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Business News/ Opinion / A band of unsung heroes in Jammu and Kashmir
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A band of unsung heroes in Jammu and Kashmir

The army is carrying out tasks that state governments should have done

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is experiencing its worst floods in nearly 50 years. Ten of the state’s 22 districts have been flooded. The capital, Srinagar, is almost a water world. Almost all communication and transport links to the state had snapped in the past days. Lakhs of citizens are stranded. Slowly order is being restored and trapped persons are being rescued.

The burden of this job has fallen on the army. By early Thursday, close to 100,000 people had been rescued. Nearly 30,000 soldiers have been pressed into service for the purpose. From establishing relief camps in safer areas to providing food and water to hungry persons, the army stepped in doing a job that should have been done by the state government and its agencies such as the local police and civil defence personnel. They were nowhere to be seen.

In the midst of all this, strange and dissonant voices are being heard about the army and its role in J&K. Citizens living in J&K are praising the army for its work while others elsewhere have not even spared this time of distress to criticize the army for alleged human rights violations in the state.

What is commonly misunderstood is the nature and the role of the Indian army. Very often, and irresponsibly, it has been called an army of occupation in J&K. If that were indeed the case, then as any other occupation army it should not care about the sufferings of those whom it lords over. There are plenty of examples of armies of occupation: The British Indian army in Afghanistan during the Anglo-Afghan Wars in the 19th century; the Russian army in the Caucasus in the 19th century and, more recently, during the late 20th century. The Indian army’s behaviour J&K is wholly different from those and other experiences globally.

But even this comparative perspective is limited in what it tells us about the role and nature of the army since India was declared a republic in 1950.

In simple terms, the army is merely a tool of last resort in helping civil administration when all else has failed. In none of the actions that it is capable of taking—from offensive actions across borders to counterinsurgency operations to even coming to the aid of civil administrations—does it act on its own. It only steps in when it is asked to do.

The reason for the efficiency of the army, unlike other organizations, is the single objective it is given in any situation.

In floods, it is asked to save citizens; in counterinsurgencies, it is asked to destroy insurgents without any other consideration. In contrast, civil organizations under political control are subject to multiple objectives and tasks. As long as these are well-specified and no impediments are erected, reasonable efficiency can be seen. But increasingly in states, district administrations are burdened with too many tasks, something that paralyses them in any emergency.

What should worry citizens is not the increasing role of the army in civil situations—largely natural disasters and severe breakdowns in law and order—but state governments are proving incapable of carrying out basic tasks of governance. In the devastating floods that engulfed Uttarakhand in 2013, the state administration simply collapsed.

The situation was so bad that in the early days after the disaster, even the lists of dead and injured people had to be prepared by the army. J&K in 2014 is witnessing something identical. The scale and speed of flooding in Srinagar may have taken the government by surprise but it was aware of what was happening in other parts of the state, especially in the Jammu division, beforehand. And yet it did little to prepare. It certainly did not act at all.

If the army had not stepped in and mounted large-scale rescue and relief operations, the conditions in the states would have bordered anarchy. And yet even in the midst of all this, one can hear carping that the army is not doing enough or that there is no reason to cheer it for it is only doing its job. How about taking a critical look at the kind of job the state government was doing?

Has the Indian army been criticized unfairly? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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Published: 11 Sep 2014, 05:20 PM IST
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