Dangerous deification of the armed forces

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on November 06, 2016

Playing with fire Fanning an imagined sense of victimhood   -  PTI

With all respect to the army, it must remain subordinate to civilian power. Have politicians glorifying the army forgotten this?

The army holds a privileged position in the heart of any nation. This is especially so in a country like India, where a vast majority sees it as the only bulwark against existential threats posed by external enemies.

The fact that far fewer soldiers die in battle in a year than human beings killed on our roads every month doesn’t cut any ice, for should ‘Armageddon’ happen, it is expected that the army will sacrifice itself to its last man, to ensure the survival of our country and its people.

The politicians with short-term goals — and that is not only Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal but members of the BJP as well — are unmindful of the consequences of putting the soldier on a pedestal and nonchalantly yielding the moral high ground to him while leaving him nursing a grievance.

As our people get increasingly tired of the cut and thrust of rotten politics and corrupt politicians, there is a yearning amongst many for order as well as discipline, of the kind, people mistakenly believe, only the army can provide or sustain. Our regard for the army, great as it ought to be, should stop just there, and not be allowed to morph into veneration, still less deification, for that will be a one-way road to disaster. When the soldier is convinced that he is the pre-eminent custodian of the country’s moral and ethical values, he assumes a position of infallible righteousness while arrogating to himself the power to hector, bully, command and rule. We have a classic example of that in Egypt. It was the soldiers to whom the young public, bent on getting rid of a venal dictator like Hosni Mubarak, turned to and embraced. What they got in return was yet another dictatorship, worse than an earlier one, with a general in charge.

Imagined victimhood

As Trump has shown, not even a ‘mature’ democracy is safe from a constant reiteration of imagined victimhood. A tipping point is being reached in India, thanks to the cynical manipulation of the emotions of our soldiers by politicians who are fostering in them a sense of imagined victimhood and touch-me-not greatness.

When it comes to the army, all countries in the world must tread carefully. And India is no exception. The first rule is not to needlessly pander to an organisation which can count on the support of lakhs of veterans across the country, with time on their hands, to mount a formidable challenge to civilian authority and sustain it over extended periods of time, as in the case of the never-ending OROP agitation.

From foot soldier to field marshal, the army should be made to understand that civilians are in charge and it can never be otherwise. That is what Xi Jinping is doing with panache in China; the worst generals have been shown the door or have been jailed for corruption and insubordination. The result is the emergence of a formidable armed force, more firmly under civilian control, than ever in China’s recent history.

Global precedent

The army has always proved to be a bad master wherever it was given, or allowed to assume, supreme authority. Chile is a classic example. In Egypt, Pakistan and Argentina, soldiers have led their countries to war and defeat while turning on their own people with immense cruelty and abandon.

The army made a mess of Myanmar and authored a constitution that denies the top job to its most popular leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In Thailand, the army ousted an elected government and rules with an iron hand, while in Turkey, the civilian in power is having a hard time defanging it. Africa abounds in soldiers who have taken over their countries and converted them into personal fiefdoms.

All those who are egging the armed forces to protest and arm-twist, through organised protest by its veterans, are doing a grave disservice to India which has treated its soldiers with immense love, honour and consideration and allowed it privileges other services envy. They are also, by their cynical actions, encouraging and inciting the much less privileged veterans of paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the ITBP which, too, guard our borders, to come out with protests of their own.

Their actions, to paraphrase De Gaulle, “must lead straight to national disaster”.

The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

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Published on November 06, 2016
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