The Battle for Cantonment Roads: Civilians VS Army
The closure of roads had become a flash point between the army and civil society.
It began with Secunderabad, where the Local Military Authority (LMA) shut multiple roads for use by civilians residing in colonies located around the cantonment. In some cases, these closures led to commuters having to cover an additional distance of seven kilometres.
Angered residents created multiple social organisations to challenge the authority of the LMA and the powers of the Secunderabad Cantonment Board.
Requests, commencing from Secunderabad and followed by others, about the closure of roads and additional checks being imposed on entry into cantonments, were forwarded to the Defence Minister.
The MoD, in response, sought details from all cantonment boards on the subject, which are headed by members of the Defence Estates Organization (DEO), but function under guidelines of the LMA.
After an analysis, the MoD issued directions reversing local orders on 21 May. The directions stated that all roads which were partially or fully closed would reopen.
Barriers/check posts and road blocks would be removed. Traffic would be monitored for a month and a review done thereafter, implying that nothing would be done.
There were certain exceptions based on immediate security threats, mainly in J&K. The new directions also restricted authority for future closures. Traffic management would be the responsibility of LMA and civil police assistance could be sought, the orders said.
Why Are Civilians Protesting Over Roadblocks?
In most towns – Secunderabad, Delhi, Pune and Kanpur – residential colonies have grown around the cantonments.
Older cantonments have markets and schools within and these are invariably accessible. Residents of colonies around the cantonment have preferred cantonment roads as these are cleaner, well-maintained and well-lit, and also have limited traffic.
When these are closed for prolonged durations, anger sets in, resulting in this friction.
Therefore, road closures had become a flash point between the army and civil society.
Videos emerging on social media displayed residents questioning jawans on duty, passing insulting remarks and seeking to divide the rank and file. All this while the jawan on duty stood silent, smiling and firm.
In Secunderabad, the organisations created by residents, apart from being active on social media, also interacted with local political figures, seeking to convey the message to reopen the roads to the MoD.
Most of the older cantonments have existed since pre-independence. These cantonments are large and have within them multiple military establishments, some large, some small, alongside residential accommodations and schools.
These are also spread in penny pockets throughout the cantonment. A few of them house families of military personnel posted along the border or battling insurgencies.
Putting Convenience Over Security?
Most of the families who live in this accommodation are neither from the state, nor speak the local language, but are compelled to stay, either for the education of their children or because they have no other place to go.
It is impossible to provide all pockets with any reasonable sense of security. One of the methods of enhancing security is to restrict movement of non-military personnel through a few avenues, thus limiting areas which need to be covered in strength.
Civil society, simply because of this additional inconvenience, was unwilling to accept the fact that the army has adopted this action for the purposes of security – not for pleasure nor to put the local population to inconvenience.
There have been questions from many in civil society – ‘Why should the army fear civilians? After all we are also Indians and have high regard for the army.’
What is missed here is the fact that anti-national elements, seeking to strike at army morale, also masquerade as local residents, move with the masses, plant bombs or strike residential colonies, which are all open and unprotected.
A militant strike in a cantonment impacts national prestige, hence each LMA has, as his responsibility, the security of the cantonment.
Lack of funds precludes the construction of walls and fences with high-security gadgets, which exist in almost all civil residential colonies.
With family accommodations spread across the cantonment, lack of security, lack of checks and free movement within would increase crime, especially against those families who reside alone.
Lifting the checks which kept anti-nationals and criminals away, as has been ordered by the MoD, would only add to the risks.
Could the Army Have Done Better? Yes, But...
While the army could be justified in its stand that the closure was for security purposes, it failed to correctly convey its directions and decisions to the public.
It could have interacted with members of the affected colonies and sought to evolve a workable solution. It may not have comprehended the problems being faced by those residing around the cantonment, and could have considered reducing the number of roads that it decided to close.
But no matter what option it had eventually adopted, there would always be disgruntled elements seeking to question them.
The army failed to realise that it neither has the support of its own ministry nor its own populace, who are more concerned about their commuting distances, and the ministry of its votes.
By unilaterally announcing the lifting of all restrictions, the government may have gained a few votes, but lost far more from the serving and veterans who have only seen their interests ignored by the present regime.
As incidents of crime in cantonments increase, or in the event of a terror strike, the same minister and her staff would run to blame the army, rather than assume responsibility for reversing a security decision without taking considered views from all affected parties.
This direct reversal was also indicative of the lack of trust that the Defence Minister has in army hierarchy – or she was seeking to convey a message that she doesn’t give a damn about their rank, authority or power.
She took the advice of the DEO, but failed to understand the army’s viewpoint. Logically, the MoD should have left the decision to army commanders or the level they consider suitable for review, rather than unilaterally reversing it without awareness of the ground realities.
(The author is a retired army officer based in Lucknow. He can be reached @kakar_harsha. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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