The Big Story: Mission creep
The government’s decision to call on the Indian Army to build commuter bridges at Mumbai railway stations, one of which saw a stampede that killed 23 people in September, is, to put it simply, bizarre. The Army will work with Indian Railways to build three footover bridges including the one at Elphinstone Road where the stampede occurred. Official reasons for why the Army was picked over the Railway’s own engineering departments, the public works department or the many infrastructure companies that service Mumbai have been scant. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “Probably first time asked Army to come in to build what could otherwise be called civil work, but Elphinstone tragedy was so big.”
India’s civilian leadership has in the past called on the Army to provide aid to the civil power, most frequently when having to deal with situations of unrest or natural disasters and, less often, to help with infrastructure issues like building a pontoon bridge for an Art of Living event in 2016. While the law and order or calamitous occasions cannot be helped, the use of the Army for infrastructure building has generally been criticised both within the military and beyond.
This time is no different. Reports have suggested that many in the Army are unhappy about being given a task that should otherwise be a civil undertaking. Since serving officers are expected not to open their mouths, veterans have been speaking out. The government has tried to defend its move, but it was unable to provide anything more coherent than Sitharaman’s explanation that “the tragedy was so big”. The Railway Ministry’s Twitter account said the department was relying on the “expertise” of the Army and made the call in “commuter interest”.
On Thursday, Army Chief Bipin Rawat gave another explanation: This is image management for the Army. “I would prefer that our citizens get to know their army by seeing us come to their assistance with the efficiency and capability we are known for,” he told the Business Standard. “I have stopped the expensive advertising campaigns we were running...We should create awareness of the army by public assistance.” He also said the task might aid soldiers in finding jobs after they retire.
Rawat’s statement makes it clear what this decision is meant for: Public relations. Not for the Army mind you, which hardly needs an image boost in most of the country, but for a state government whose callousness and inefficiency led to the deaths of 23 people in Mumbai. If the Army is really concerned about displaying its public assistance and finding jobs for soldiers after retirement, it might as well start undertaking many more infrastructure projects. But as Sushant Singh points out, that is a recipe for either a weak Army or, worse, one that more forcefully enters the public sphere. The experience of Jammu and Kashmir, where the Army’s intrusions into public life has effectively taken away powers of the civilian leadership, is instructive.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government has always felt comfortable utilising the Army’s reputation for image management purposes, whether it is talking about “soldiers dying at the border” or getting them to clean up garbage. The Centre has also encouraged soldiers to speak directly to the media, such as in the case of the officer who decided to use a Kashmiri civiian as a human shield in June. It is hard to ignore the fact that Rawat’s appointment was a political one, breaking the convention of seniority in picking Army chiefs. It is evident that the government has no problem with using the Army to clean up its own messes. But this is a slippery slope and if the government is not going to recognise this, it is incumbent upon Rawat, the military leadership and veterans to make it clear how dangerous such a situation could be.
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Durga M Sengupta writes an account of what it is like to live with vitilgo in India.
“And so, we don’t talk about it. Besides, vitiligo is an awkward subject anyway. People living without the skin condition, which is a high percentage of people around the world, don’t know how to address it. They don’t know if they should either, at least not in the drawing rooms we inhabit.
And honestly, I’m not sure how to start a conversation about vitiligo either. I joke about being a reverse panda, always drawing parallels with fluffy creatures with eye-patches – my most visible feature – just to remind myself that I am rather cute. Or maybe it is just to make some sense of being a brown person who is, in parts, also albino white.
My friends often mention, in passing, the admiration they have for me. Without directly addressing the difference in appearance, they tell me how awesome it is that I’m so well-adjusted.
Others, not so kind, suggest that I look better in longer sleeves and floor-length skirts, never mind that these often make me look fat. Fat, I have come to understand, being a more globally accepted issue, is understood better. And us humans generally prefer dealing with what we understand, and not everything we see.
But interestingly, none of these people point out my patches with the confidence strangers do.”