'The army cannot restrict civilians arbitrarily. It is not dadagiri.'
Disquiet has been brewing in military circles over the defence ministry's decision to permit civilian access to closed roads in military cantonment areas across the country.
The decision followed a meeting Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman held on May 4 with members of Parliament and officials of the 62 cantonment boards in the country.
Present at the meeting were senior defence ministry officials and those from army headquarters and the directorate general of defence estates.
Several MPs had represented to Sitharaman that the general public was being greatly inconvenienced by the lack of access to the roads in cantonment areas.
Following the meeting, Sitharaman ordered that all closed roads across the country be reopened immediately, except in four cantonments -- Badami Bagh in Srinagar, Satwari road in Jammu, and in Kannur and Delhi.
Subsequently, on May 21, army headquarters ordered that 'all barriers, check-posts and roadblocks will be removed, and vehicles will not be stopped or checked.'
But the move has met with stiff opposition and anger from many serving and retired military personnel.
The wives of army officers too joined the fray, pointing out that the move posed a huge security risk to defence families living in the cantonment areas. They have launched a signature campaign against the decision.
On Tuesday, June 5, Sitharaman asserted that army chief General Bipin Rawat and other senior officers had been consulted before the government allowed civilian access to roads in military cantonments across the country.
The minister, PTI reported, was speaking against the backdrop of a country-wide signature campaign against the government decision launched by wives of army officers.
Sitharaman said a total of 850 roads were closed in various cantonments, out of which 119 were blocked without following laid down procedures and now some of them have been opened.
"119 roads were blocked without following laid down procedure. Out of them 80 roads have been opened while 24 are remaining closed. We have partially opened 15 roads," she said.
"I met the wives of the armed forces personnel and heard their concerns which were largely about the security. I fully appreciate that," the minister said.
"The order by the ministry of defence addresses traffic-related issues. Places where unit lines exist or where families of our servicemen are living, we are cautious about its security," Sitharaman said, adding, "If you (the army) decide to close roads based on intelligence input, you are welcome to do so. But follow due procedure."
Vivek Tankha, the Congress from Jabalpur, has been in the forefront of the campaign to open roads in cantonment areas.
"The army is ruining the life of civilians by not letting them use those roads," Tankha tells Rediff.com/Syed Firdaus Ashraf.
Why did you demand civilian access to cantonment areas?
Not to the entire cantonment area, only to civilian areas of the cantonment.
There are civilians staying in those areas and these are public roads.
We are not talking about army campuses as they can have their own security and that is not an issue.
In Jabalapur, there is a Ridge Road which is very famous. It is a broad road in my town, which has been open to the public from time immemorial.
There are civilian homes, a telecom training centre and other civilian establishments. There, the army put up a gate and started checking people's movement suddenly because somewhere down the road there is the GoC-in-C's (General Officer Commanding-in-Chief) residence. It is foolish.
When did the army put up this gate?
Three or four years ago. People went to the high court. The high court intervened and said it is a public road, which even the judges use.
There are instances when one GoC-in-C comes in and decides to closes the road.
The army cannot do this, this is democracy.
There is no security issue on this road. Security concerns are only with the army campus, which are totally different areas.
But the GoC may feel insecure. Terrorists could enter the location if the road is open to the public, isn't it?
The GoC's residence is 500 metres inside (the cantonment). There are 'N' number of gates to cross before you reach his house.
It is foolish to feel insecure, believe me.
Except arrogance, this is nothing else.
Why is the army saying if these roads are opened to civilians, it will lead to traffic jams?
An army cantonment has two parts. First, there is the army estate and army area, which is their area.
Second, there is a civilian extension area.
In a civilian area, the army cannot restrict civilians arbitrarily. It is not dadagiri.
The message going out is that politicians want access to army cantonment areas.
You go and check. There are civilian areas in cantonments. We are not talking about the army campus. No one wants to touch that. That is a gated property.
Now even civilians have gated property. I feel it is an exaggerated protest.
From the army?
From some people, as the army does not do such things officially.
The army wives association says they will feel insecure if civilians are given access to army areas.
The particular reasons for which they feel insecure should be addressed. This cannot be a general rule.
Army areas can have restrictions, but not where you have civilians living. Those are civilian roads, in fact.
What if, god forbid, something like the Kaluchak or Pathankot terror attacks happens?
In Pathankot, terrorists entered the campus. They entered the fortified gate. It had nothing to do with the roads.
Is there a demand from the public that they need access to these army roads or are you saying all this by yourself?
Everywhere (in India) there is a demand. Lakhs of people are demanding to open the roads.
The army is ruining the life of civilians by not letting them use those roads.
How many such roads are there in India?
I am talking of my city, Jabalpur. Please go and see Ridge Road.
From my childhood, I have been travelling on that road. Now they are telling us that the GoC will be attacked.
Till date, no GoC has been attacked.
There are hundreds of (army) officers all over Jabalpur. Will all of them be attacked or what? This is nonsense.
What did you do when the army closed the Ridge Road in Jabalpur? Did you meet the GoC?
They said nothing. Even the high court told them to open the road.
They assured that they will keep the road open, but they stop and check every car that passes.
It is a public road and hundreds of cars pass. It is a normal road which goes to Jabalpur University.
It is a (daily) nuisance when the fact is that there is no (army) installations.
Voices on social media claim that the politicians want to grab army roads. Is it so?
I feel at some places they (the army) may be right, but I am talking of my city, Jabalpur.
Many MPs objected to army roads obstructing civilian life.
Around 40 MPs objected. Everybody was saying the same thing about their cities.
Is it true that as cities grow larger, the respective city governments want access to army roads as they are unable to handle the pressure of large population movement?
In 1958, around 20,000 civilians lived in the Jabalpur cantonment area. Today more than 1.5 lakh civilians live there.
What can the army do if the population of cities is increasing?
That is why the entire cantonment area cannot be designated as an army area. There would be a portion which will be a civilian area.
This problem can be solved by discussions and talking to the authorities.
Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said earlier this year that Indian Navy officers will not get 'even an inch for housing' in south Mumbai.
There is no hard and fast rule on this. It all depends on necessity. he naval dockyard has to be in Mumbai. Naval presence will be there in Mumbai.
One cannot say the Indian Navy should be out of Mumbai.
The message that goes out is that politicians are being harsh on the army while soldiers keep India secure.
They should have been selective in their approach. Each road should be judged on its merit.
If I was the authority, I would say if there is no threat, let us open the road to everybody.
I agree there are security issues in places like Nagrota (Jammu and Kashmir) and in the border areas, but you cannot say there is a security issue on Mumbai's Marine Drive and close it.
Kindly note that the image has been posted only for representational purposes.