In 1953, following riots against Ahmadiyyas, martial law was imposed in Lahore. After bringing the law and order situation under control, the Pakistan army proceeded to launch the “Cleaner Lahore Campaign”. This initiative created a positive image of army efficiency, besides reinforcing its ability to restore a situation caused by the failure of civil administration. The civilian set-up, including the beleaguered politicians and bureaucrats, further coalesced around the Pakistan army, while keeping an illusion of democracy. By 1958, even that illusion had been shattered as Ayub Khan became the military dictator of Pakistan.
Around the same time, in India, 4 Infantry Division under the command of Major General B.M. Kaul was undertaking the construction of 1,450 barracks and family accommodation in Ambala using troop labour. The proposal had been turned down by then army chief, General Thimayya, when it was first raised but Kaul managed a go-ahead from then defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon. Christened “Project Amar”, the construction was completed in a record seven months which led to Kaul becoming the first recipient of the Param Vishist Seva Medal in 1960. By end-1959, 4 Infantry Division was moved to NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and when India and China went to war in October-November 1962, it faced the brunt of Chinese assault and suffered a humiliating loss. The 4 Corps was commanded by Kaul.
These two incidents are not directly linked but both hold lessons to be kept in mind while employing soldiers for routine civilian tasks. Tuesday’s announcement of using army engineers to construct three railway footbridges in Mumbai has brought the issue into the spotlight. This is, however, not the first time the army has been used for such tasks. In 2016, the government had asked army engineers to make a pontoon bridge in the Yamuna flood plains for a mega event of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In 2010, when a foot-bridge fell days before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the army engineers came in to erect a bridge in double-quick time. The army also makes pontoon bridges during the Kumbh mela, and to restore communication in inaccessible areas after natural disasters.
The situation in Mumbai is different: One, it is not a far-flung area where civilian agencies are unavailable. The Railways in Mumbai have the engineering resources, technical expertise, funds and experience of constructing such a bridge. Even private infrastructure creation agencies are available in India’s biggest megacity. Two, this is a permanent infrastructure while the army is employed to make bridges which are needed temporarily, say for Kumbh. Three, the army comes in a public emergency where relief is needed in days, if not hours. A month has already passed since the incident at Elphinstone Bridge.
Notwithstanding these significant deviations from the norm, a democratic government is within its rights to employ soldiers in the manner it deems fit. As the armed forces seem to be doing nothing urgent when no fighting is on, it is tempting to employ them in other routine duties. Before the 1962 war, soldiers were growing crops in vast swathes of military lands and recently, the army was asked to clean the trash left behind by civilian tourists as part of the Swachh Bharat campaign. But this violates a fundamental premise of a modern military that during peace-time, it must be left free to prepare for war. Or as the armed forces put it: The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
The government must also realise the institutional dangers inherent in employing soldiers in non-emergency civilian duties. Such employment is an acknowledgement of civilian institutional failure to the larger public, and reinforces the belief that only the army can provide an effective substitute. Besides forestalling a badly needed reappraisal of civilian institutions, it is a trend which holds potentially negative consequences for the delicate balance of civil-military relations, if extended to other spheres of governance. That India is not Pakistan and Indian Army is no Praetorian Guard needs no reiteration. But a recent Pew Survey shows that 53 per cent of Indians believe that military rule would be a good thing, with younger people more supportive of the idea.
An unthinking diversion of the armed forces for routine civilian tasks seems highly affordable but has long-term costs for the country. The government should remember the lessons from the 1950s.