[Reader-list] The Special Case

Aalok Aima aalok.aima at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 15 14:08:09 IST 2010

a r baul
an excellent perspective
thanks for posting it here
it is always a pleasure to read umair ahmed muhajir
......... aalok aima

--- On Sun, 11/14/10, Aditya Raj Baul <adityarajbaul at gmail.com> wrote:

From: Aditya Raj Baul <adityarajbaul at gmail.com>
Subject: [Reader-list] The Special Case
To: "reader-list" <reader-list at sarai.net>
Date: Sunday, November 14, 2010, 10:40 PM

Dangerous Pedestal

There is a general consensus that the army is not only special, but
that it is important that it continue to be seen as special by the
public at large


If I had a plot of land for every instance – on the news, over the
last few days – that someone has said the military is India’s
best/most honest/least corrupt institution, and that the ongoing
Adarsh Housing Society scam is shocking given that the army (the
army!) is involved; I’d be one of the country’s largest landowners.
Whether we think corruption in the army is an aberration or an awful
portent of where India is headed, it seems there is a general
consensus that the army is not only special, but that it is important
that it continue to be seen as special by the public at large.
Anything short of that, and we risk damaging that most precious of
things: The One Institution India Continues To Respect.

To which my response is: so what?

Let me explain: obviously, rampant corruption of the sort that blights
Indian public life is serious, not only because of the loot involved
but because of the toll it takes on the credibility of Indian
institutions in the eyes of the public.  But there’s no reason why we
should be especially shocked if the army is involved.  If anything,
the reverse is true: in a democracy, it is the credibility of the
system’s democratic institutions that is paramount.  We should be
appalled by the specter of the country’s elected representatives
feeding at the trough – rather than accepting that as par for the
course, and reserving our surprise for when other institutions (such
as the military, the judiciary, or the bureaucracy) are found wanting.
Our reaction implicitly testifies to a problem that has bedeviled
India since independence, and that represents a hold-over from the
days of the Raj: a deep suspicion of democracy.  Sometimes this
suspicion expresses itself as a preference for technocrats and experts
(planning commissions in Nehru’s day; election commissions and special
advisors from private industry in ours); sometimes as a blind
celebration of the judiciary (and an amnesia that it is not the rule
of law that girds democracy, but democracy that lends legitimacy to
the rule of law); and sometimes as an exaltation of the military.
Accordingly, the “we” of the bourgeoisie is only scandalized when one
of these sorts of institutions is found wanting, because it is these
sorts of institutions that the bourgeoisie not only trusts, but
entrusts India to; the more insulated an institution from one’s fellow
citizens, the greater the importance we attach to its integrity.

Not to put too fine a point to it, but a cult of the military damages
democracies, neatly summing up many of the bourgeoisie’s anxieties
about democracy: impatience with its slowness, its sheer messiness;
concern that our individual rights are at the mercy of fellow citizens
we do not trust; and disgust at the spectacle of opportunism that we
feel sullies politics.  Each of these concerns can be lulled by the
spectacle of military discipline, at once seemingly decisive and
ordered, and flattering to our self-image (as professionals, or as
simply good at our work) by its sheer competence.  Taken too far, the
flirtation becomes a fetish, a lesson India does not need to venture
too far afield to learn: in its own geo-political neighborhood, the
histories of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have been blighted by
the conviction of various armies – but, crucially, not only their
conviction – that the military is the guarantor of the nation-state,
of national identity even.  To take one example, in the case of
Pakistan the military is only partially to blame for this state of
affairs: its way was paved by those in the country’s intelligentsia
and urban middle classes who long for the order and efficiency only
the boot can provide, who by far too readily into the myth that the
military is what holds everything together, that the military is what
citizens must thank day and night for keeping the borders secure.  (I
use the present tense deliberately: a mere two years after the
country’s last bout with military rule ended, I have heard far too
many complaints from urban Pakistanis that begin with an indictment of
the current government, and end in a desire for the return of military
rule.)  In India itself, the fondness with which more than one
Delhiwaala I’ve met remembers Sanjay Gandhi should give us pause.  He
made the trains run on time during the Emergency (which, incidentally,
was lifted not so much because of the country’s abiding faith in
democracy but because of the government’s mistaken belief that it
would win the ensuing elections; who knows how much longer the
Emergency might have continued had the government accurately gauged
the national mood?); but, mercifully, very many of the voters who
delivered a drubbing to his party in the 1977 elections knew that
there are more important things to worry about.

The problem is hardly unique to the sub-continent, and even more
longstanding democratic traditions risk being compromised by military
cults.  In the United States, for instance, the quality of public
discourse has been gravely compromised by socio-political conventions
that mean any critic of the military has to answer charges that (s)he
has let the troops down, or is stabbing them in the back in the midst
of war.  The result is that one can attack politicians on military
policy (and risk being tarred as anti-military), or perhaps defer
criticism until the war in question is over (at which point it is too
late to do anything, not to mention that the critic will be told to
move on and not dwell on the past).  The wider narrative goes
unchallenged: crimes by individuals in the military will be punished
(and the US has a much stronger record on this front than most), but
only on condition that they are deemed no more than crimes by
individuals.  Systemic issues – for instance, about the culture of an
institution that allows certain abuses to routinely occur; about the
competence of an institution that routinely kills civilians in
accidents – are all but impossible to get on the radar.  The problem
is not only never fixed, but is even exacerbated by the fact that so
many in the public invest the military with the very credibility that
they deny the political branches of government.  In short, while no
one is barred from raising these issues, the question implicitly
becomes, why would you want to?  What sort of person would want to
undermine the credibility of one of the last remaining institutions
that works?  Politicians learn the lesson too: not only can you never
be seen to question the military, but it is best to re-cast a number
of complicated foreign (and in the case of India, even internal)
political issues as essentially military/security questions, and hence
removed from the realm of ordinary politics.  In India, in many ways
the cult of the military is nowhere near as developed as in the US,
but the American example holds lessons for citizens of many countries,
beginning with the need to realize that democracies aren’t only
compromised by coups.  The most significant systemic issue might well
be the way in which the military is used to impress the public into
service, to secure political legitimacy.

All of which means that the Adarsh scandal – and let’s not forget, it
is by no means the only one, given the Sukna land scam as well as the
alleged involvement of some military personnel in Abhinav Bharat’s
terrorist activities; not to mention frequent allegations of human
rights abuses, the scandal as to which is that there is no scandal –
represents an opportunity for more than just hand-wringing.  It
represents an opportunity to re-orient our expectations from various
institutions, to bring them in line with our professed commitment to
wide political participation.  In democracies, pedestals are
reader-list: an open discussion list on media and the city.
Critiques & Collaborations
To subscribe: send an email to reader-list-request at sarai.net with subscribe in the subject header.
To unsubscribe: https://mail.sarai.net/mailman/listinfo/reader-list
List archive: <https://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/>


More information about the reader-list mailing list