Building bridges with the military: The long road to perdition

 Elphinstone Bridge, Deepak Sinha, Indian Defence, Indian Armed Forces, Defence, Building Bridges

Commuters at the Elphinstone Railway Stations foot over bridge

Source: PTI

Recently, the Ministry of Defence grandiosely announced that it had finalized a plan to earmark Rs 40,000 Crore for procurement of new weapons for the Infantry. An undeniable necessity – since it is the combat arm of decision that has borne the brunt of all operations – ranging from the conventional to LIC, and will surely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. It is not without reason that 17 of the 21 odd Param Veer Chakras awarded since Independence have been won by officers and men belonging to this arm.

Indeed, even a cursory examination of the facts suggests, as is characteristic of this government, that this pronouncement is nothing but bluster and hot air, meant either to impress the lay public, which in any case is invariably unaware, or disinterested in such matters, or what is more likely, an attempt to show to the Prime Minister that the new Raksha Mantri is on top of her game.

As a matter of fact, even the illogical order directing Army Engineers to build Foot Over Bridges at three railway stations in Mumbai, including the one at Elphinstone, where the scene of the ghastly stampede leading to over a score of fatalities, should be seen in this context.

It’s not as if the Railways or the Maharashtra PWD do not have the skilled manpower to take on the project. In all likelihood, it is just another attempt to build brand Sitharaman, despite its obvious adverse impact on unit combat effectiveness and training.

As for the weapons procurement issue, the truth of the matter is that the existing inventory of small arms has been in service with the infantry for over 30 years and more and is beyond obsolete. That we are now only at the stage of issuing a Request for Information (RFI) there can be little doubt that the long drawn out process of selecting a new weapon will be completed, if we are to be optimistic, in another two to three years.

Once selected, manufacturing and induction will take an additional four to five years as procurement of over half a million pieces is not a small change.

All in all, the bulk of the infantry units will see the new assault rifles in service around 2025, if at all, and till then, as one former Chief famously put it, they will continue to fight with what they have. So, what else is new? They have been doing just that for the past 70 years and will continue to do so in the future as well.

Not that keeping our Armed Forces motivated in the future is going to be easy. It is a sad and undeniable fact that every government since Independence has done their damnest, with the assistance of a corrupt bureaucracy, to ensure that our military remains weak and disempowered to the maximum extent feasible without it being reduced to a state of complete non-performance in combat. If that were to happen, as it did in the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962, politicians would be forced to face the ire of their electorate with disastrous consequences for their careers.

Notwithstanding this aspect, fear, especially that of being kicked out of office by the military and the inherent instinct for self-preservation are potent enough motivation to ensure that such a risk is worth taking. This is even more so given the fact the general public is fully aware that every crisis to our unity and integrity, be it in the North East, in Punjab or in Jammu & Kashmir has been created by the acts of self-serving politicians and have been resolved, thanks to the sacrifices of our Armed Forces.

Yet, the government has had little or no compunction in letting loose its goons to assault, ravage and evict military veterans and their kin, mostly septuagenarians and octogenarians sitting in peaceful protest, for the past two and a half years. They have been on a relay hunger strike demanding that One Rank One Pension (OROP) be granted as was promised by Parliament and by the Prime Minister himself.

While the Prime Minister and his Finance and on/off Defence Minister publicly insist that the promise has been fulfilled, facts suggest that a one- time pension increase has been passed off as OROP. But then, truthfulness has never been the strong point of either politicians, or lawyers for that matter, and God save us from one who is both!

In any case, governments not just here, but even in more developed parts of the world tend to behave in just such a brutal and obnoxious fashion against military veterans, if that is of any comfort to politicians here. I, off course, refer to what came to be known as the Bonus Army Marchers, the popular name for the 43,000 US World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups—who assembled in Washington, D.C. in 1932 to demand cash-payment redemption of their service certificates. Their march subsequently turned into a picket of the US Congress on the outskirts of the capital. Their assemblage was forcibly removed on the orders of President Herbert Hoover.

The initial attempts by the Police were thwarted though two veterans were killed. This led to the President ordering the Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the veterans, which it did in quick time. Incidentally, the two veterans killed are interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Interestingly, the Army was used and not the Marine Corps garrison in the vicinity as it was suspected that a large number of that garrison would have probably joined the rebels. The rest, as they say is history. While MacArthur and his Generals got away with their actions, President Hoover paid the price for his impetuousness and was thrashed at the hustings by Franklin D Roosevelt after just one term.

The new President along with Congress brought in a series of measures to ameliorate the grievances of the veterans, including sending Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife, to meet them informally, thereby setting the stage for negotiation and compromise. As one veteran had reportedly said at the time: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.”

It is instructive that till date neither PM Modi nor any of his acolytes have felt the necessity to talk to the veterans over what ails them. This along with the fact that the government has not yet released the report of the one man Judicial Commission that had gone into the matter, clearly suggests that the government is in no mood to resolve the issue.

The manner in which this government has dealt with veterans is a clear measure of their arrogance and complete lack of empathy. What else can explain their allowing Police the leeway to launch violent attacks on gallantry award winners and war widows? Lest one be mistaken that this is a strong willed or principled government, one needs to only look at the manner in which it is willing to kowtow to 22 year old Hardik Patel, the leading light of the Patidar community in view of the forthcoming elections in Gujarat.

Finally, in many ways though, this cavalier treatment of military veterans was not unexpected. The way in which veterans and leading lights of his own party, who had been instrumental in his rise, were ruthlessly discarded after his coming to power speaks far louder than words can truly describe.


This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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