An Indecent Proposal

As a professional organisation, the armed forces should exclusively focus on national security. They should not involve themselves in ideological or partisan projects.

As a professional organisation, the armed forces should exclusively focus on national security. They should not involve themselves in ideological or partisan projects.

  The Hindu

The Indian army smells an opportunity in using the ‘rise of nationalist and patriotic sentiments’ to cut costs and also counter growing unemployment in India. The idea to hire jobless youth on a short term basis, which would lessen the liability on the army. To replace full time officers and soldiers with short stint ones. It would free the army from the burden of salary and pension.

The Indian Express reported that a note has been prepared to this effect which says, “The proposal is a shift from the concept of permanent service/job in the Armed Forces, towards ‘internship’/temporary experience for three years. Unemployment in our country is a reality, however there is resurgence of nationalism and patriotism.”

A friend tells me, the claims made here go against what the government has been telling us. It has always denied the gravity of unemployment. And as for ‘nationalist sentiment’, if we look at the number of cases of sedition, the last 6 years surpass any period in the history of independent India. The government and the ruling party want us to believe that there is in fact a dangerous rise in anti-national activities. Before the pandemic started the country wide anti-CAA, anti-NRC protests were declared to be anti-national. The protests of Dalits were also portrayed as a conspiracy of anti-national forces. Anti-nationals are active in the universities, media, film industry. ‘Tukde Tukde’ gangs are in action. The government and the party justify the punitive action and the violence against such “divisive forces.” The basic premise of the army’s note contradicts the state’s view, my friend felt.

What makes the army feel that the country is experiencing a spike in nationalism? Is it because of the increasing hegemony of a particular political party and its ideology, which is known as political Hindutva but which they insist on calling ‘nationalism’? An unprecedented spurt in violence against the minorities is another feature of recent times. Does this constitute the nationalism the note refers to?

Put simply nationalism as an ideology means “me and my nation first and the best in the world.” Nehru called it a bogus claim, a view Bhagat Singh concurred with. He had said that all nations feel that they are the best and something very special and unique to offer to the world. Add to it the problem of defining this “me and my.” Who is speaking on behalf of the nation? What constitutes this “me”? Who has the right to teach the ‘ways of the nation’ to “other people”? Answers to these questions would tell us that nationalism is a more sophisticated substitute for majoritarianism. In America it would be a white supremacy, in Israel the Jewish dominance, in Pakistan Sunni Muslim hegemony. Similarly, in India all would be asked to simply follow the nationalist prescription of the “majority”. If this nationalism is on the rise in India, it should be a matter of concern and in fact now we are being told even by other counties to be cautious of it. If the army seeks to invite such nationalist youth to its ranks, it should a matter of concern for us.

What is curious though is that the army seeks to replace permanent officers and soldiers and them with an extra short term force. The note claims that this move would bring “immense financial benefits to the organisation due to reduction in pay and gratuity payouts”, and cost of a three-year service per officer will be a fraction of the cost incurred on Short Service Commission (SSC) officers.” All organisations seek to economise and if the army is also justified to look for ways to tighten its budget. Which means that it also looks at the people serving within its ranks as a liability.

The note hopes that introduction of this scheme would encourage those who do not want to make army their life but want to experience the “thrill and adventure” of this professional force to join it. One wonders about the thrill and adventure the note is ascribing to the life of the army. Is it the thrill of being in the combat? Is it the exhilaration of killing and maiming the enemy? Studies done on the soldiers surviving battles and combats find them suffering from depression. But a study in “The American Journal of Psychiatry” also found the soldiers getting addicted to the thrill of combat. The researchers found them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. They remain depressed and also in a state of “physiological hyperarousal or feeling amped up.”

The research team “found patients would constantly try and recreate the feelings of combat by playing war video games, watching war documentaries and scrolling through deployment photos. It was getting in the way of their work and social lives.”

Accounts of soldiers returning from battles and wars are not a pleasant read. Killing others, even in such desperate situations leaves a scar on your soul. Moreover, the sheer guilt of surviving while your comrades could not is an impossible burden to live with. But in her book “An Intimate History of Killing” Joanna Bourke also talks about the pleasure that the young soldiers get from combat. But to feel and express this exhilaration “you have to survive; you have to not be dismembered. You have to be on the winning side…”

So, to say that the life of the armed forces is all thrill and adventure is misleading. Veterans would tell you that mostly it is drudgery. To be able to have stories of thrill and adventure the powers may get tempted to create war like situations and not necessarily only on the national borders but within it. It is doubly dangerous as we turn into a population yearning for martyrs. We know where from these martyrs are coming in present day India.

A friend, more knowledgeable in these matters asked me not to waste my time on this note. He says that in a force of lakhs to have a thousand of such likes is a drop in the ocean. So, it does not even address the economic stress that the forces are under. This is mere tokenism and a note prepared by some to please the people in the power. That the army has started echoing the ideology of the government is however a matter of concern. Army must resist ideological temptation even if this is a supposedly ‘nationalist’ ideology.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.