June 14, 2017

Needling The Army

A rather peculiar phenomenon which is now appearing on the political landscape and in the mainstream and social media, is that anyone who is anyone, feels compelled to comment on the country’s Armed Forces, more so on the actions of the Army. The trend gained traction after the  terror attack on the Air Force Station at Pathankot in January 2016, which caused casualties to own forces before the terrorists were eliminated. This was followed a month later by a terror attack on  a government building in the outskirts of Srinagar which resulted in the loss of three para commandos including two Captains, before the lone terrorist was eliminated. Then in September, 17 soldiers lost their lives in a sneak attack on a brigade HQ in Uri sector, which rightly caused rage and indignation across the country and led to the Indian Army responding by a surgical strike across the border, successfully targeting a number of terrorist bases. Finally, in November, the terrorists struck once again, this time at an artillery unit in Nagrota, killing three soldiers, including one Captain.

2017 has not yet seen the type of high profile attacks of 2016 on military targets, which perhaps points to the success of the Army in keeping the area under effective domination, but civil disobedience in the form of pelting stones at the security forces has taken on a more ominous dimension. It was to save the lives of election officials and their protection party from a thousand or so stone pelters intent on creating mayhem that Maj Gogoi, who was detailed to rescue the beleaguered officials, tied up a stone pelter in front of his jeep and carried out the rescue without mishap in April this year. But then all hell broke loose, with exaggerated concern being expressed for the human rights of the tied up stone pelter, but muted or no criticism being showered on the murderous stone pelters and their attempts to thwart the election process. The Army supported the action of Gogoi, with the Chief giving him his commendation card while stating at the same time that though not the norm for the Army, different situations required different responses. A former Army Commander of Northern Command however openly expressed his displeasure to the act of tying up a stone pelter, taking the high moral ground that such an act had no place in the Army’s ethos. The Government supported the Army Chief, but predictably, the opposition came out all guns blazing, indicting the Centre and the alliance government at the State  for its perceived failure in bringing peace and normalcy to the Valley and infringement of the human rights of the civilian stone pelter.

Soon public opinion was divided on the issue. Editorial pieces in the Indian Express slammed the Army, the Telegraph termed the sequence of incidents as shocking and unbecoming and the Hindustan Times bluntly stated “The General has it wrong”. Karan Thapar, the son of  a former Chief also jumped into the fray, stating that it was ‘not the Indian Army I know’. But other mainstream papers supported the Army, support pouring in overwhelmingly also from the social media. In all the brouhaha, the basic issue however got ignored.

Commanders need to take decisions in real time in situations which are akin to war. Their actions cannot be judged in terms of right or wrong — but on whether their action was done in good faith. How an action will eventually pan out can never be pre-determined and young commanders must always have the backing of their superiors in the chain of command for taking on the spot decisions. Otherwise, our junior leadership will lose confidence in the higher leadership with disastrous consequences for the Army and the nation. More importantly, as said so eloquently by Sadguru, decisions on the battlefield must be left to the commanders who are facing the bullets and cannot be the subject of debate in the media. Every action cannot be put open to public gaze. The Army is the instrument of final resolve and its edge must never be allowed to be eroded. Which is why the Chief supported his officers fighting on the battlefield. On a different note, Karan Thapar may be right when he stated that this is not the Army he grew up in. It most certainly is not. The present Chief upheld the interests of the Army. Sadly, that did not happen when his father was the Chief and we suffered humiliation at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.

(The writer is Director of India Foundation)

The article was published in Salute magazine, April-May 2017 issue. 


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