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Why we should be concerned about the Indian Army's future

December 02, 2013 15:32 IST

Indian soldiers train at high altitudesThe army of the future needs a system of transparency and research. An open sociology of the army is a democratic necessity. An openness of information is a necessity of the army of the future fighting the next peace and next war on society's behalf, says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan.

In an odd but fundamental way, most Indians love the Indian Army, but refuse to analyse it. We adhere to the separation of civil society and army so strictly that we do not look at the strains, tensions and challenges our army is facing.

This essay is a civilian social scientist's analysis of the future of the army. I think it is time human rights activists own up to the army and accept responsibility for its future.

The army is a value creating institution. The old ideal of unity and diversity was achieved only by one institution -- the army. It used ethnicity and tradition to create a national unity. Where else can you summon Sikhs, Gurkhas Jats, Rajasthanis, Marathas and use their different traditions and create an elaborate unity.

As a literacy creation machine, it success went further than any technology mission dreamt by Sam Pitroda. The army is the foremost disaster rescue and management system today. Its ability to enter any area devastated by cyclone, earthquake, flood or riots is immaculate. It combines discipline and care to rescue our people and leaves the moment civilian authority is restored.

The army totally absorbed in rescue can be seen playing football the day it has been asked to withdraw. The goodwill the army commands except in areas of insurgency is impressive. But as a society we get over satisfied with the institutions and never read the signs of the future.

What will be the challenges to the army of the future?

As a civilian social scientist I sense the Indian Army has to get ready not only to fight the next war, but the next peace. Think of a few facts, jawans in our army retire at 30, most officers by 50. This idea of retirement is based on a dated idea of physical fitness. Given improvements in longevity, exercise and nutrition, one has to quietly ask why army personnel should retire so quickly.

Can we not revise the standards of health especially in a force where technology is more or as important as physical stamina and skill? Arguing that retired soldiers contribute to society does not answer the question. We have to ask why the bureaucracy or academics should continue till 65, even 70, when the army retires so early. It makes little sense.

Secondly, let us be clear that the army has not been able to plan the civilian transition. One sees officers stumbling to obtain jobs as security officers, or officers or desperately pass management courses. There is a tremendous loss of dignity even a sense of loss, a sense of being betrayed or let down by army, government and society.

I have watched officers live nostalgically completely 'narrowed' in civilian society. It is tragic that a soldier should retire at 50 and spend twenty five additional years feeling professionally vulnerable. There is sadness here and a major sociological problem that the Department of Defence is indifferent about.

The army as a planned organised body is completely helpless about the civilian transition. Its career decisions amputate or bifurcate the lives of its own people.

One has to plan for this transition. In fact, what I am suggesting is that this act of problem solving be done through an alliance of institutions, especially between the army and universities. Both universities and army face obsolescence, once through bad career planning and the other because of the changing nature and access to knowledge.

The university can no longer cater to a younger group of students. It has to move beyond generations and cater to age sets between 40 to 50. This is a problematic set where individuals look for change or feel they need a round of reskilling. This is true of engineers, managers and soldiers.

Visualising the university as two-tiered service model of knowledge not only gives it a new legitimacy, it begins a new approach to problem solving in our society.

The army is now conceptualised as a knowledge organisation, which can transfer its skills in logistics, disaster management or ecology in new directions. Why cannot the army have its own ecological service for soldiers about to retire, reskilling them in a new direction? It is a policy act that can add both to the university and army.

As officers have noted, while the army was competent in solving the literacy problem, its soldiers are not quite competent to absorb new technology. This new technology can add to the qualities of competence and citizenship in our officers and soldiers.

I think civilian planning of the future of the army is necessary for maintaining democratic institutions. In owning up to the army, we can also confront it with questions of violence and peace especially as violence is more internal than external.

Questions like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act need to be discussed with the army. One needs open debate rather than stereotype responses. Violence is something all of are concerned about.

I think the army of the future needs a system of transparency and research. The army needs an open research system where knowledge, policy and information extends beyond the recalcitrance of the DoD.

We need something more than security studies which have become niches for powerful lobbies. An open sociology of the army is a democratic necessity. An openness of information is a necessity of the army of the future fighting the next peace and next war on behalf of society.

Image: Indian soldiers train at high altitudes. Photograph: Courtesy: indianarmy.nic.in

Shiv Visvanathan