Nehru’s India is forging a new identity under the shadow of joyful acceptance of conflict. Elements of a garrison state are being grafted on to the republic’s escutcheon.

Harish Khare is the Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared.