We need to forsake the notion that the military must be above questioning. Our neighbouring country is still suffering for having made that choice
Reacting to the militaristic and fascist tendencies prevalent during the interwar years, American political scientist Harold Lasswell wrote in 1941: “We are moving toward a world of ‘garrison states’ — a world in which the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society.” Fortunately for us, we do not inhabit a world of “garrison states” today. However, tendencies associated with the garrison state have cropped up in several societies from time to time in various measures, and when unchallenged, they have weakened the democratic ethos of free societies. Some of the recent developments in our country should prompt us to ask whether we are moving towards a society where the specialists on violence (that is, military) and the associated narratives would occupy a disconcerting central place in our political imagination.
The war on dissent
Statements made by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons and senior Union Ministers in the wake of the so-called ‘surgical strikes’ seem to suggest that questioning the Army or its actions, such as demanding evidence corroborating these strikes, are anti-national acts. Union Minister Uma Bharti argued that those seeking evidence of the strike should accept Pakistani citizenship, a euphemism for “you are a Pakistani agent”. Indeed, today asking critical questions about national security issues, be it the Kashmir uprising or Naxal insurgency, is seen as both abhorrent and anti-national. Open dissent against national security policies is worse — it’s sedition.
What is even more troubling is that many among the professed guardians of the open society — the media — are buying into this narrative for their own selfish reasons, even as the country’s liberal elite is slowly caving in. While some sections of the media argue that when the Director General of Military Operations said so, there is no need for any evidence because we have complete faith in our Army, others insist that politicians should not take credit because it was an Army action. Both have got it wrong. Citizens of a modern democracy can, and should, question all instruments of the state. The Army is merely an instrument of the state and the government of the day utilises it to meet its policy objectives: there is no ‘Army action’, it is the government of the day that acts. It’s a different matter whether the government should be advertising it the way it has been for electoral gains. Curiously, however, the same government that takes credit for the ‘Army action’ chooses to hide behind the Army’s morale to deflect allegations of human rights violations committed by the very same Army.
We are witnessing the rapid emergence of a militarised political environment in which political discourse is easily cast in a militarised language. Our popular culture is increasingly reflecting it, and some TV channels have even set up ‘war rooms’ in their studios besides mimicking the military jargon!
Socialisation of danger
There is an ever-strengthening claim made by our leaders that the nation is under threat from multiple sources, internal and external. Shrill narratives about danger, enemy and ‘the other’ are the new normal in the nation’s life. And in dangerous times as these, we have a duty to come together to fight our enemies. Even Pakistani artists are a danger to the country: mind you, some of these messages are not coming from government agencies alone. This coincides with a disquieting rise of aggression around us at every level: against dissent, minorities, and anyone with a liberal world view. Gandhi and his non-violence are passé. There is a constant manufacturing, labelling and categorising of the nation’s ‘enemies’ — from those seeking evidence for the surgical strikes to the young dissenters in Jawaharlal Nehru University. True, attacks on our forces in Kashmir have been on the rise, so are the anti-India slogans in the Valley, but we should never ask why since doing so would weaken the morale of our forces ‘who keep us safe while we sleep’. Why is it that we are so easily, and readily, seduced by the rhetoric of war and retribution?
When there is danger all around us, dissent is deviant behaviour, and there is a heightened pressure to fall in line with the mainstream security narratives. Human rights activists are declared as working against the interest of the country and it is indeed an anathema to critique the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or such ‘special laws’. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s habit of running down dissenters is akin to what Lasswell calls “the ceremonialising tendencies of the garrison state”. Moreover, there is growing restriction of civil and political liberties in the name of security, and ‘outlawing’ of dissent by imposing sedition charges or travel restrictions on activists or those questioning ‘the narrative’. “Those questioning the government are soft on terror” sounds worryingly similar to what Joseph McCarthy used to say in the 1950s: “Democrats are soft on Communism”. In today’s India, even senior Congress politicians, who are no bleeding hearts, are accused of being soft on terror and disrespectful of the Army! This is daylight governmentalising of thought.
The ‘specialists on violence’ are the new-age intellectuals of national security — civilians lack of ‘expertise’ in these matters. Retired generals, some of whom unhesitatingly take partisan political positions, are the last word on national security today. Even if we were to ignore that issues of war and peace are too important to be left to the generals, is taking partisan political positions in full public view in keeping with the professionalism and the sensitive positions they once held? There was a time when retired diplomats dominated our national security discourses: today the generals are replacing the diplomats perhaps because the times we live in demand aggression, not diplomacy. This shift is unmistakably reflective of a larger transformation underway in the country to opt for coercion over negotiation.
In a country where we (literally) worship anyone from a film star to a politician, the warrior is the new kid on the block: politicians have long lost credibility and many of our leading stars have ‘dubious origins’. Paradoxically, for our patriotic middle class, military is actually the ‘desirable other’ who we should worship though they won’t be enlisted: why else is there such shortage of officers in the Army! ‘Warrior worshipping’ for us is another way of expressing our allegiance to the nation, and those that don’t will be forced to say ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, at the least.
Despite being the ‘specialists on violence’, the military is also said to have a very ‘fragile’ morale. Morale is key to the garrison state, and the military is at the centre of this enterprise. The military, therefore, not only should not be criticised, but we should not even bat an eyelid when they err, like all of us do in our respective professions, because they happen to have a fragile morale. Doesn’t morale also come from proper training, equipment, professionalism and adequate monetary compensation? Morale, embellished by the official propaganda machinery through the manipulation of emotions, is often overrated and misunderstood: in a democracy everyone is subject to scrutiny and criticism, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. This doctrine of ‘military infallibility’ needs to be challenged for our own good: what we need are more professionally trained soldiers, not infallibility, for military is merely an instrument of the state, not the nation’s soul. Moreover, it is misleading to argue that there is some essential contradiction between sacrifices of soldiers and human rights of civilians: there isn’t.
Meaning of national security
The most significant indication of a garrison state is the militarisation of national security. For a garrison state, national security defined in militaristic terms would be the ultimate value to be preserved. Thankfully we haven’t gone that far yet, and we will survive the ‘surgical strikes’ though not without the adverse impact of seeking militarised solutions for political and social challenges. The problems with militarising national security are many: national security is far more complex than what military solutions can hope to resolve, and the state could use military tools (tools of violence) to confront non-military challenges. As a nation, we can’t afford to place a militarised response over political ones. We need to forsake our fixation with the ‘Army will fix it’ notion, be it during floods or when hapless children fall into uncovered borewells. Our neighbouring country is still suffering for having made that choice.
Despite its long-term adverse implications, the garrison state narrative comes with undeniable political benefits for the political class. Militaristic narratives undoubtedly help the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Sangh Parivar, some of whose leaders have historically entertained such discourses in keeping with their fascination for Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. In more practical terms, the BJP has managed to use the military as a convenient political tool for electoral and publicity purposes, thereby enhancing its political clout. It has learnt the fine art of firing from the soldier’s shoulder: when under fire for its policies, the BJP diverts criticism towards the Army and calls you anti-national for criticising the Army.
In the meantime, of course, the real and genuine problems of the military continue to be ignored. Take, for instance, the demeaning sahayak system in the Army where soldiers are tasked to do household work for officers. What we need to ensure is that the soldiers on the ground, the ones standing on guard duty for 15-16 hours, are well looked after, rather than worshipped. Moreover, once Mr. Parrikar gets some free time from calling out the ‘anti-nationals’, he should concern himself with the much-needed reform of the country’s crumbling higher defence management structures.
Hardly anything that this government has done so far indicates that it is serous about modernising the Indian military or strengthening the country’s defence preparedness. Well, why should it when cheap political dividends can be made by merely massaging the military ego?
Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.