By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th March 2016
Serving and retired army personnel and other concerned citizens have protested at the use of army engineers and combat equipment in building two pontoon bridges over the Yamuna River for a three-day World Cultural Festival (WCF) being organised from March 11-13 on the river’s flood plain in Delhi.
Separately, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has expressed concern over the impact of lakhs of visitors and large structures on the fragile Yamuna bed and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. The NGT is expected to rule on this on Wednesday.
The WCF is being organised by the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Foundation, which claims to propagate a “stress-free, violence-free world.” The founder, who is widely called “Sri Sri”, is close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year. The WCF website prominently displays a photograph of him with BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar admitted on Tuesday, to TV news channel Aaj Tak, that he ordered the army to use combat manpower and equipment in constructing the pontoon bridges to deal with security threats to the festival.
Aaj Tak did not ask him how pontoon bridges would help in dealing with security threats to the WCF. Nor, in fact, has the army been given any role in dealing with security or terrorist threats.
Parrikar also cited the precedence of the Kumbh Mela, where army engineers build pontoon bridges to allow the millions of visiting pilgrims to move from one side of the river to the other. Suggesting the pontoon bridges would avert the possibility of stampedes, he declared: “It was done with the sole purpose of avoiding accidents.”
Senior army generals tell Business Standard they are deeply uncomfortable with deploying soldiers and equipment for a function organised by a private, commercial organisation, but they had no choice. “We were not asked or consulted. The Raksha Mantri ordered us to build those bridges”, says a general in army headquarters.
The rules governing the deployment of the army in such tasks is laid down in the rulebook, “Regulations for the Army”. Paragraph 301 on Page 100 legislates on “Employment of troops on duties in aid of civil authorities”.
It states: “Troops may be called upon to perform in aid of the civil authorities any of the following duties: maintenance of law and order; maintenance of essential services; assistance during natural calamities such as earthquakes and floods; and any other type of assistance which may be needed by the civil authorities.”
It goes on to state: “When the services of troops are required by the civil authorities, the local military commander will first obtain, through authorised channels, the approval of the Central Government to their employment.”
Since the WCF deployment is clearly unrelated to law and order, essential services or disaster relief, Parrikar evidently invoked the fourth, catch-all, contingency: “any other type of assistance which may be needed by the civil authorities.”
Technically, therefore, the rulebook backs the defence minister’s order and the generals in fact had no choice but to obey. It is, however, another matter whether the defence minister’s order was ethically and morally grounded.
In a heated debate raging within military circles on social media like WhatsApp, many army officers believe the army chief should have taken a stronger stand against using army resources to help what one officer calls “a government-friendly God-man.”
“Had the army chief stood firm on an issue of propriety, the government would have had no choice but to take heed”, says one serving officer.
In this politically polarised discussion, some argue that, since the army’s resources are legitimately used for organising religious public events like the Amarnath Yatra and the Kumbh Mela, they could also be used for the WCF. Lieutenant General (Retired) Syed Ata Hasnain counters this, posting on Facebook: “When something is wrong it has to be called so. Hundred percent agree that the Army should not be doing this. We provide many things for Shri Amarnath Yatra but that is a completely different issue because of security and the terrain involved.”
Furthermore, the Sri Sri Foundation is a commercial organisation that openly seeks donor funding on its website. “Does the government even know where Sri Sri gets its funding from? It claims to be a non-profit organisation, but we would love to see the book of accounts”, demands another general, who seeks anonymity.
Some, like Lieutenant General (Retired) Raj Kadyan make the weak argument that “laying pontoon bridges for such functions provides good training for the army”. Others point out that the environment in which these pontoon bridges were laid bore no similarity to the conditions in which engineer bridging units actually train for war.
Perhaps the strongest argument against using army assistance in such functions relates to precedent. Says a serving lieutenant general: “Today we have come out to support the Sri Sri Foundation. Tomorrow, it could be Baba Ramdev; after that, the Jamaat-e-Islami; the next day the Dera Sacha Sauda or the Nirankari establishment. Where do we draw the line?”