Why the Indian Armed Forces should not be forced into doing civilian tasks

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 23, 2017 17:28 hrs
Elphinstone stampede

Perhaps the rest of the world does not know that the Indian government has a 911 service for itself and the Govt has been using it for last 70 years, mercilessly. This 911 service is (made to) run by our glorious, brave and disciplined Indian Armed Forces.

Gone are the good old days when Indian Armed Forced were called for relief work during natural calamities. Now it appears that anything beyond moving a file or undertaking a project with great legal or illegal benefits goes to this 911 service. When a newly constructed bridge collapsed just before the 2010 Common Wealth Games in New Delhi, Engineering branch of the Indian Army was called to save the nation from an international embarrassment (BBC had reported that the Scottish team was all set to pull out and Britain as well). Indian Govt dialled its 911 and Madras Sappers regiment constructed a 95 meters long Bailey Bridge in a record time of just 5 days, just a day before the formal inauguration of the games! The International press praised the Indian army for the commendable job. CWG started and finished as per plan. No one bothered to investigate and punish the culprits. We simply forgot about the incident.

When Enathu bridge got damaged in Thiruvanthapuram earlier this year, the government again sought Army’s help to create a Bailey bridge to `ease the hardship of commuters`! PWD minister G Sudhakaran requested the then Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar, who directed vice chief of army staff Lt Gen Sarath Chant to do the needful. See how easy it is to get the finest institution of the country, a formidable fighting machine to do a job they are not supposed to do.

Even private organizations can use this 911 service. In 2016, Art of Living Foundation held a 3 days long World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna River. 3.5 million people were expected to attend the event including the Prime Minister. Concerned about a stampede, safety of the people and `of the PM`, the organization sought help from the Government to get pontoon bridges created on an emergency basis. Indian Government, as gracious as ever, got the Indian Army construct a pontoon bridge. To add insult to injury, the Government charged Art of Living for Indian Army’s services. Imagine the impact on the morale of the troops involved, they realised for the first time that they can be made to work for private entities to make some money for the Government.

Now comes the latest example – Elphinston bridge tragedy. Last month, 23 innocent people lost their life in a deadly stampede in Mumbai’s Elphinston Road train station. Construction of new bridges has been pending for a long time. Instead of pushing civil authorities responsible, the State Chief Minister requested the Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman to get the Indian Army to create bridges over Elphinstone Road station and two more railway stations by 31st Jan 2018. His wish was granted immediately and the Army was directed to do the needful.

When people criticized the government, DM replied in her defence `This is probably the first time we have asked the Army to come in to build what could otherwise be called civil work, but Elphinstone tragedy was so big. A call was taken to cooperate, seeing the urgency of the matter as the Army has its role at the borders`.

Enough examples have been quoted to refute her statement. The nation is not ready to buy the reason she gave to engage the Army in construction work. If we go by her logic (….tragedy was so big), then in future we might see Army Medical Corp (AMC) going to BRD Medical College, Gorkhpur where 61 children died in 72 hours. Unfortunate but that was a bigger tragedy than Elphinstone bridge collapse.

Just because the Army is very cable, professional, disciplined force, which has the expertise to complete such tasks at short notice and with-in exceptionally short time lines, they should not be made to do the job again and again. There is simply no reason to push such civilian tasks down a soldier’s throat.

Defence minister can be termed as the guardian of the welfare of the soldiers and it is her basic constitutional and moral responsibility to keep the Armed forces’ morale high and operational preparedness intact. I wonder how above quoted statement (which is an eyewash) and the act of pushing soldiers into construction work will help her fulfil her constitutional duties?

But politicians are politicians and they simply worry about their political needs and not about the morale of the troops. Unfortunately, the common man of the country has a very short memory, so nothing much at stake for the politicians. Here the real question mark is on the functioning of the top brass of the Army. Did they stand up for the troops they command? Did they explain the implication of such decisions to the political masters? Why it was not refused by the higher command? It is their first and foremost duty to protect the honour, welfare and comfort of the men they command. It may sound harsh but it looks like they preferred to bow to the political instruction over their primary duty. It is possible that the officer standing up for the troops would have got removed with a more compliant one. But it would have sent a very strong message that the Army brass is no pushover.

Nation hailed Admiral (Retd.) DK Joshi, who took moral responsibility for a series of accidents and resigned. He proved himself a man of great moral courage. Can those soldiers who would work on the Elphinstone bridge, expect any such act from their top brass? Will Engineer-in-Chief be able to meet those soldiers and look them in the eye?

67 years ago, in the name of their contribution in the nation building, the famous 4 Mountain Division was made to work on such construction works. Instead of sharpening their battle skills, they were made to build houses. It was the top brass of the time, who gave in to the political will for their own petty interests. COAS Gen Thaper, CGS Gen B. M. Kaul etc were all involved and when the same 4th Mountain Division was massacred by the Chinese in Oct-Nov 1962, Generals could not explain why they failed. They deliberately became a part of the political act and damaged the courage and morale of the humble soldiers. And the nation paid the price.

Aren’t we repeating the same mistake? Remember, history repeats itself when people repeat their mistakes.



Sumit Walia is an IT Specialist, based in Germany . He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

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