Last Monday, lockdown 4.0 with some relaxations was promulgated. But this did not end, as the Supreme Court noted, the deluge of migrants making their way home. The question being asked by many, including serving and retired military personnel, is why the armed forces, the most-trusted instrument of the State, has not been more actively involved in containing the biggest internal security crisis facing the country. A serving lieutenant colonel, a retired commodore and two former Navy chiefs — the first two on this page — and others on social media have urged the armed forces be requisitioned to aid the civil administration in assisting citizens in distress.
On day 48 of the lockdown, the government issued instructions to the states not to let migrants walk home. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, in an interview to this newspaper last month, said the coronavirus chain had to be broken by April 14 through the lockdown and social distancing, adding that the “military is totally prepared to meet up to the demands made by government and people”.
The question was prompted by two sad events: Endless columns of hungry and tired migrant workers with families trudging home and their inhuman treatment by the police; and a media briefing by the CDS and three service chiefs where it was expected he would announce some major humanitarian intervention by the military. Instead, he narrated events that the three services would conduct to commemorate coronavirus warriors. After their appearance, veterans expressed dismay and rebuke. Given the unprecedented cuts underway in the defence budget, the countrywide flights of transport and fighter aircraft and helicopters and lighting up warships was expenditure better invested in providing succour to migrants. The visibility of the Army would have been a balm for distressed migrants.
Following the nullification of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the surgical ground and airstrikes and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning of Indian false flag operations, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has chosen to keep its powder dry. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said recently that he would not call in the Army as it is guarding the borders. But other than those deployed, sufficient forces are available for mitigating the humanitarian crisis. The Army has a strategic surplus of 8,000-10,000 personnel earmarked for United Nations Peacekeeping and deployable formations in peacetime.
Should the armed forces have been deployed? The answer is a resounding yes. The country is confronted with an unprecedented human security challenge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made saving lives and livelihoods, in that order, the national objective. In 2003, at an international security conference at Berlin, then deputy national security adviser, Satish Chandra, presented an elaborate paper on pandemics. Some contingency planning was done in the National Security Council and operational directorates of the armed forces. According to statistics with the defence archives, after Partition, India has faced 529 national disasters till 2017 with 200,000 deaths. The military played a key role in rescue and relief operations.
The spotlight, so far, has been on the director-general of the Armed Forces Medical Services who dedicated large portions of his medical resources and services to civilian administration across the country, including establishing quarantine camps and coronavirus disease (Covid-19)-only hospitals. Ordnance factories have belatedly been ordered to produce medical equipment, including ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and other material. Naval warships have evacuated diaspora from the neighbourhood and for the first time charged $40 — certainly bad optics for civil-military relations. The Indian Air Force has flown medical teams and stores to many foreign countries.
The armed forces in the neighbourhood are involved in helping State authorities in dealing with the pandemic. In Sri Lanka, the National Operations Centre for Management of the Covid Outbreak is under the CDS. In south and southeast Asia, the military is assisting the State in handling the pandemic.
Has the military become a holy cow in India? Especially when, for the first time, the military response mechanism has been catalysed with the appointment of a CDS and a powerful department of military affairs. The armed forces have the capacity, staying power and discipline to assist the State in weathering this storm in several ways. In mobilising national and state capacities, the military will act as a force multiplier. People, including the CDS, were hoping the first lockdown would contain the virus but uncertainty prevails. The pandemic is expected to peak in June-July with the likelihood of a second and third spike. The Army should be immediately directed to establish a task force for Organisation and Management of Safe and Secure Movement of Migrants and remain on standby for emergency missions.
Every state is networked with Army formations in a location with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on aid to the civilian authority. While remaining sanitised, the military must be more optimally utilised in this national humanitarian crisis. That will be reason enough to ring bells and shower petals.
Ashok K Mehta is a retired major general and founder member, Defence Planning Staff
The views expressed are personal