To remind ourselves what command failure can do to uniformed forces in India, consider this excerpt from a new book about the 1989 riots in Bhagalpur, Bihar, where about 900 of the 1,000 or so people who died were Muslim.
“When Terah Mile, a village in then undivided Bhagalpur…was attacked, the police did nothing to stop the rioters. Instead, eyewitness testimonies reveal, they encouraged the mob to kill and pillage the Muslims. In the police contingent present on the sport, three personnel were Muslim, and they did try to stop the rioters, but their efforts came to naught as the overwhelming number of their Hindu colleagues abetted the rioters.”
Written by lawyers Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha, the book – which also investigates state accountability in the Gujarat riots of 2002 (when about 800 of the estimated 1,100 who died were Muslim) – details police indifference and complicity. In some cases, the policemen urged Hindu rioters to kill Muslims or stood aside to let that happen.
Such connivance with rioters is not new. Police forces in many Indian states have served as the strong arms or shields of mobs over the years. The saving grace, we have often been told, is that the paramilitary forces and the army – imbued with greater discipline and isolated from larger society – are not cut from the same cloth. When public order breaks down, they can be relied on to restore order without fear or bias. While that is largely true, it does not always work that way. For instance, Farasat explains how Border Security Force and army units brought in to Bhagalpur to bring calm were misdirected by local police, on whom they usually depend. And in conflict zones where the paramilitary and the army have seen long, extensive deployments in close quarters with local society, such as Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Manipur, they have been complicit in excesses and carried out extra-judicial killings. Yet, overall, it is reasonable to say that discipline has held fast.
Last week, we saw distinct signs that this discipline could be fraying, as four young men – from the BSF, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the army – took to social media to express discontent with their food, salaries and working conditions, including such tasks as walking the dogs of superior officers. Before the advent of social media, it was easier to keep frustrations out of the public eye. There was no mobile phone to reach for the moment a soldier felt an upswell of emotion. In that sense, the four soldiers in question behaved much like the rest of modern society – expressing what they felt instead of keeping it bottled up, using the tools of personalised new media to instantly address the world beyond their camps and cantonments. It is also true that frustrations in the uniformed forces have – as internal conflicts and deployments increase over the years – usually come to public attention only when a soldier turns his gun on colleagues or superiors. Indeed, last week a Central Industrial Security Force soldier killed four colleagues after being denied leave.
There are two questions that the online rebellions of last week raise: Is it better that a soldier in a nation of a billion mobile-phone connections be given more leeway, more consideration than before and be allowed to vent his frustrations? Or should no quarter be given where discipline is concerned for the world’s third-largest army, with about 1.4 million soldiers and almost as many paramilitary forces?
These questions are fine for television debates and newspaper columns, but there is only one acceptable answer: There can be no social-media broadcasts to the nation by individual soldiers, and no soldier can behave like the average citizen or expect the same freedoms.
Cause for complaint?
It is not my case that there is no merit in some of the issues raised by the social-media complaints by soldiers. Lance Naik Yagya Pratap Singh – based in the army’s 42nd infantry brigade in Dehradun – spoke of walking dogs and looking after the children of superior officers. It is an open secret that lower ranks in uniformed forces across India – police, army and paramilitary – are routinely deployed as household help. Called sahayaks (helpers) in the army or orderlies in the police, they shine shoes, cook food, serve drinks, tend gardens and sweep. Indeed, after Lance Naik Singh’s video went viral, new army chief Bipin Singh Rawat called a press conference and said he supported a review of the sahayak system. Sometimes, it takes publicity to spark reform. It was the threat of a police strike, in 2015, that forced the Karnataka government to hastily announce that 3,000 constables deployed as orderlies might be recalled from the homes of officers (it has not yet happened).
“Improve the food quality, don’t blame their indisciplined action (sic),” Anurag, the brother-in-law of Tej Bahadur Yadav – the BSF soldier who complained of watery dal and blackened rotis – told news18.com. The family of the CRPF soldier who complained about work conditions on social media made a similar argument. The CRPF is one of India’s most stressed uniformed forces. Its unofficial acronym, Chalte Raho Pyare, or keep moving my lovely, echoes its pressures: battalions heading for peacetime stand-downs after a long deployment being turned around mid-journey to a new conflict zone. The frequent denial of leave to garner enough soldiers for new deployments leaves little time for rest and training.
But even if all the complaints made are valid, it is impossible for uniformed forces to accept indiscipline and allow social-media broadcasts to go unpunished. No precedents can be set when the security of a nation of 1.2 billion depends on less than three million men and women in uniform. These men and women cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to bypass their grievance-redressal mechanisms – however imperfect – and directly address the Indian people, who, as we know, are naturally given to disorder and emotion, greatly heightened in this age of social media and the mobile phone. India has frequently been witness to the damage done by police forces who compromised discipline and surrendered command and control to the mob. It cannot allow that to happen to its final bastions of order.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.