Acting against our own army, minister?

Acting against our own army, minister?

On a television news channel debate in which I was a participant last week, the anchor thanked the BJP spokesperson for agreeing to come to the debate, after many of his fellow party spokespersons had declined saying that the topic was “very sensitive”. The topic was the recent announcement by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman throwing open roads in cantonments across the country to the general public. The BJP had not expected the strong response it would get.

Neither, probably, had the Ministry of Defence (MoD) studied the issue nor anticipated the public anger it aroused. The root of the problem is Secunderabad, where multiple colonies have mushroomed around the army cantonment and residents of these colonies use army roads for commuting. However, post the attacks on army camps in Kaluchak and Sanjuwan, restrictions began to be placed, which angered the civilians. There were no serious concerns with any other cantonment.

The MoD ignored a court order of September 2014 on two PILs, which read: “Ultimately the General Officer Commanding (GOC) is the authority who has to take decisions in the best interest of the army. This court has no expertise to decide on when to impose restrictions and how to impose restrictions.”

It went on to say: “Conscious of the difficulties of commuters, the army authorities have imposed restrictions in a phased manner. Subject to security concerns and training schedules, it is for the GOC to allow civil traffic till alternative road network is developed. It is necessary for the civic administration to take urgent measures so that civilians are not put to inconvenience and hardships.” The court also ordered the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and its district collector to submit a report within two months.

If the civil administration has not acted, they should be taken to task, why should the army be made responsible? Praise should go to the army authorities in Secunderabad who, despite the court order, permitted limited movement. Similarly, they need to be credited for not opening roads which impact the security of their families.

The defence minister claimed that she had taken the army on board and it was a collective decision. If she, as the defence minister, had decided, disobeying would imply mutiny, which is not an Indian army ethos, hence it was obeyed. The Press Information Bureau release by the MoD on May 20 stated, “Based on the review undertaken by Smt. Sitharaman, the following has been decided. All closed roads in the cantonments to be reopened forthwith. The closure of individual roads would be reviewed de novo.” Thus, it was not a collective decision. Based on these directions the army issued its orders opening all roads with effect from May 22.

Act of distrust

The MoD letter on May 28 clearly indicated her refusal to trust her own generals, who may be capable of leading troops in war, countering security threats and taking life/death decisions in deciding closure of roads. The letter stated that all decisions on closure of roads would be done by the MoD. It implied that either the defence secretary or the principal director, defence estates, who have no idea of the cantonment concerned, nor knowledge on security, would determine if roads should be closed or not.

The fact that her decision was meant to assuage her party followers was evident when members of her party celebrated in Khadki and Danapur. They celebrated a symbolic victory over their own army, an action that was neither criticised nor a statement issued against it by anyone in the BJP hierarchy. Similar was the comment by Gadkari in Mumbai when he stated that “not an inch of land will be given to the Indian Navy.”

Sitharaman’s meeting army families only implies a postponing of what has already been decided. While officers’ accommodations are fewer and far between, those of jawans are close and in large clusters, adding to security issues. Therefore, anger flows from across the rank and file of the army. A glance through social media would bare open that anger.

Is the defence minister aware that there are already reports of misbehaviour by locals and damage to property in cantonments? Has she visited Soumyadip Jana, the 15-year-old victim of the Sanjuwan terror strike, who is still in coma. His was the first house that terrorists struck at.

She would have been briefed that major cantonment roads have always been open and only minor roads are closed. Ordering removal of all checks makes cantonments more vulnerable than malls and hotels. In fact, the logical decision should have been done on a case-by-case basis, rather than a unilateral, across the board one. Protests outside the cantonment in Secunderabad demanding opening every axis has divided the nation as never before.

The BJP is in a bind. If it unilaterally withdraws its order, its local vote bank will be up in arms. If it continues with the decision, it will anger the serving and veteran community. The armed forces community is already angry with the BJP on multiple issues.

(The writer is a retired Major General)