Bottomline | Mind Your Own Business

The army must focus on its primary task

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The army, according to the media reports, has proposed to raise a 40-battalion (40,000 men) task force for the cleaning of Ganga. While serving officers will command these battalions, ex-servicemen will comprise the manpower. An unidentified army source has been quoted as saying that while engineering equipment for the task force will be provided by the army, labour would be hired.

The government, it is understood, is seriously considering the offer, which keeping in mind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to clean the Ganga river, is likely to get accepted. Is the army leadership being fair to its primary task and its troops?

This is not an isolated incidence where the army has chosen to prove itself better than the local administration. In 1986, as the ADC to governor of Punjab, S.S. Ray, I got a call from headquarters, army western command, requesting a courtesy visit on the governor (who held additional charge of administrator of Chandigarh) by the army commander, Lt Gen. P.N. Hoon. “Why does he want to meet me?,” the governor asked me when I put the request to him. Being a brazen man, Ray refused. He was later persuaded by the secretary (a senior IAS officer) to give a few minutes to the officer, who he explained was the senior-most in the area. At the meeting, Hoon, I was told, offered to help the administration in whatever way possible. Ray told him to meet the secretary, who politely declined Hoon’s help.

The reason for this narration is that such, mostly ‘forced’ interactions, have become commonplace; worse, they are highlighted routinely as some sort of achievements in the form of media releases by the directorate of public information at Army Headquarters, and its chapters at lower headquarters.

For example, as I write this column, there is a press release with the photograph of the western army commander, Lt Gen. Philip Campose making a ‘courtesy call’ on Haryana chief minister before leaving to take up his assignment as vice chief of army staff. The release said that the officer thanked the CM for helping his state’s ex-servicemen; they being a powerful votebank in Haryana, would in any case get the CM’s attention!

A few months ago, the FORCE team, after clearance, had visited south-western command headquarters. We were told that the newly-appointed army commander was unavailable as he was off on a ‘courtesy call’ to the governor of Rajasthan.

Unfortunately, things do not end here. Most senior-most army officers in any station, whatever the rank, meet up with the administration’s bureaucrats. Officially, all this is justified as necessary for ‘aid to civil power’ duties, which is one of the tasks of the army. In reality, I have seen soldiers regulating traffic in congested marketplaces, and doing all sort of jobs they have nothing to do with. Behind all this is the irrepressible urge amongst army officers to make friends in the bureaucracy, network with politicians, and get publicity by offering what they have in plenty: manpower.

This is not all. The army is ever keen to prove themselves better than the paramilitary forces. The most glaring example is its insistence to continue with counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, the army is willing to undertake anti-Naxal operations in affected states provided the government agrees to impose Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in those areas. Despite this being unlikely, the army has not really given it up. While offering regular professional advice to the home ministry, it is, without being asked, preparing for future uncertainties.

A retired central army commander told me that, he, by his own initiative, had reconnoitred Naxal-affected areas and prepared a blueprint for action. Besides assistance in demining, medical facilities and training for the paramilitary forces, he saw the possibility of army providing the outer cordon with the paramilitary and the state police forces moving in to challenge the Naxals. A former 15 corps commander (Srinagar) mentioned that he was positive that the army will, at some stage, be asked to do anti-Naxal operations. To be sure, this is a hot subject in numerous army messes, with a few retired army officers, as if on cue, advocating that, as chances of a conventional war are extremely low, the army should get involved in these operations.

Army’s official position, however, is a guarded one. When asked in March 2010 by the then Union home minister, P. Chidambaram why he was opposing deployment of army in the Naxal-affected areas, the army chief, General V.K. Singh told him that, “This is a secessionist movement and it would not be correct to use the army against our own people.” What about ‘our’ people in the Northeast where the army has been involved since the Fifties?

Against this backdrop, the biggest irony is the army’s consistent lament that it is short of officers and manpower for its primary task on the borders. For the first time since Independence, in the 2013-2014 Budget, the army had to transfer its capital outlay meant for acquisitions to revenue or pay and allowances needs. If the army is so short of manpower, why does it flog it on tasks which are not its business?


Call us