Rebuilding Elphinstone Bridge: Army Should Draw a Red Line, Say NO

Roping in the army for building a foot overbridge at Elphinstone is a futile exercise that could’ve been avoided.

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Opinion
5 min read
Roping in the Army for building a foot overbridge at Elphinstone is a futile exercise that could’ve been avoided.
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The construction of three foot overbridges in Mumbai by 31 January 2018 by army engineers came as a surprise, even as Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proudly presented this ‘sadbhavna gesture’ to win over Mumbaikars. She explained that when the request was made, she asked Army Chief General Rawat, and he kindly agreed.

She did not explain as to why either the Railways or the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is the richest municipal corporation in Asia, could not construct three foot over bridges and the army was requisitioned to do so. Foot over bridges no big deal!

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Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (R), Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and Union Railways Minister Piyush Goyal take stock of the ‘improvement works’ in progress after a stampede at Elphinstone Road in Mumbai.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (R), Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and Union Railways Minister Piyush Goyal take stock of the ‘improvement works’ in progress after a stampede at Elphinstone Road in Mumbai.
(Photo: IANS)

Abdication of Duty by the Civil Administration

This is not strictly a legitimate task for the army and can be done easily by appropriate agencies in the public works department of the BMC and the Railways.

Calling in the army reflects the abject failure of the local administration and has agitated army well-wishers, serving and retired soldiers as well as railway engineers. A request from the government is deemed as an order by the army.

This is a true story obtained from the horse’s mouth. At the very first briefing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the army’s Operations Room, not too many questions were asked of a former Army Chief (not the much maligned General Dalbir Singh) who was at the helm of briefing. Modi wondered about the bloated size of the army. Taken aback, the General fumbled and then said: ‘You are right… but we can use the army for civic works’.

The other generals, listening in, were aghast.

Incidentally the Sri Lankan Army, after defeating the Tamil Tigers, employs one third of its force for civic works.

Forced to Perform Secondary Role

It is only the army’s secondary role to assist the civilian authority in restoring peace and calm in the event of civil disturbances, emergencies and other administrative disorders, including emergency support during natural disasters and other emergencies.

Previously, the army has assisted in organising a meeting of Non-Aligned nations, the Commonwealth Games and other national activities which promote the honour and well-being of the state of the nation.

It is the discipline, precision and quality of work that distinguishes the army from civil outfits.

The tendency among state and central authorities is to call upon the army as the first responder without committing their own resources first. Another tendency that has crept in among the army high command is to accept the ‘first offer’ without considering the legitimacy of the task – instead, the purpose is to please the political authority.

There is no established mechanism to determine whether a mission that’s undertaken or assigned is within the ambit of the army’s professional duties. It is ultimately the Chief of Army Staff who gives the green signal based on the request of the civilian authority. Very often it becomes the Chief’s prerogative to accept building bridges or even a boxing ring.

Also Read: Amid Crumbling Institutions, It’s the Army That Makes Us Proud

From Building Pontoon Bridge to Monitoring Waste Disposal

The army performing certain tasks is certainly not in order. Last year, soldiers were requisitioned to lay mats in pattern and precision along the Rajpath on national Yoga Day. This was typically an unprofessional task, but the COAS did not object and rejected it, probably because Modi was leading the Yoga display.

During the same year, the army obliged the Art of Living by laying out a pontoon bridge across the Yamuna durimg the organisation’s international meet, using operational equipment at the expense of being detrimental to war-readiness.

There must be other unprofessional assignments accomplished which did not attract public attention and were done to please the civilian bureaucratic and political class – or were simply thrust on soldiers. Monitoring waste disposal in holy rivers and trash collection from high altitude are certainly beyond the call of duty.

History of Deviation from Professional Duty

This rot – perhaps deviation from legitimate professional tasks – goes back to 1960, with Lt Gen BM (Bijji) Kaul as GoC of 4 Infantry Division in Ambala volunteering to build 1,450 quarters for troops under the aegis of Operation Amar.

Providing accommodation to soldiers is the responsibility of the government under the ambit of civil works. It is not a legitimate task for the troops when they should be training for war. It is uncanny that Kaul presided over the rout of the army in 1962.

Soldiers take position after militants attacked a police vehicle killing a policeman and injuring other in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kulgam district on 14 October, 2017.
Soldiers take position after militants attacked a police vehicle killing a policeman and injuring other in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kulgam district on 14 October, 2017.
(Photo: IANS)

Kaul was known as Nehru’s favourite with a distant Kashmir connection. He was awarded the first Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) in 1960 for Operation Amar. And it was in that era that the politicisation of the army had started, leading to the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ for which the nation is paying to this day. Mercifully, the rot was stemmed by opposing the tide of politicisation under gutsy officers like Generals Daulat Singh and Manekshaw.

There is the revealing case of Army Chief Gen TN (Tappy) Raina, another Kashmiri who was ‘requested’ by the wily Defence Minister Bansi Lal to provide army water trucks for a political rally at Boat Club lawns in high summer. Helpfully Lal suggested an alibi: ‘You can camouflage army symbols.”

But Raina refused to oblige and survived beyond his term to become High Commissioner to Canada. It is the lure of post-retirement jobs that make service chiefs do or say what otherwise they won’t. Political appointees are particularly susceptible to compliance of requests and directions, right or wrong.

Also Watch: Remembering Sam ‘Bahadur’ and His Contribution to India

Politicisation of Armed Forces

The army has been doing outstanding civic action works in J&K and the north east which are founded in the Operation Sadbhavna to win the hearts and minds of wayward youth and other misguided people. But the use-by date of Sadbhavna expired long ago because the political track in J&K has been missing for more than a decade.

Modi has been regularly eulogising the professional prowess of troops in surgical strikes and at Doklam, extracting enormous political capital for himself and his party without paying back in terms of modernisation of fighting forces. Instead he is repeatedly self-congratulating for OROP (One Rank One Pension) which is marked by deformities in implementation.

Building bridges – not foot overbridges – among civil society is a legitimate task for a secular, apolitical and professional army. The army must demarcate its red lines of calling and learn to say ‘no’.

(The author is a retired Major General in the Indian Army and is founder member, Defence Planning Staff, revamped into the present Integrated Defence Staff. 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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