In the Indian narrative, the civilian-politico-bureaucrat combine conducts politics, governance and diplomacy without much military involvement and the military undertakes war-to-victory without much civilian intrusion. The “barracks” and cantonments are usually isolated from civilian and societal churns, and the professional steel, step and kinetic bluntness of the armed forces is essentially retained. The respect of this “divide” ensured that the larger-than-life combatant generals like Maneckshaw, Harbaksh, Sagat or Hanut could hold their own and 1965, 1967, 1971 or even Kargil were the natural outcomes — even in 1962, the raw heroics of those who defended whilst, outnumbered and outgunned, only strengthened the inner core of the institutional ethos and élan. By and large, the cantonment gates were euphemistically “iron-fenced” and the winds of societal turbulence did not seep into a soldier’s conduct. The dissonance of the Thimayya-Menon breakdown and the 1962 fallout were rectified reasonably soon.
Post-independence, the societal disruptions emanating from historical inequities, wounds and political unrest owing to castes, religions and regions could not affect the discipline, morale or efficacy of the professional Indian soldier whose regimental denomination was rooted in the same regional, caste or religious denominations like the Infantry Regiments of Bihar, Kumaon, Jat, Rajput, Dogra, etc. The strains of Tamil nationalism and anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s had virtually no impact on the troops from the Madras Regiment, insurgencies in the Northeastern region had no impact on troops from regiments like Assam or Naga, caste-based upheavals had no impact on regiments like Rajputs, Mahars or Jats. Subsequent insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir or the Maoist movements bore no major impact on troops who were recruited from the catchment areas of political biases and regional fractures. Somehow, the armed forces remained insulated, protected and focused on their professional calling, whereas the morass of societal concerns had started telling on their uniformed cousins, in the police forces.
The most important factor driving the professional conduct of the Indian armed forces, was the constitutional wiring that limited the political “connect” to a bare minimum (unlike the police). Political interest in the affairs of the armed forces bordered on disinterest, and that oddly worked to the interest of the armed forces who were content to train or fight, as and when required, and only entered the world of political imagination on the annual Republic Day parades. The traditional rules governing the social conduct of all ranks took a dim view of any political conversations in formal gatherings. The Army Act explicitly stated: “No person subject to the act shall attend, address or take part in any meeting or demonstration held for a party or any political purposes, or belong to or join or subscribe in the aid of any political association or movement”, and added amongst other provisions, “or in any way actively promote or prosecute a candidate’s interests”.
This kept the vitriol and passions of political preferences at reasonable bay. Secondly, the gradual “all-India” composition of its various regiments and the operational work conditions created strong interdependencies and exposures to troops of divergent denominations under the most hostile conditions, which naturally defrayed any negative perceptions that afflicted civil society.
Lastly, the restricted interaction with the larger world outside the “cantonments”, in the absence of social media platforms ensured that the reckless manipulation of political unrest could not infiltrate the soldiers’ psyche and perceptions. All this control was suddenly undone with easy access to the uncontrolled and unverified content emanating from the social media streaming into the palms and minds of the uniformed fraternity — influencing their conversations, and polarising their identities beyond the simplistic regimental affiliations, that they had adhered to hitherto. The veteran community too played into the hands of the politicians and allowed the appropriation of the “Indian soldier” into the political context and willy-nilly implied institutional preferences. The positions, language and expression of many veterans in the social media platforms is a shocking revelation for a supposedly apolitical institution that eschewed and frowned upon “divides” on the basis of religion, region or castes.
Now with the prevailing societal vulnerabilities and unprecedented “divides” following executive decisions like CAA, NRC, etc, imagine the situation if “influenced conversations” were to take place amongst the leaderships of “multi-class” units? Clearly, there are sensitivities involved and the access to both information and misinformation are readily available — it perhaps more necessary than ever before to not dabble in an “us-versus-them” sort of divisiveness that has already torn the social fabric of civil society. The Indian armed forces are perhaps the last bastion that practices and celebrates “unity in diversity”, and does not discriminate amongst its own. The revisionist tendencies that seeks out individual identities beyond regimental or corps denominations is an anathema to the times when a Lt. Gen. Sami Khan (from the former Rampur royalty) was a proud “Madrasi”, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (ethnically, Parsi) a “Gorkha” and a Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa (from Coorg) a “Rajput”! Region, race and above all religion, had no relevance and often the religious practices within units were uniquely harmonious and perhaps even borderline “blasphemous” with the harmonious gaiety, unanimity and practicality (stripped of any puritanical necessity) with which they were happily conducted. Both gods and soldiers were happy!
Today the cantonments have been opened, both literally and spiritually, to hate-and-divide that traditionally spared the military realm. Everyone from politicians, media, civil society, serving soldiers to retired veterans need to take a step back and reflect upon the possible implications of the societal winds affecting military conduct, culture and outlook. The situation is still controllable and in a cruel twist of irony, while the agenda of “revisiting history” had engulfed the mood of India — it took a 24-year-old fallen-braveheart, Sepoy Aurangzeb, from the wounded region of J&K, to focus on making history for his paltan, his fauj and for his desh! Postscript, two of his brothers joined the Indian Army after his death. The cantonments need to be spared the political agendas, bigotry and falsehoods — for India’s sake....