Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has said that respect for the Indian Army is waning, as India has not fought a war in decades. He went on to give the example of letters sent by commanding officers to the district administration, not receiving the requisite attention. His statement has led to a debate, questioning its implications. This has been accompanied by assertions of pride in the Indian Army by his detractors.
This raises the fundamental question regarding the outlook of our country and its people towards the Army and whether this has been affected by the absence of a major war since 1971. The answer to these questions is apparent to me, having served in the Army for a little more than 22 years. This is borne by my interaction with a wide cross-section of people in various deployment areas of the country, both peace and field.
At an individual level, a soldier is still respected and the people at large do look up to them for the sacrifices they make. Just a couple of days back, on my way to the Lok Sabha TV studio, I was casually chatting with the cab driver. He was his normal self, until he realised that I had served in the Army, till a few years back. His attitude transformed completely thereafter. I was humbled to hear him consider it an honour to drive an Army officer. He went on to speak about the countless challenges faced and sacrifices made by soldiers in the line of duty. He saved his special concluding appreciation for the recent raid by the army in Myanmar.
This is by far the attitude of most people I come across as an individual and an officer of the Indian Army. However, this does not answer both the questions previously raised. And therein lies the rub. The Army faces a dichotomy, wherein, individuals hold soldiers in high esteem, even as institutions which must cater to their problems, display disdain!
The example quoted by the defence minister related to problems of soldiers not receiving adequate attention, is an everyday challenge faced by battalions deployed in the far-flung areas of the country. Soldiers from small and often remote districts are unable to take long vacations with their families. This robs them of any real chance to resolve their legal issues and as a result, they are often at the receiving end of disputes.
In the past, commanding officers would correspond regularly with the district administration and immediate action would follow, with a feedback, mostly confirming early resolution. A similar approach was evident initially in areas where the army is deployed for counter insurgency operations. I remember having been able to get electricity transformers replaced in remote areas of Doda district in 1995 as a company commander, merely based on a letter to the chief engineer. The same cannot be imagined today.
These changes can be attributed to two factors. First, prolonged periods of deployment of the Army, have limited its appeal in border areas and regions which are affected by insurgency and terrorism. The law of diminishing returns is increasingly becoming applicable to the army’s protracted deployment. Over a period of time, the sacrifices tend to fade, even as rare cases of violations become the benchmark for judging soldiers.In other cases, local sentiments tend to overshadow larger national objectives. The writing on the railway siding walls rechristening IPKF, from Indian Peacekeeping Force to Innocent People Killing Force, remains etched in my mind, since the time I saw it in 1990, at Chennai, as a young officer.
Second, as the defence minister laments and has often been said in the past, armies tend to lose their sheen when not seen fighting an external adversary. Their raison d'etre is questioned, as are their rights and privileges, both within and outside the power circles. Surprisingly, this tendency is also not new, since it was noted by Rudyard Kipling well before the country gained independence:
“In times of war and not before,
God and soldier we adore.
But in times of peace and all things righted,
God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.”