Opening Up the Cantonments: Army in the Cross Hairs of the Right
Army's breathing space
The latest buzz on social media circles of the military is the opening up of cantonments, the cloistered military administered spaces, to ‘poor bloody civilians’, supposedly at the behest of the novice defence minister. Interestingly, there is little mention of the this in the media though.
After the brazen and horrific attacks on cantonments (and an airbase) in J&K, the military has been understandably rather paranoid on security of its families residing in the cantonments. It turned these into fortresses along lines recommended by a committee headed by a former vice chief, using up Rs. 14,097 crores on perimeter security.
A longstanding grievance in surrounding communities has been that cantonments had over the years progressively been placed off limits, with the army citing security. This limited thoroughfares, forcing circuitous routes on harried civilian commuters. In one instance, in Pune, a village on the outskirts was cut off from the city by the College of Military Engineering walling itself off, making villagers reportedly take a 30 km wide detour. Naturally, the courts were marshalled by the affected people, such as in Secunderabad, home to one of the larger cantonments.
As cities surrounded cantonments on outskirts, the military’s breathing space was throttled little by little. Further, the military, fearing covetous eyes of defence ministers with a reputation for land deals, such as, for instance, Sharad Pawar, fenced off its land, imposing on communities historically living within cantonment limits and those cheek-by-jowl with the boundaries. Hurriedly, the military converted golf courses into night training areas or some such innovative cover. Golf course memberships were much in demand in the neighbouring civilian elite.
Also, apart largely from north India, it’s members were a relatively alien presence elsewhere, temporarily forced to reside alongside people of a different look, colour and language. Walling themselves in was a rough and ready answer. One good thing to come out of this self-incarceration has been that cantonments now account for the green lungs of unplanned metropolisis that have since grown up around them. Even this added to the enticing allure of cantonments, with neighbours wanting a breath of the fresh air.
Almost as if in response to the grievances of communities in vicinity of cantonments the defence ministry reportedly suddenly lifted the barricades, opening up garrisons to sundry morning walkers and those out for a tree-lined short cut. It would seem the ruling party is out for a set of additional votes, which by the yardstick that it is ruling in some 20 states does not really need.
This begs the question then as to what motivated the order.
Perhaps the regime best knows that the security measures were never needed in first place, other than in J&K. The jihadist threat was never what it was made out to be, inflated by cultural nationalists in the media and propagated by a communalized intelligence community. The spate of exonerations of Muslims incarcerated in terror cases for lack of evidence is proof. That saffron terrorists have also been left off suggests where terror – taken as Muslim perpetrated – originated. The purpose was polarization, to pave the way for a messiah to centerstage from his provincial perch. Therefore, for a government aware of this to call off the pretense of a Muslim threat to its security forces billets, now that it has been milked for all its worth – the levels of Muslim marginalization becoming rather embarrassing - is explicable.
For its part, the army - that otherwise surely knows as much - was quick to use the opportunity to preserve its islands in urban sprawls. In quick time it turned the greenery and training grounds into concrete under accelerated housing schemes, needed for recuperation of soldiery before being relaunched back into India’s largest and longest lasting security commitment, J&K.
The army kept up the charade, investing in guard towers and sandbagged bunkers for those garrisons in sight of Muslim localities (such as the author’s locality down south). The southern army commander opined as recently as April this year that anti-nationals have appeared as the new challenge across India. He took care not to define who he meant, knowing which community the label would stick to.
He was referring to the expectation in the army of being interdicted enroute when off from a cold start in cantonments to launch pads near the border. It is no wonder then that the social media lauds the purported go-slow by Southern Command, under the guise of reviewing security concerns, on the order to throw open the doors of cantonments.
His action has been inadvertent. Here the answer is only superficially a conspiracy theory. The right-wing government wants more visibility into the cantonment, to be able to see what is brewing in those restricted spaces.
Advisedly, it does have a worry. The army is the last institution standing. Outside the sarkari remit, the Cobrapost revelations on youtube has shown up the state of institutions, in this case the fourth estate. This explains why the storm in the military’s social media teacup on this issue has not found its way into the media this time round.
The ruling party best knows what can originate in a cantonment. It has within its ministerial ranks a general who reputedly spooked South Block bureaucrats by ordering a movement of a military outfit, on the eve of a court case hearing he had foisted on the defence ministry. Quite sensibly, the ruling party does not want to be in a similar situation.
Increased visibility into the cantonment, the democratization of its reserved spaces, its invasion by all and sundry and the normalization of its landscape with noise and pollution, insures against the cantonment keeping any secrets.
This is part of a wider assault on the military. The salacious book on army wives and a movie with a rising star in lead role on corruption in the army are not unrelated. The right wing’s head honcho’s unfavourable comparison of the army with his storm troopers, in relation to mobilization timings, was to put the army in its place in the new schema.
The army needs to lose its sheen, so that it is vulnerable to subversion from within and control from without. Merely placing an amiable chief at the helm, under the doctrine of ‘relative ease of doing business with’ as voiced by a propagandist of the previous defence minister, is not enough.
That India has a subordinate military is not enough, especially when the complexion of India is to change after the coming elections. Unfortunately, with the opposition bouncing back after the Karnataka elections, the election outcome has acquired a question mark. Compulsions of polarisation, a Chanakyan turn at the elections or a majoritarian turn thereafter, all could lead to a Constitution-under-threat backlash. The military could turn bulwark of an India as it should be and must remain. It needs being neutralized well before that.