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The constable’s lament

Outrage and disquiet following the video about food served to BSF jawans is understandable. But hype and hysteria cannot help resolve the issues it has flagged.

Written by Abhinav Kumar |
Updated: January 17, 2017 12:45:57 am
army, indian army, Tej Bahadur Yadav, Tej Bahadur Yadav video, BSF, bsf video, army video, army 29th Battalion, india news, indian express columns Perhaps Constable Yadav was a vegetarian with no opinion on the subject. Or perhaps good mutton curry would have spoilt the story he was trying to tell. Illustration: C R Sasikumar

The BSF has been ambushed. Not by the enemy we face eyeball to eyeball every day across the nearly 3,000-km Indo-Pak border. But by one of its own. Sometime on January 8, Constable Tej Bahadur of the 29th Battalion of the BSF deployed on the LoC, who, after over 20 years of service, was supposed to proceed on voluntary retirement on January 31, decided enough was enough. In a couple of videos, shot probably with the assistance of unknown colleagues, Tej Bahadur created a compelling narrative of hardship and neglect around burnt chapatis and watery dal. For some reason, the quality of the mutton curry visible in the video was not commented upon. Perhaps Constable Yadav was a vegetarian with no opinion on the subject. Or perhaps good mutton curry would have spoilt the story he was trying to tell.

Predictably, the videos created a media firestorm and a public outcry at the plight of our jawans. Taking the allegations at face value, the government and BSF leadership have announced various steps to look into the matter. If the allegations in the video are true, those responsible will be identified and punished. If the videos lead to a trail of systematic abuse and corruption in the supply of rations to frontline soldiers of the BSF, that will be identified and rooted out. That, of course, will take more time to fix. However, in our age of instant outrage and instant fixes, this may not be enough. So, expect sweeping generalisations and magic pill solutions to dominate this debate for now. Not surprisingly, a few other copycat videos have surfaced. It would seem from these outbursts that India’s paramilitary forces are rotten to the core. Nothing could be further from the more complicated truth.

The over one million-strong paramilitary forces are the backbone of India’s internal security and along with the Indian Army, the guardians of its lengthy, dangerous and inhospitable borders. From the icy heights of Kashmir and Ladakh to the parched wilderness of the Rann of Kutch, from the mangroves of the Sunderbans to the thick jungles of the Northeast, the men of the BSF, the ITBP, the SSB, stand guard over India’s borders. While the CRPF battles Naxals in India’s heartland, the CISF guards our vital infrastructure, the RPF guards our railways and the NSG performs a crack anti-terror and VIP protection role.

The hybrid role of these organisations means that their DNA contains strands from the army and the police in terms of organisation and administrative structures. Barring the CRPF and the RPF, all the other forces are the creation of an independent, democratic India, in response to specific needs. They owe their creation and evolution to visionary founders and stalwarts of the Indian Police Service (IPS). They, in turn, drew on the expertise of officers from the army, the police and other fields.

In the case of the BSF, the legendary duo of Rustomji and Ashwini Kumar provided the initial vision and inspiration. And even today, to get an opportunity to serve, and eventually lead these organisations, is a privilege that any IPS officer worth their salt accepts with honour and humility. The recent allegations have predictably called into question the IPS leadership of these organisations. One section, led by army veterans, would like the command and control of these organisations to pass into the hands of army officers. Another segment would like these organisations to be led by respective officer cadres, who at present occupy the bulk of command and middle-level supervisory roles in these organisations. To seriously consider either possibility would be to ignore the complex roles these organisations perform within the federal contours of our internal security structure. Tej Bahadur has asked uncomfortable questions. They need to be answered, coolly, rationally and systematically.

Looking at the videos, three separate questions immediately come to mind. First, is the complaint about poor quality of cooking? Second, is it about the poor quality of rations supplied? Third, is it about insufficient quantity of rations supplied? Or perhaps, Tej Bahadur is complaining about a combination of the three!

Then, beyond the immediate concerns, there are larger issues raised by the video. Is this a one-off issue or the normal state of affairs in the BSF? Is it a case of a general unprofessional neglect of welfare issues, or does it point to systematic corruption by those responsible for procurement and distribution of rations? The outrage in the media and the public is genuine and needs to be addressed. However, hype and hysteria cannot dominate the discourse on this vital and sensitive subject.

The BSF has ordered a court of inquiry to look into all these aspects; anyone vaguely familiar with the working of the organisation will know that once its findings are received, if truth exists in these allegations, responsibility for the lapses that led to this outrage will be fixed, the guilty will be punished and concrete steps taken to prevent its recurrence. If the issue is poor quality of cooking, that is purely a local, internal issue of the BSF. If the issue is quality and quantity of rations as well, then other stakeholders are involved as rations to the BSF on the Line of Control are supplied by the army. But the problems highlighted by Tej Bahadur will not be resolved in the course of a breathless, hysterical 24/7 news cycle.

Before we damn the BSF leadership in our minds, do remember that each day, nearly 2,00,000 BSF men stand guard over the Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh border. It is inconceivable that they could do so without being properly looked after in terms of their basic needs. To suggest otherwise is dangerous and disingenuous. Predictably, in the wake of Tej Bahadur, plenty of copycat videos claiming similar malpractices in the army and other uniformed forces have surfaced. While the airing of grievances is extremely important for our forces, given that the rights of all uniformed personnel are restricted by law, social media cannot become the primary platform for airing these complaints. Our uniformed services cannot be run like a mohalla sabha. The nature of their duties require discipline, hierarchy and loyalty. These values cannot be swept away in a knee-jerk response.

The motto of the BSF is “Duty unto Death”. It is an uncompromising creed, based on a warrior ethic. It demands the virtues of courage, sacrifice, discipline and loyalty. This ethic is not limited to facing bullets of the enemy, but also covers enduring all manner of physical and mental hardships. It requires respecting organisational norms and seeking improvements within them. The video posted by Tej Bahadur may be the genuine lament of an aggrieved
soldier, but it is bereft of this ethic. His own poor record of discipline in his 20 years in the force suggests that he never really identified with this ethic. The day our uniformed forces replace the ethic of the warrior with the ethic of the mercenary, it would mark the unraveling of India.

The writer, an IPS officer, is presently working with the BSF. Views are personal

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