CECIL VICTOR. Editorial.XI.XII.XVI
By Cecil Victor
The recent contratemps between the Indian Army and the Chief Minister of West Bengal was both unnecessary and avoidable. Irrespective of who said what and when, for the sake of national interest alone, the data that was sought to be created from deployment of Army detachments in Kolkotta could have been obtained, less controversially, by other methods.
Published information indicates that “a team of five to six unarmed army personnel mans each point and marks each truck for parameters like load capacity.” This can very easily be done by liaison with truckers associations or the State government transport department/licensing authority where various parameters of each vehicle (light, medium and heavy carriers) is recorded. In digitally-conscious India the failure to use this method is puzzling and controversial.
And the timing was inexplicable. It came in the midst of a raging State government confrontation with the Central government over demonitisation.
Nobody has or can object to the process of commandeering of civilian assets for military use in times of contingency like natural disasters and, particularly, war. It is in the national interest that this is done with the least possible abrasion that redounds on civil-military relations. This generation of Indians cannot forget the elan with which Indian truck drivers and operators helped transport military wherewithal during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 which included simultaneous operations on both the eastern sector (West Bengal and the north eastern States where even civilian boats and barges were used in riverine terrain) and Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir in the western sector.
When digitizing the economy is the national buzzword, digitizing the military Leviathan should be an even more urgent necessity. Information on transportation (of all kinds) amenable for military use can more easily be collected at transportation hubs and mandis where truckers and transporters congregate.
The collection of such data in crowded Kolkatta evinces a scenario of military personnel stopping a fully loaded truck on the highway, dumping its load and driving away to deal with the national crisis. This kind of ad hocism can create total confusion where smooth operations is the necessity.
What India needs is a pre-designated network of roads capable of carrying military loads. The demonstration of the landing of Indian Air Force fighter jets on a newly-opened highway in Uttar Pradesh underscores this requirement. More such roads are needed to be able to reach right up to our borders with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, our border roads are lagging far behind demand. The absence of motorable roads close to the Himalayan borders tends to create a transport bottleneck which, even as recently as Kargil, had to fall back on mules and manpack for last-mile operations.
Coincidentally, information of data gathering by the Army in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir was not forthcoming during the Kolkotta crisis. It is on our western flank with Pakistan that the more urgent perception is of a likelihood of a hybrid war – conventional/nuclear confrontation even as an insurgency operates behind and within Indian defensive lines – is made out. Military strategists often talk of a “two-and-a-half front war’ meaning thereby a collusive operation involving Pakistan and its jihadi proxies on the western front and Chinese military might on the north acting in conjunction.
The lessons from Operation Parakram of 2001 need to be revised. The massive Indian mobilization was caused by the terrorist attack on Parliament on 2001. The Indian Army used civilian trucks to quickly move military material to forward areas. At least one such convoy carrying ammunition and missiles blew up severely disrupting the supply chain. There is, thus, a requirement of availability of transport as well as standard operating safety procedures. Many aspects of military operations demand modernization and many (like the collection of data on available civilian assets for military use) are amenable to digitization and thus obviate intrusive methods of collection of data.
Given the increasingly restive federalism in the Indian polity, Centre-State relations must not be allowed to become a State Vs the Military confrontation. It is for the Ministry of Defence to ensure that this does not happen. There should be no cause for suspicion of methods used and intent and purpose. Because what is involved is national security.
In the face of a long list of failures to protect one’s own barracks, vital points and vital areas since before Kaluchak, Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota ad nauseum the Indian Army was caught using secret spying devices in Delhi and its neighbourhood. The super-secret Technical Support Division (TDS) was initiated and operationalised by two Generals, one of whom is currently in the Council of Ministers in the Central Government. That there was something nefarious in its creation became obvious when it was quickly dismantled and the specialized equipment that could record conversations “off the air” over long distances was supposedly destroyed.
There is, thus, legitimate cause for suspicion. In a vibrant democracy like India’s it is more appropriate to raise the red flag before rather than after praetorianism has struck.
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