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Posted at: Nov 20, 2018, 12:07 AM; last updated: Nov 20, 2018, 8:26 AM (IST)

Bomdila spat — no winners, losers all

Bomdila spat — no winners, losers all
In tandem: The Army and police, like in J-K, are almost one body. The day it changes, we will lose the edge we enjoy over the adversary.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Chancellor, Central University Kashmir

As I write this I have put aside all the recent literature which has appeared in the media by veteran or serving personnel of the civil services and the Army, for I felt that in the aftermath of the unfortunate Bomdila incident, there could only be losers all around, especially the nation; self-justification only exacerbates the already fractious state of the civil-military relations (CMR). 

The incident is but one issue, it is the post incident handling and the fingers pointed at each other which are another. At the tactical level, this is not the first time it has happened but it is the spat at the leadership level (mostly one-sided) which is new and causing anguish and wonderment about the level of maturity of people who ran or still run our nation. Admittedly, I supported the Commanding Officer (CO) on social media, about his threat to back his men if they were harmed again, because whatever may be the circumstances under which the incident took place, evidence of two soldiers being badly manhandled is there for all to see and that is something no CO worth his salt will ever tolerate. Evidence about all else is sketchy and doubt exists whether any inquiry can impartially establish, with any degree of certainty, what really happened that unfortunate day. 

Not without the other

More than two weeks after the incident, the issue is being stoked without a thought in mind what the end result is going to be. By sheer coincidence, four days after the incident I was invited by the Indian Police Foundation to become a member of the organisation, an honour I gladly accepted. As an Army officer, who is a rare alumnus of Sardar Vallabhai Patel National Police Academy, I have always held my police counterparts in high esteem, having worked with them in the most challenging circumstances. I have virtually appointed myself as the ambassador of the J&K Police (JKP), having witnessed and experienced the situations under which my officers and men have received its support and extended the same to it. The Army and the police in J&K are almost one body. The day this changes, we would have lost the moral and physical dominance we enjoy over the adversary. Many a time I have remarked that as soldiers we still have breaks from active operations in J&K and come back with higher responsibility; deserving breaks which may see stress and strain but never of the same intensity. It is the men and officers of the JKP (including outstanding IPS officers) who continuously battle the odds from appointment to appointment and location to location. No member of the political community has to ever advise us on the necessity of mutual respect; it is self-realisation which remains at the fore. I must have been bailed out from some very difficult situations by the JKP and I would have inevitably ensured that the Army’s support would always be there for the JKP and its ranks in the most impossible situations. 

Happens everywhere, every time

When inter-force problems arise at the tactical level, it takes one positive gesture to start the process of defusing but when ego remains in place, the situation will only fester. Ask any manager of conflict and he will give you the same response. The ability to step back, take a deep breath, visualise the end result and seek ways of retraction comes from the experience most senior officers possess; confrontation ultimately resolves nothing and only creates more problems for the future. However, the state of CMR has now come to such a pass that none seem to be capable of any visualisation of what this could lead to.

 A perception, carried by military personnel at all ranks, alludes to the existence in government circles of a campaign to show the military its place, so to say. It happens everywhere, in diplomatic missions abroad, in places where military officers are required to work in tandem with civil services in institutions within the country and even within the service headquarters, where some civilian counterparts attempt to dominate. With a weak understanding of the role of the military in nation building and an existent sense of mistrust, right up the chain, no opportunity appears to be spared to paint red the olive green uniform. 

National interest above all

Inter-government service rivalry at lower levels can be expected but surely at apex levels the larger picture and national interest has to prevail through the expected maturity which goes with the higher appointments. Which is why it is surprising that civil services associations have got themselves involved in a matter which, at best, should have been handled by the Army’s local division commander and the divisional commissioner. 

The mutual disdain that the civil services and the military appear to have for each other is not exclusively India’s reserve; I have seen it even in mature democracies and even in the UN missions, but there, at higher levels, refrain is mostly in place through effective communication, a deficit which seems to exist within our system. The effect this deficit has on motivation and morale at lower levels is palpable with loss of their confidence in the senior military leadership, which inevitably is torn between the need for service ethos of strict discipline and defending the turf. In the current case, the senior Army leadership appeared to have done the right thing in not going public, something the civil services themselves should have avoided. However, this is now beyond the stage of who is right and who is wrong. 

If the larger issue of CMR appears beyond repair, it is incumbent on the part of the political authority to exercise itself more forcefully. It cannot allow the state of relations to drift. A CMR commission may be without precedence in any other country but such a body, or even a standing committee, to provide institutional support to the expression of genuine grievances and recommend ways of better cooperation may actually assist the government in more ways than one. It is not for nothing that in several veteran social media groups, involving personalities from the civil services and the armed forces, there is utter dismay at the state of things. Can that response jump ahead a few years into the domain of those serving the nation? There will still be more Bomdilas which will occur but their handling at the apex level will need to be shorn off the awkward response we have witnessed this time.

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