If there was any doubt that this government has a tin ear for how its initiatives sound, it was dispelled this week when the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked educational institutes to observe 'Surgical Strikes Day' on 29 September. The idea fell with a thud upon the unwary and struck the public as painfully as any surgery.
Soon after it came to power, this government had offended Christians (and any officials who enjoyed their holidays) by declaring 25 December to be “Good Governance Day”.
There has been no sign of good governance since, and talk of Good Governance Day has quietly faded, as the nation has gone back to enjoying its Christmas.
But the government has apparently learned little from its mistakes.
Not only will 'Surgical Strikes Day' be commemorated on 29 September, but Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced that three days of events will be conducted around the nation from 28 September to 30 September to honour the valour of our soldiers, including parades, lectures, and a three-day exhibition at India Gate.
No government has ever been more shameless in the milking of India’s military for political benefit as this one, but this cynical exercise takes the proverbial cake.
We already have Army Day and Kargil Vijay Diwas to celebrate our army’s victories; why another occasion, and what exactly are we celebrating?
We all know that, responding to repeated cross-border raids from Pakistan, the Indian Army had conducted what were dubbed “surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads” across the Line of Control on 29 September 2016.
The term “surgical strikes” normally refers to precision bombing, but none was conducted; army commandos slipped across the line in darkness and attacked areas where Pakistani terrorists were assembling to attack.
This kind of pre-emptive action had been undertaken several times before by our army with no publicity, but the BJP government, anxious to live up to its belligerent past rhetoric, decided to beat the tom-toms. The evocative term “surgical strike” was used; posters and hoardings went up hailing the government’s action; the military was brazenly instrumentalised in the BJP’s campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections two months later.
Many chests were thumped, notably the 56-inch one.
Extravagant claims were made that the strikes had put an end to cross-border terror.
They didn’t. Terrorist attacks resumed; all the problems that the “surgical strikes” had supposedly resolved continued unabated. Pakistani shelling and attacks along the LoC never ceased, causing a large number of civilian deaths and many victims among our security personnel. The Indian raid was a response to an attack on Uri, but soon afterward, our base in Nagrota was attacked, killing seven.
If the government had any sense of shame, it should have shut up about its “surgical strikes”.
But this government is utterly shameless. Having mounted its propaganda coup, it could not let go. Two years later, it was clear that people were in danger of forgetting its great (albeit hollow) military triumph. Hence the fatuous pronouncement this week that we must all observe 'Surgical Strikes Day'.
Genuine patriots must be squirming at the prospect. First of all, the Indian military has many great achievements – the defence of Srinagar at the time of Kashmir’s accession, the liberation of Bangladesh, the takeovers of Hyderabad and Goa, the captures of the Zoji La and Haji Pir passes, forestalling a coup in the Maldives, wresting back the heights above Kargil – which had a lasting strategic impact and deserve far greater celebration by the country.
But none of them occurred under the present government, so a routine overnight raid of zero strategic impact has to be elevated to the level of national myth.
The incursion of two years ago was neither new, nor decisive, nor exceptional, not even surgical, but it was used then to drum up patriotic fervour behind the Modi government – and it is being resurrected for the same purpose today. This is a disservice to the genuine heroism of the army, to the history of our country and to the common sense of all Indians. Why has the UGC, which not too long ago was rightly slated for abolition, taken up the cause of publicity for the Modi government, with greater zeal than judgement? Very simple: Because it is the pet poodle of the government, its woebegone performance revealing yet again the total lack of autonomy of our higher educational institutions and of those meant to regulate them.
The UGC has failed utterly to fulfil its assigned role of improving educational outcomes in our colleges and universities; with its craven announcement of “Surgcal Strikes Day” it has merely confirmed once again that it will do anything to keep the government of the day happy – anything, that is, but its actual job.
Ironically, the UGC-prescribed syllabi in India’s institutions of higher learning do not include military history; the genuine military accomplishments of the Indian army are not studied at our universities. Yet the UGC now demands that one minor episode in our glorious military history be celebrated on the very campuses that do not study the major ones.
Even Kafka would be embarrassed.
The real problem is that we have a government singularly bereft of achievement over the last four and a half years of its misrule, which therefore feels obliged to invent triumphs that don’t exist in order to have something to celebrate.
Perhaps we should offer the UGC a few more ideas in a similar vein – Demonetisation Disaster Day? GST Form-filling Day? Collapsing Rupee Week? Or maybe, since the government prefers the military for cheap applause, how about Rafale Re-pricing Day?
Let us not forget that in contrast to the many military victories that embellish India’s post-Independence history, the so-called surgical strikes were a strategic failure. Celebrating them discredits the UGC, misuses the army, misleads the public and mindlessly confuses shallow jingoism with real nationalism.
There’s only one possible explanation for this bizarrerie. Elections must be near.
(Shashi Tharoor is the member of parliament in the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram. Views expressed in the article are that of the author’s own. The Quint does not advocate nor is responsible for the same)