Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2018-06-16 06:00:05 Published on Jun 16, 2018
Civil military relationship: The way forward

It was Field Marshal Philip Chetwode, 1st Baron Chetwode, who formally inaugurated the Indian Military Academy in 1932, while he was Commander-in-Chief India. He is famously remembered for this passage from his address there “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” It is the credo of the Academy and is engraved in the Central Hall named after him.

There is not one officer in our Army, whether a graduate of the Indian Military Academy or the Officers Training Academies, who does not know these lines by rote, or try and live up to them to their best of their ability, with varying degrees of success. But herein lies the irony of it for these lines were written at a time when we had no country of our own and were expected to actually care for the safety, honour and welfare of the land of our colonial masters.

However, now that we do actually have a country of our own, we seem to have turned the Chetwode Motto on its head, more so by some of our more senior officers in search of sinecures from the Government of the day. Thus it no longer comes as a surprise when senior officers refuse to speak up in public on issues that affect their command, or, in some cases, give asinine comments to the media. This, while undoubtedly endearing them to the powers that be, clearly shows up their ignorance and comprehension of the nuances of the subject at hand, and what is worse their personal agenda.

Obviously, recent statements by the Army Chief about the opening up of cantonments creates apprehensions as to whether he is truly invested in ensuring the safety, welfare and comfort of his command or sees his present appointment only as a stepping stone to future “greatness”, like one of his earlier much liked and respected predecessors, whose reputation within the military community is now in tatters. The future will reveal the truth no doubt, but in any case he would do well to ruminate over Shakespeare’s apt quote from Macbeth “Vaulting ambition, which overlaps itself, And falls on the other. . . . ”

All of this aside, he does raise two pertinent issues which need to be looked at without prejudice or preconceived notions. The first issue pertains to the question of harassment to citizens who may have genuine reasons to be visiting cantonments or require to be provided passage through them because alternate routes are unsuitable or non-existent. The “Vijay Yatra” organized by members of the BJP after the opening up of roads was certainly over the top and contemptible, but does reflect a sense of frustration among some of the civilian community living within or adjacent to cantonments. It is not that all frustrated citizens are out to grab military land; in fact the vast majorities are law abiding citizens who would find such accusations preposterous and demeaning.

Undoubtedly, there is a miniscule lot, easily identifiable given their links to politics and real estate, who look to make a killing from such a proposition and given the all pervasive corruption within the politico-bureaucratic establishment the motive for opening up cantonments may well have been to help them out rather than the average citizen. In this regard, the Raksha Mantri, in the interest of transparency, may well like to clarify on the allegations of conflict of interest that are doing the rounds on social media with regard to her hasty and unprecedented decision to open up all roads within cantonments.

Nonetheless, law abiding citizens can be helped by ensuring a genuine dialogue between the Local Military Authority (LMA) and the affected parties to resolve outstanding issues without compromising security. The fact is compromised is invariably difficult because both sides tend to take maximalist positions. Also, civilian groups tend to ignore the fact that the LMA’s hands are bound by rules and even innovative and practical suggestions that involve providing any military land to municipal authorities is viewed with intense suspicion by higher authorities and thus rejected outright by LMA’s. They have no wish to have their careers jeopardized by accusations of attempting to fill their own pockets over issues which are secondary to their actual appointments. Though that too is not completely unknown, as the Adarsh case has famously shown.

But precedents do exist where innovative solutions have been pushed through to resolve issues. A perfect example is the case of the Parachute Regiment Training Centre when it closed access road passing through it to some of the adjacent civilian colonies as their movement impacted training and security. The colonies were up in arms as they had very narrow approach roads available for their use which greatly hampered their movement. The issue was resolved when military land along the periphery was handed over to the municipal authorities to widen the adjoining road thus opening up alternative access for those colonies. Now that the government appears to be sensitive to the issues confronting civilians living adjacent to cantonments, the LMA can be given the necessary support to proceed and act on ideas that may require transfer of land to municipal authorities as that will help resolve issues speedily.

The second issue pertains to the Chief’s statement that the military is afflicted by an all pervasive false sense of security. While he must know what he is talking about, in view of his extensive service, but he needs to amplify on the issue given the number of debilitating attacks, including the loss of lives, that military installations have been subjected to in the past few years. While lapses on the part of commanders and men in each of those cases must have been ascertained and dealt with as appropriate, the Philip Campose Report on the Pathankot Air Force Station fiasco that had also looked at systemic issues and given extensive recommendations, especially with regard to infrastructure, appears to have died of old age.

It is incumbent, nay essential, for the Chief, therefore, to inform the taxpaying public as to the exact status of measures initiated to protect our military stations and cantonments and those living within. He must also inform us on how much of the budgetary requirement for all of this has actually been received and utilized. In the event no funding has actually been received, as seems to be the case, he needs to tell us what he has personally done about it. It is one thing to lecture in vague generalities about security while passing the buck to juniors, and quite another to accept ownership and face the consequences for inaction. Then, there is that bit of hypocrisy involved, which we normally accuse politicians and judges of, tending to lecture us on various aspects of security, while safely hiding behind walls protected by hordes of armed security personnel. Isn’t moving with a security escort within the peaceful environs of the NCR or visiting army establishments, which as per standing orders are required to put in place a security cordon for the site being visited, even if it is a marriage hall within NCR, just another example of the false sense of security that he alluded to?

Finally, there is an issue with regard to military land that tends to be given short shrift as nobody wants to quite bell the cat. Scales of land authorization, especially for units, are fairly high based on orders that are of little relevance today. In addition, cantonments possess huge surpluses of land and empty bungalows that the military simply cannot put to any constructive use. Similarly, there are camping grounds in various cities that had relevance during British times but are now an increasing source of an administrative headache as they need to be protected to ensure they are not illegally occupied. All of this poses a grave dilemma to those responsible for security and combat readiness. On one hand, especially given the security threats that confront them, requires the deployment of large numbers of troops if they are to ensure 24/7 security, but this, in turn, has an adverse impact on the availability of manpower for training, which in turn impacts combat readiness.

That apart there is the bigger question of all of this prime land lying unused, amounting to thousands of acres, which in a poor country with limited availability of land in urban areas, is not just loss of revenue but nothing short of a national calamity. There is thus a necessity to set up a statutory body with judicial powers to resume all encroached defence land, which would be responsible to look into the issue of defence land in totality, including amount of land required for accommodation, administrative, training and recreation needs of military units. The Armed Forces can then consolidate their land holdings, upgrade/ build the required infrastructure and convert these areas into military stations equipped with state of the art protective measures. All cantonment land that then becomes surplus, along with encroached lands, can then be auctioned with the sale proceeds being statutorily required to be used for upgrading military infrastructure. We will have the added advantage of doing away with the Directorate General of Defence Estates, which has done a particularly shabby job of protecting defence land from encroachments over the years.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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