The Defence Ministry’s Tour of Duty proposal may tick some boxes, but they do not seem to be security-related ones. Under the scheme, Agniveers, or military tourists, will be recruited for three years to tread the Agnipath, or the path of combat.

It is all certainly martial sounding – what with the terms “agni” (fire), “veer” (brave) – but reflects a penny-wise, pound foolish approach for an institution that takes its purpose rather seriously, sacredly and with a long-term perspective.

The term “tour” itself suggests a certain frivolousness and contains underpinnings of a joyride, which surely cannot be the intent. The ramrod steel of the armed forces cannot be equated to a theme park offering the thrill and adventure of military professionalism.

What, then, could be the rationale?

To oversimplify, the army faces two kinds of shortages. One is of quality combatants, with emphasis on improving the teeth-to-tail-ratio – in which the “tail” refers to the number of personnel required to support combatants who are the “teeth” of the force. The other is of militaristic wherewithal such as weaponry, wares, doctrines and technological imperatives. Which of these two does the Tour of Duty construct address?

The short answer is neither.

The next question is whether a move could have a downside, given the prevailing intake pattern and existing operational commitments and requirements. The answer is yes.

Given the diverse topography of India, the current combatants are bloodied in combat situations from the world’s highest battlefield – the Siachen Glacier – to the forests of the North East, the marshes of Kutch, swampy grasslands along the Punjab-Jammu corridor, and the sweltering deserts of Rajasthan to forge the fine steel of the Indian soldier.

Among this band of warriors, it is difficult to imagine the cohabitation and acceptance of time-serving tourists, who will realistically tenant one or two locations at the maximum. The scheme is potentially akin to the Industrial Training Institutions, only with alumni dangerously trained in weaponry and probably without a job after their tour. This creates a situation fraught with unimaginable risks.

The proposal could only dilute the standards of the army. It indicates a drift towards the culture of the state police forces that reel under political interference.

Is the Tour of Duty plan really in the interests of the armed forces? Is it wise to experiment so recklessly with perhaps the only governmental arm that still personifies the constitutional-civilisational deliverance of an inclusive, secular, and patriotic bearing?

Or is the motivation something else? Could the real rationale for the Tour of Duty be oblivious to the pressing concerns of the army and its border urgencies? Could the armed forces, yet again, be reduced to a playground for partisan deflections and quick-fix solutions that are too good to be true?

Economic woes, pension bill

Consider the serendipitous circumstances: the armed forces are woefully short of combatants and also face a budgetary pushback on account of the pension bill.

Next, consider the single biggest national issue in a post-pandemic economy – previously battered by demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax regime – which is also a foremost electoral concern: unemployment. Underemployment, rural-agrarian distress and the woes of the micro, small and medium business enterprises can be added to the admixture.

In this prevailing environment, proposing the economically viable idea of the Tour of Duty to solve a major societal-electoral concern as well as the combatant shortage of the army can be claimed simultaneously. The 2022 Union Budget had spoken, incredulously, of creating six million jobs in the next five years, but as usual, the means to do so were left unexplained.

Now, the usual nationalistic and distractive spiel – inculcating national values/spirit, teaching discipline and similar platitudes – will be superimposed on the Tour of Duty. The duty-bound and silent institution will accept the same without a murmur, so what if it has a rather questionable efficacy for the real issues besetting the armed forces.

A glance at the dismal post-service employability of the Short Service Commissioned Officers who serve for ten years shows what fate awaits a three-year tenured soldier, with even less educational training and experience, in the civilian world – vacuous promises of reservation in government jobs subsequently, notwithstanding.

Traders display a sari with images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian Army, in Surat in March 2019. Credit: Reuters

Since Independence, issues mismanaged and created by politicians cannot be solely addressed by the armed forces merely because they are easy to invoke, order, and will rarely pushback, if ever.

The laundry list of liberties taken with the Indian soldier is dangerously increasing: from being tasked with internal policing (even though the country has Central Armed Police Forces and the State Police Forces), supporting natural disaster management (though there are entities such as disaster management bodies) to being recklessly appropriated by partisan identities for electoral efforts to showcase nationalism (despite the institution’s avowed apolitical mandate).

The traditional ethos of the armed forces with its apolitical anchorage also extends culturally to what the French call devoir de reserve, or the duty of silence. Soldiers remain confined to their barracks or cantonments, figuratively as well, and there are clear service restrictions on going public with their individual opinions, for good reason.

This institutional silence is priceless, even if it is abused for partisan ends and posturing, even in a completely unrelated context, such as in the case of the demonetisation drive in 2016.

When Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were banned overnight and citizens had to line up outside banks to exchange invalidated currency notes, their ordeal was trivialised by those reminding them to instead think of the soldiers standing guard at the national borders.

However, selective amnesia ensures that the same Indian soldier is conveniently forgotten during annual budgetary allocations, one rank, one pension – a uniform pension for all defence personnel retiring at the same rank – and the like.

Thereafter, to use patronising, condescending and patriotic attributions towards the Indian soldiers (basically to do its partisan bidding) has diminishing returns of credibility – even if many still remain mesmerised by the supposed muscularity of the model soldier, despite the backbreaking inflation, societal breakdown and socio-economic stress across communities.

Political problems need political, not just military, solutions. A major reason why the Indian armed forces consistently deliver against all odds is due to the institutional distance from political showmanship and ill-advised shortcuts towards optic management.

The Tour of Duty is yet another avoidable liberty, that too in times of acute security concerns, which unsurprisingly are played down with a mealy-mouthed combination of bravado and inaccuracies.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.