Written by Maj Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)
The armed forces are often called the last bastion. They are pressed into service when all other components of national power have failed. The announcement by the Chief of Defence Staff and the three Chiefs of the services on national television recently was not in keeping with this principle. There are grave areas of concern looming as the nation fights the pandemic in an already epic battle. While terms like war and battle are used to describe the measures and restrictions being imposed, the warfighting capability of the forces cannot, and, must not, be squandered in mere tokenism of showering petals, fly-pasts, illuminating ships and band displays.
While any amount of appreciation of our frontline COVID warriors — the health workers, doctors, conservancy staff and police — will fall short due to their incredible commitment, the armed forces who normally get the kudos in times of crises could definitely display their appreciation of these warriors by more meaningful participation and not by mere ceremonial acts. The armed forces have a very serious role to execute in the national scheme of things and can be used very effectively to support the civil administration in this national emergency.
Good detailed planning can achieve a lot and is direly needed. There are numerous requirements of the health workers and frontline medical institutions that can be met from within the resources already available with the armed forces — some with a slight modification to the existing military applications that their equipment is designed for. It is not surprising then, that senior doctors and responsible planners have preferred to receive PPE equipment and other protective gear instead of the flower petals and martial music.
The political leadership needs to be guided by critical and higher priority concerns rather than attempt to divert the attention of the public by such acts of puerile showmanship which very few in the lockdown will ever get a chance to witness or participate in. While the clanging of plates and lighting of lamps have proved to be effective tokenism to rally the masses, it is belittling the armed forces by aping the western world in acts of military flash and pomp. The impact of the military displays does have value towards symbolism but it seems to have created a groundswell of resentment in the armed forces, especially when the parents of one of their own brethren could not be transported for his last rites by service assets. Exhibiting this symbolism on a day when five soldiers had fallen in the line of duty was even more insensitive. While the armed forces will continue to do their duty and don’t expect sympathy at loss of good soldiers, there has to be sense of balance and perspective in all acts of governance.
The shameful spectacle of suffering migrants stranded all over of the country needs attention and serious actions to alleviate their suffering – both physical and mental. The enormous resource of the army infrastructure in cantonments and military stations across the country can be utilised to provide food, transportation and medical aid to this neediest section of our society. It is a national duty and the already stretched civil administration has its hands full as states run out of resources and funds.
The logistics involved in ‘act of solidarity’ has financial implications as well, as a simple audit of the costs involved will reveal. This resource could well be put to good use by transporting the farthest located migrants to their home states. Protocols will have to be put in place to ensure sanitisation, distancing and safety. Obviously only individuals who have medical clearance after testing can be put on aircraft or service vehicles to move them. Military assistance to migrant convoys moving by road can be coordinated by ensuring security and preventive health precautions provided by the army.
The police force and law enforcement agencies are already stretched thin on the ground and working overtime to enforce the lockdown and curfews in their respective areas and slowly but surely an increasing percentage of them are falling victim due to repeated and dangerous exposure in the discharge of their duties. The situation will be exacerbated as the restrictions lift, but the danger of outbreak still lurks as hotspots and communities get isolated into red zones. Experts also predict a food security crisis due to the disruptions in the production and supply chains.
If and when, the ongoing battle against the pandemic takes down large chunks of the first line of warriors of the police force and the health care professionals, there will be a risk to social stability. The threat to deteriorating social stability and security across regions will invariably call for more and more boots on the ground and the time to train and discipline new forces will not be available at that juncture. States may soon need assistance with patrolling streets, enforcing restrictions on movement, deterring crime and other tasks.
It is disappointing to see the top echelons of the armed forces being drawn into populist measures in a deja vu of the ill-timed Uri and Balakot celebrations when elections were around the corner. Mature military leaders are expected to advise the executive of positive and professional roles and tasks they can accomplish rather than look upwards for directions and participating in ‘something-is- better-than-nothing’ activities. Troops are stationed in almost every state and metropolis in peacetime deployment. These forces are organised to aid civil authorities in disaster management as a standard task and are prepared to provide assistance in natural disasters and law and order situations. It will take a long time to return, if ever, to normalcy and certain areas where the military can be of help are public security, medical assistance, transportation, facility creation and food security cum distribution.
The armed forces have to prepare for the tasks ahead and the top brass needs to foresee the increasing possibility of such domestic deployments. The training on concepts and rules of engagement in handling tense situations, handling of violators and securing civic institutions assumes great importance. Training of the soldiers and task forces by simple methods of instruction and also use of online training manuals and webinars can start immediately. Preparing for this task is the only responsible thing to do presently, and while we may hope there may be no need for the use of the armed forces, being unprepared is no excuse and it will be advisable to conserve their resources for meaningful tasks.
The author is chairman of Punjab Ex-Servicemen Corporation. Views expressed in the article are personal.