‘ Why the glaring schism between what we all know about the Army, and what we publicly say or write about it?‘
On 26 January 1950, the Indian Constitution, devised after much debate and deliberation, came into force. The day is since commemorated and celebrated as the Republic Day. The Constitution is no doubt an inspiring document that lays out a vision for the country and was moreover way ahead of its time. Remember that it was not until a few years later that full civil rights were extended to minorities even in that beacon of democracy in North America.
At the ground zero of the Republic Day celebrations, however, it is not altogether clear what is celebrated each year. To be sure, the parade from Raisina Hill through Rajpath—the very stretch that was placed out of bounds to protestors a few weeks earlier—comprises of state tableaus and schoolchildren, but what underpins it is the display of ‘military might’ that precedes the cultural performance. Missile launchers, tanks and other military paraphernalia stream past the President and other dignitaries alongside meticulously choreographed marchpasts by soldiers from various segments of the Indian defense forces. The marchers, somewhat surreally, include horses and camels, the products of whose bowel movement must be swept away by attendant cleaners. In this manner, even the animals find themselves enrolled in this performative intersection of nationalism and war, where for large stretches, constitutional principles—democracy, liberty, and equality—are sublimated.
I do not know the precise history of the parade, whether or not the military angle has always been there, or if it was added to the celebrations later. The immediate question is why must the military be a dominant part of the narrative? Why must sanitised culture and patriotism be the only two aspects of the Republic Day narrative? And more generally, how should we think about the place of the armed forces in our country, beyond a simple comparative analysis vis a vis Pakistan, as we usually do?
Let us quickly review two contemporary public debates within which the army has lately figured and take it from there:
1) Defense capabilities and procurement: this is concerned with our relative strike capabilities with respect to neighbouring armies, ie Pakistan and China[i]. Usually, reports about this matter swing from reviews of the exceptional abilities of our military, or the absence of adequate infrastructure or personnel. It is to reduce the gap between perceived inadequacies and the requirements that army sets to procure military technologies either by creating capacities for domestic production or, more frequently, importing from various global sources. It goes without saying that there are several opportunities for rent-seeking in the chain of procurement. From Bofors to Tehelka investigations to Abhishek Verma, we know the story well [ii]. And yet, no matter what our polity may suggest off the record, it insists on abiding by the position that the army is an entirely scrupulous institution. More on this later.
2) Internal law and order: This is the debate related to the armed forces’ role in internal security, particularly in Kashmir, the North East, and the forests of Central India. Here the military is asked to arbitrate—through force, of course—matters that are of a political nature. In some instances it is up against armed insurgencies that have a large support base amongst the local populace, while in others, urban protesters who present a different management headache for the army. Either way, and in each of these places, independent organizations have painstakingly documented the brazen human rights violations. There is ample evidence of the Army’s misdemeanors, including torture, rapes, extra-judicial killings, and the existence of mass graves. Again, while after a couple of drinks, officers open up to you about the reign of terror they invoked in their territories—enforcing shoot-on-sight orders with glee—not only officers, serving and retired, but also other more detached observers offer a denial or at best, studied silence on the wrongdoings in public. Further, we should understand that information is not the limiting factor here: as new evidence emerges, it too is easily boxed away in the dark rooms of denial.
In this scenario one must ask a simple question: why the glaring schism between what we all know about the Army, and what we publicly say or write about it?
The first element of this ideology is that there is a very simple association of the military with the idea of patriotism, and consequently, one’s position with respect to the establishment becomes a proxy for one’s patriotism. According to philosopher Stephen Nathanson, patriotism has four basic elements: a special affection for one’s own country; a sense of personal identification with the country; special concern for the well-being of the country; and finally, the willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good[iii]. In addition to the first three elements, which may also be termed nationalism, the notion of sacrifice is perhaps what leads us to ascribe exemplary patriotism to men and women of the armed forces. And it is further believed that youngsters join the armed forces on account of their exceptional patriotism. No doubt, there is something to this argument, but then, there are at least a few hundred million nationalists in the country; many of who also make daily sacrifices (think about migrant laborers in the streets, factories, and farms around the country), though not for the self-avowed cause of the nation.
It is therefore a valid question to ask if the sense of patriotism in the armed forces on account of patriotic individuals gravitating towards a natural home, or if it is their presence in the army that makes recruits patriotic, in an ideological sense? We should remember that recruitment for officer class is either after school or after graduation—that is, usually, between 18 and 22 years of age, much too early for most people to be self-aware about their worldview and to read it within the context of one’s socialization. It is through participation in the everyday routines of the armed forces that recruits get trained in thinking about themselves and the nation in specific ways; ways, moreover which are compatible with the overall goals of the army, but which are clubbed together under the signifier patriotism.
Another way to look at the question is through recruitment below officer rank, which takes place in the various recruitment offices across the country. Here, in addition to basic educational qualifications, recruitment is via physical ‘measurement’, test of fitness and written and medical exams. Maybe this imprecise notion of patriotism is a factor, but it cannot be the only one. Young men are pulled in for various reasons, not least the promise of secure employment with well laid-out material—and intangible—benefits in a scenario with massive unemployment or at the very least, predominance of contractual and insecure jobs. The pay scale of regular soldiers is not that high (around Rs 15,000 to begin), but it is much better than almost any other option available to the applicants. It is for this reason that thousands descend upon the zonal centre during recruitment drives, a situation often dreaded by locals.
This very month, thousands of aspirants at a recruitment rally near Kanpur—protesting alleged irregularities—‘went on a rampage and fought a pitched battle with the police’ [iv], destroying dozens of vehicles, and harassing women. In Alwar a few months back, over 6000 aspirants had gone on a ‘rampage’, and pelted stones, destroyed public property, and looted shops late into the night [v]. Also in Rajasthan in May last year, during a similar riot, over and above the already mentioned kind of damage, the angry young men set fire to a rail engine [vi]. These are not isolated incidents but form a general pattern, which arises when latent frustrations related to one’s life chances combine with the hurried rejection by the army: testosterone without a mission.
If this is the farcical side to recruitments, then there is most certainly a tragic element too. In 2009, one applicant was shot dead and others injured as the army tried to control their protests against alleged irregularities [vii]. At another drive, an aspirant was killed and more injured during a stampede [viii].
Most heartbreakingly, in March 2002, at least twenty-three young men died when the septic tank atop which they were waiting for their interview collapsed. Witness to this tragedy, hundreds others went on a spontaneous protest, their targets were once again public property [ix] (it is interesting to note that this rage chooses the state as the enemy signifier, even though the military is at fault—it is like even in anger, the military/executive ideology remains). Apart from the obvious observation that the regularity of such incidents challenges the narrative of institutional efficiency, this points to problems with patriotism as the organizing concept on which the army hinges. Would such already formed patriotic subjects terrorize locals during recruitment drives and riot at the slightest pretext? And if selected, does the army training guarantee that ‘the Real’ will not reemerge upon deployment, particularly in contexts of relative impunity (eg AFSPA)? This is not to point fingers at these young men, for certainly it must be a minority that probably engages in these actions, but the questions must be asked for it is clearly not a small minority and a structural issue is at stake.
For the second part of the explanation, and despite all the problems with his work in contexts such as ours [x], Slavoj Zizek’s conception of ideology may be an appropriate lens to conceive of the gap between how we ‘see’ the army, and how we ‘believe’ in it. For Zizek, ideology exists in relation to the symbolic order, such that the latter is more important than the direct experience of the subject. Even though we all know what the military is in reality, on television debates we still aver that it upholds the law in most, if not all, situations. In an otherwise heated debate on the recent border skirmishes, and despite enough prior evidence of beheadings by both sides, hardly anyone counters the retired officer who unequivocally asserts that first, ‘Indian military personnel are trained to never torture, rape etc’, and second, ‘If at all they transgress, there is a clear and unambiguous system of justice within the Army that assigns guilt and punishes offenders objectively’, despite, as pointed out above, undeniable evidence to the contrary from many different contexts.
As Zizek says, “what a cynic who “believes only his eyes” misses is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our experience of reality.” [xi] I take it to mean that the symbolic order which constructs the armed force as a meritocracy, a disciplined and conscientious institution is fundamentally necessary to the Indian nation-state, for it is to this notion of the army—and to a lesser extent, the judiciary—that the entire national order is pinned, given the dominant ideology that also considers the legislature and executive to be incompetent and corrupt.
Consider in conclusion what, in 2004, the then Supreme Court Chief Justice RC Lahoti said in response to allegations of corruption in the judiciary: ‘Media has to remember that judiciary is the last resort for common people and [if] they lose faith, the entire democratic set up may crumble.’ [xii] The truly striking thing about CJ Lahoti’s utterance is that he actually said what is to be the unwritten ideological mandate. One can transliterate this sentiment to the military too: without the ideology of its scrupulousness, we are left confronting a void that is the absence of order. But this void could also be the opportunity to take stock and confront the worst nightmare of breakdown. It is the least we can do for the many thousands who bear the brunt of our ideology.