Perpetuating a myth

Two developments in the immediate past have aroused much interest among serving and retired soldiers.

One, the Supreme Court has handed down an interim order allowing serving defence personnel in peace stations, along with their spouses residing with them to cast their votes as ordinary voters at the station of their posting and two, Gen V K Singh, the last retired chief of army has contested election to Parliament as a representative of a political party.

These developments represent a marked departure from the staid practice and long propagated misconceptions that the armed forces personnel must remain politically excluded.

The news emanating from the Supreme Court was widely hailed as some sort of an emancipation of soldiers from shackles placed around their ankles and necks by a self serving bureaucracy and an uncaring and ostensibly scared polity.

General Singh’s candidature for a seat in Parliament was largely taken as a step that meant too little too late.

Ex servicemen by and large would have preferred a much larger level of participation in the electoral process and possibly a party of ex servicemen to represent their sectional grievances and interests.

Only, they were constrained by political and electoral inexperience and huge funds required for elections.

V K Singh did nothing to leverage the soldier vote for larger advantage of the community. He was quite content as long as his personal interest was accommodated.

Sections of public opinion have however reacted to these developments in a rather amateurish and knee jerk fashion. Almost crying wolf.

“Defence forces have been politicised – A coup is round the corner if VK becomes defence minister.”

Media has taken recourse to firing from the shoulders of a handful of retired officers well known for their media contacts, personal hostility to V K Singh and political leanings towards Congress or for their archaic ideas on a soldier’s role in nation building beyond defending its borders.

India became a democratic republic in 1951 and adopted universal franchise as an essential element of its democracy.

Representation of People’s Act 1951 gave this right to every citizen regardless of religion, caste, place of domicile or profession.

However, unlike any other democracy in the world, the government framed rules under the act which in clear violation of the Act, effectively disenfranchising soldiers, sailors and airmen serving in the armed forces of India by asking them to cast their vote by postal ballot -- A provision which the Act envisaged as an enabling exception only for those who could not cast their vote in person because they were either serving outside India or were sailing on the high seas on the day of voting.

Given our national penchant for procedural complications this came to effectively translate into their disenfranchisement.

Not more than five per cent of these postal ballots ever reached the counting centres in time.

Bureaucratic canard

Folklore has it that this was done by a suspicious establishment who feared that democratic empowerment of the soldiers posed risk of a military coup just like in neighbouring Pakistan.

It is widely believed that this canard was spread by the bureaucrats simply to safeguard and expand their own turf and sold to the political masters as a matter of intelligence inputs and ample precaution to safeguard India’s democracy.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon willingly lapped it up.

Gradually, it came to be accepted as Goebel’s truth that apolitical army is expected to take no interest in any democratic processes or for that matter in any matter relating to India’s governance and development.

The soldier came to be perceived as a moron who had no interest and no role in the affairs of the nation except to the extent of being pledged and ready to lay down his life for the defence of India.

The military brass went along with this arrangement, used as they were to colonial ways of the British Indian army.

Gradually, similar rules were made applicable to all other central police services, even the Central Industrial Security Force and the Border Roads Organisation.

It suited the Indian Civil services admirably who appointed themselves as final arbiters in all matters relating to India’s defence and internal security.

The politician in his extreme ignorance and callous indifference abrogated all but notional authority, to the wily babu.

Is the soldier community against democracy? Does the soldier not have stake in development or defence and security policy?

Is he less patriotic, less nationalist or a lesser citizen?

Does the word apolitical translate to being politically unconcerned? All these are important questions in the context of the track record of soldiery as a politically neutral butstaunchly disciplined nationalistic institution.

Are politically biased, committed and compromised civil and police officials whose experience is restricted to file pushing and who are often the first preference of political parties for all appointments including that of NSA, not more dangerous to national interest than the now feared utilisation of the professional expertise of a former army chief to retrieve the ministry of defence from the quagmire it is known to be in?

Let these worthies stop crying ‘coup’ in the garb of their disappointment at the fact that the uniformed services of India are  aware and awakened patriot citizens who need to actively participate in securing the country’s future in all its dimensions including democratic.

Let their antipathy for V K Singh not cloud out the reality of India. He will make a better raksha mantri than Krishna Menon or A K Antony.

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