NEW DELHI: The government decision to reopen closed cantonments and roads therein for the general public has created angry fissures between the military and the civilians. The widespread discontent in the armed forces about the government decision has split out on to the roads, with the soldiers clearly unwilling to accept the arbitrary orders issued by the Ministry of Defence that impacts on at least 62 cantonments across the country.

In Secunderabad the anger resulted in a social media spat, with civilians challenging the military’s use of the roads opened for public use. Soldiers were seen exercising on the newly opened roads, as a result of which civilians claimed that traffic was held up for hours. Local resident associations posted photographs on the social media, while others wrote to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman against the move.

The sharp divide is visible on the social media with retired general making it very clear that long distance marches and runs cannot be done in unit areas, and that the roads have been used by the military since “times immemorial.” Civilians in Secunderabad have responded with, “this is not done” and staked claim to the cantonment roads as their territory. In fact the Local Military Authority has been castigated in these posts for allowing their soldiers to use the roads for exercising, and while the LMA has refused to dignify these messages with a response, retired military officers have made it clear that the exercises are part of the routine.

Dismay over the government’s decision runs deep, with even the Army Wives Association meeting Sitharaman to protest against the move, and starting a signature campaign for the cantonments to be kept out of civilian reach. Army ex-servicemen have written blogs criticising the government for seeking better pastures kept clean and disciplined under military management, and doing little to clean out the cities and bring them at par with the cantonments.

Security is another issue that has been raised at different levels of the military with the government. The recent attacks on military installations has been used to point out the hazards the military could face now that access to the cantonments has been made applicable for all. And the areas are no longer exclusive to military management and security.

Despite a government that claims to be militaristic in its approach, the military finds its voice not being heard. A retired general told The Citizen that the opening of cantonments was a “last straw” as this in his view was to get at the “real estate” being maintained and preserved by the Indian military. In his view the entire move had been engineered by the land mafia, as there was little clamour or pressure from the civilians to justify this action.

The cantonments present a stark contrast to the rest of the city, where they are respectively located. These are well fortified in terms of security, clean, with the roads well maintained, the pavements without open manholes, no garbage and clearly good living amenities. This becomes starker in the smaller towns where the civic administration is barely visible if even the garbage lining the roads is an indication to go by. “Now rather than turning the city into a cantonment in terms of administration, they want to turn us into garbage dumps,” a senor Air Force officer told The Citizen.

One Rank One Pension was a major issue that had ex-servicemen sitting in protests against the government. While this has not been resolved to the satisfaction of the military, the opening of cantonments has led to not just visible dismay but anger. LMA at Secunderabad gave vent to this with the Secretary of North Eastern Colonies of Secunderabad CS Chandrasekhar maintaining to reporters that “the moment a jawan sees any vehicle on the road they begin to jog and exercise in front of it. LMA should give immediate directions to the field officers and follow the orders to reopen the roads.” These particularly exercises---supported by all officers spoken to by this reporter---reportedly held up the traffic for over two hours, leaving the civilians angry but the military strangely content.

The vice president of Cantt India, Jeetender Surana, was quoted in a section of the media as saying that cars were being stopped by soldiers on duty near the Golf course in Bollarum. According to him, “They are doing it intentionally to make public pick an argument with them. They are also holding video cameras. Our high impression of the army is changing. This sends the wrong signal. They have closed Eagle Chowk Road. Everywhere on the roads, they are demanding Aadhaar cards and RC books like police. They are not following orders issued by the defence ministry. Instead of ensuring a cordial relationship, they are instigating public.”

This new face off created by the sudden decision of the government continues, widening the gap between the military and the civilians further into open hostility.It is not clear what good will come of this for India.

(Cover Photograph TOI)