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Bhatinda Firing: Punjab Police Must Hold Its Horses Before Shooting in the Dark

With the inquiry pending still, Punjab Police's calling the attacks at the military camp 'fratricidal' is premature.

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Important clarification upfront—inquiry into the firing incident at Bhatinda cantonment involving ‘unidentified’ shooters is ongoing and unresolved. The Military is not (and ought not be) a realm of dinner table speculations or lazy conjectures without full facts. It is an institution given rigorous drills, SOPs (Standard Operational Procedures), and above all, fact-based positions, and assertions.

Even with no conclusive end to the said inquiry, for Punjab Police to confirm that the attacks were a ‘fratricidal incident’ and ‘not a terror attack’, or for a Punjab Minister to assert that it was a ‘matter of an internal fight’, is typically premature and unsurprising. It may turn out to be the case but is still presumptuous and is still unsubstantiated.

So, why would the Punjab Police jump to conclusions? For one, it has been on the backfoot for its glaring inability to catch an insurgent fugitive on the run, despite the embarrassingly large dosage of daily CCTV footage of his latest travails and successful escapades. The civilian government too, is reeling under the public perceptions of having gone soft on terror and inadvertently fanning the revival of the terror industry.
Snapshot
  • With no conclusive end to the said inquiry, for Punjab Police to confirm that the attacks at Bhatinda military camp were a ‘fratricidal incident’ and ‘not a terror attack’, is premature.

  • Getting perennially requisitioned for the handling of internal security issues owing to the recurring failure of the State/Central Police forces is an old hat from the Northeastern States, Kashmir Valley to even Punjab.

  • Are the Armed Forces maintaining quaintly inclusive moorings, or has a culture of exclusivism or specific denominations set in?

  • How insulated are Armed Forces from tense political/partisan conversations are the cantonments is worth pondering upon.

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How Punjab Police Being Presumptuous Far in Advance Can Prove Costly

Be that as it may, even the preponderance of prima facie evidence (that too, is an assumption) does not warrant making any loose comments towards happenings in an institution that is blunt, kinetic, and has a highly weaponised environment.

Therefore, best to take the enthusiastic statements made by the politico-police combined with a barrel of salt, for no one knows the full facts, as of now. Like the uncaught insurgent on the run, the ‘unidentified’ shooters involved in Bhatinda are also similarly, uncaught of the Punjab Police.

However, there is no denying the disproportionate (sometimes inhumane) burden suffered by the personnel of the Indian Armed Forces for resolving the endless external/internal security issues, civil strife, and support in natural disasters without a commiserate relief or reward could indeed take a toll on the ‘internal health’ of the institution.

Getting perennially requisitioned for the handling of internal security issues owing to the recurring failure of the State/Central Police forces is an old hat from the Northeastern States, Kashmir Valley to even Punjab.

Beyond a point (and without anything tangible), photo-ops with troops on borders by senior politicians, make for great electoral politics but not necessarily as restorative relief and reward for the extraordinary efforts put in by the sword-arm (Armed Forces) of the sovereign, especially when chipping in for others' failures.

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Are Armed Forces Really Immune From Politics Of The Day?

Here are 10 plausible concerns that need to be thought through and addressed pertaining to ‘internal health’ which affects issues like discipline and control:

1. Excessive deployment leading to burnouts and fatigue: Put simply, the alternating formulaic equation of peace-and-field tenures, is not guaranteed. The so-called 'peace’ stations may not be so, given the topical tasks, exigencies, and requisition in the interim. Recent times have led to enhanced forward-area deployments towards addressing the persistent border concerns. No other institution (let alone the Policing Services), has had to take up the extraordinary brunt. Besides stress, overstretched deployments have an impact on individual ‘leave’ sanctioning and other welfare means.

2. The opening of the proverbial cantonment ‘gates’: The mandated ‘distance’ of the Armed Forces from the civilian set up was not borne of any supremacist instinct as much as from a protectionist perspective—the ordered ‘opening’ of the till now restricted cantonment roads (owing to multiple petitions from civilians and their elected representatives) could not possibly have enhanced the security of the cantonments, sensitivities within or helped maintain the ideal ‘distance’. The displeasure of the Armed Forces was effectively ignored (yes, a supposedly consultative approach on deciding which roads to be opened was indeed formed), and the healthy ‘distance’ (from a security and psychological prism) was reduced.

3. Seepage of societal polarisation with the explosion of social media: The same poison of partisan, discriminatory, and inflammable rhetoric as prevalent in social media, is now in the hands of the serving soldiers. While participating in some platforms, forums, or 'groups’ may be restricted—it can never be a foolproof restraint. Field Marshal KM Cariappa OBE had warned, “The Army is there to serve the Government of the day, and we should make sure that it does not get mixed up with party politics." How insulated from the tense political/partisan conversations are the cantonments now, is worth pondering upon.

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On Inclusivity & Othering Amid Armed Forces

4. Exclusivity of religiosity as opposed to the traditional inclusivity and liberality: Traditionally, the Indian Armed Forces had a unique (possibly even blasphemous, by the current standards of neo-purists and bigots) culture of inclusive religiosity, within. It was a quaint culture of celebrating the 'Unity in Diversity’.

A hypothetical Brigade in the deserts of Rajasthan could have had a Naga Regiment battalion, a Sikh and a Madras Regiment battalion all staring at the common enemy across the border, and still feel completely united as a composite fighting formation. Are the Armed Forces maintaining those quaintly inclusive moorings, or has a culture of exclusivism or specific denominations set in? If yes, then a sentiment of 'other’ as it prevails outside cantonments, could creep in too.
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5. Experiments in recruitment: Martial sounding names like ‘Agniveer’/‘Agnipath’ and the presumed contribution to employment generation and nationalism amongst civilians, notwithstanding hard questions about professional efficacy and serious soldiering by those who will rank for four years and the sort of competitive impulse (possible bad blood and other consequences) that it may trigger, needs introspection. Will these time-serving soldiers add to the existing culture and skill sets or would it be distractive needs to be validated in the ensuing experiment, because common military sense suggests serious concerns?

6. The curse of disparaging attributions owing to region, religion, ethnicity, or caste: The Armed Forces cannot exist oblivious of the societal morass and polarisation owing to sweeping attributions, especially given that a large part of its regimentation is based on some regional, ethnic, casteist or even religious definition. The fact that revisionism and reinterpretation of history are afoot will have collateral consequences on an institution that instinctively is trained to shun such ‘divides’ or reinterpretations.

7. Political usurping and ‘owning’ of the Indian Soldier’s imagery: There has been unprecedented appropriation and invocation of the imagery of the soldier in the political rhetoric which is further ‘Bollywoodised’ to give the same churlish and jingoistic spin. The usurpation is completely partisan. In America, the top brass of the Armed Forces revolted against leniencies like, ‘My Generals, ‘My Army’ or for Uniformed Soldiers to be seen in the same frame as the President at a political event. Are the Indian Armed Forces maintaining a similar distance or doing the bidding of a partisan persuasion in recent times?

8. The inadequately acknowledged elephant of Mental Stress in service: Along with the Armed Forces of the USA, perhaps it is only the Indian Armed Forces that have been given so much combat (over)exposure and pressure to deliver against multiple odds. However, issues like Mental Health eg PTSD, etc, are still not as sensitively and extensively discussed and remedied, as warranted by situational requirements.

9. Rat-race pressures and consequences down the chain: The organisational hierarchy in the Indian Armed Forces is brutally steep and the same creates pressures of ‘demonstrated performance’. This unhealthy rat race gets murkier and more complex with relatively short tenures in locations that necessitate 'exceptional performance' in each tenure, the pressures downstream to keep pace with ambitious ‘performances’, can only be imagined.

10. Pressure cooker situation with the denial of dissent and professional debate: The mercurial former Chief of Army Staff K Sundarji, had famously lamented in his letter to officers, “We have not been tolerant of dissent during discussions”—an inhibiting and suffocating curse that needs to be validated in today’s times, as serendipitously, dissent is equally and increasingly frowned upon in civilian-political spheres as well.

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The above is by no means an exhaustive list of concerns besetting the institution or suggestive of plausible reasons for incidents like the Bhatinda firing. Though tellingly, the gunshot-related death of yet another soldier in the same cantonment the next day (apparently not related to the earlier incident) is said to be on account of suicide. Suicide is clearly an issue related to the ‘internal health’ of the Armed Forces, whereas the exact cause of the Bhatinda firing incident requires the citizenry to hold their horses on pending inquiry. That said, the loss of a weapon just days before this incident, points to a systemic and unpardonable failure of the procedural checks and balances and that needs to be fixed, immediately.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Indian Military   Punjab Police   Bhatinda 

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