Military fables of a democracy
When the rich fight the rich, it is the poor who die. — Jean-Paul Sartre, The Devil and the Good Lord.
In 2004, the world saw evidence of one of the most horrific acts of torture and sexual abuse by an army on captured prisoners. The soldiers did not belong to the army of a banana republic or a military dictatorship but to the U.S., a democracy. The prisoners were Iraqi, held at the Abu Ghraib prison.
At present, India is going through a staggering phase of amnesia: that it is a democracy. War clouds have caused a flight of reason. The valorisation of the Indian military after the “surgical strikes” has culminated in a perverse logic amplified by a shrill media: you cannot question the government on matters military as it is equivalent to insulting the army, which itself is beyond scrutiny and reproach.
The question here is not of the veracity of the surgical strikes but whether questions can be asked of the government and the army. The logic that answers in the negative is one that suits a military dictatorship, not a democracy.
If this logic held, we would have never known how the American and British governments led their people to the catastrophic Iraq war over flimsy reasons of national security. The Abu Ghraib expose too would have never seen light. Nor would have our own Kunan Poshpora. That such logic shows a tendency towards the militarisation of society, especially now when an aggressive nationalism gains ground.
Witness the closing of public mind since Uri and the surgical strikes. Actors are facing a public outcry either for “disrespecting” soldiers or for “supporting” Pakistani artistes. Parties are being condemned for demanding “proof”. And farcically, television guests are thrown off studio debates for speaking over martyred soldiers’ fathers. The army, in essence, has become a holy cow.
This is a dangerous tendency, for the militarisation of society and the predominance of militaristic values is opposed to some fundamental tenets of democracy like critical thinking and questioning of hierarchy. Militaristic values are also intrinsically connected to notions of hypermasculinity. Of course, unquestioning obedience is useful in the institutional context of the army and in limited situations of war, but it cannot become a general value of society for all times.
More crucially, militarisation fundamentally obfuscates society’s real problems. Fear becomes the basis of society, and a soldier’s job becomes the most important occupation. People who clean the sewers with no protective equipment, and at great threat to their lives, do not, in this narrative, serve the nation. As the writer Aakar Patel asks, why are sewer cleaners, dying in the hundreds, and sanitation workers not considered martyrs?
The tragedy of a dead soldier is justifiably commemorated by all. But millions die unsung, performing jobs in hazardous conditions. The precariousness of soldiers on the Siachen Glacier is rightly sympathised with, but not the horrors of manual scavengers who have to handle human faeces and die due to diseases.
Shouldn’t there also be outrage over men carrying their dead daughter and wife on their shoulders because hospitals refused ambulances, as was the case in two separate incidents in Odisha? Where is the outrage and TV coverage about the 1.2 million (preventable) child deaths in India last year, the highest in the world? How does this number compare with deaths caused by terrorism? For society’s well-being, should this not be the most important problem exercising discourse?
Ironically, a militarised society despite valorising the soldier does not actually speak for him/her. Warmongering could only lead to the deaths of more soldiers. While Kargil and its 527 war heroes entered India’s military folklore, Operation Parakram and its 798 dead soldiers are little discussed by the public. How is it justifiable to lose nearly 800 soldiers without even fighting a war?
Further, in every violent conflict like Uri, the overwhelming numbers of the dead are sepoys and non-commissioned officers hailing from the most marginalised strata of society. It is a tragedy at many levels.
The uniting factor
The valorous soldier versus the pusillanimous civilian and the patriotic soldier versus unpatriotic civilian are false binaries on which a militarised society thrives. On the one hand, defence arms procurement, and land and recruitment scams show the involvement of both higher echelons of the military, and civilians (politicians and bureaucrats). On the other, what unites both is that tragic social conditions are disproportionately shared by the soldiers and civilians from the poorest and most oppressed groups, especially the costs of war. After all, the shrieking TV anchors and the elite civilian classes wanting a war are not the ones fighting the war, or are among the 15 lakh people forcibly evacuated from border village homes and living in makeshift camps.
The valorisation of the military in a democracy is ironical. Ultimately, what is the military fighting for? Is it merely Indian territory? The military, while protecting the nation, does not dictate India’s constitutional values. By conflating the two, a fundamental mistake is made. In the eyes of the world, what distinguishes India from Pakistan is not that it has a bigger military, but that it is a settled, even if flawed, democracy. The Indian Army is different from the Pakistani Army because it is, ultimately, under the control of the people.
Every public institution, including the military, has to be subject to public accountability and scrutiny. There is no maxim in a democracy that says you cannot ask questions of its army.
Similarly, striving for non-violent resolutions is not being anti-national. An army veteran writes: “It’s easy to ask for peace when you are a thousand miles away from the Line of Control.” This is why soldiers facing bullets at the border are not the ones in charge of public policy in a democracy. As Onkarnath Dolui, who lost his son in Uri, painfully pleads, “Believe me, I don’t want war as it demands countless of lives, like that of my son, on either side.”
Soldiers and their sacrifices deserve respect in society, but they cannot overwhelm every other aspect of society. Military fables have their place, but they cannot substitute democratic debates. While we mourn the deaths of soldiers, we have to understand that poverty is the biggest killer in India, by a million times over. A militarised society prevents us from seeing that.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.