October 12, 2016
Updated: October 12, 2016 00:57 IST

Military fables of a democracy

“Soldiers and their sacrifices deserve respect in society, but they
cannot overwhelm every other aspect of society.” Indian soldiers
patrolling outside their base camp in Langate, 75 kilometers north of
Srinagar. AP

The valorous soldier versus the pusillanimous civilian and the
patriotic soldier versus unpatriotic civilian are false binaries on
which a militarised society thrives.

When the rich fight the rich, it is the poor who die. — Jean-Paul
Sartre, The Devil and the Good Lord.

In 2004, the world saw evidence of one of the most horrific acts of
torture and sexual abuse by an army on captured prisoners. The
soldiers did not belong to the army of a banana republic or a military
dictatorship but to the U.S., a democracy. The prisoners were Iraqi,
held at the Abu Ghraib prison.

At present, India is going through a staggering phase of amnesia: that
it is a democracy. War clouds have caused a flight of reason. The
valorisation of the Indian military after the “surgical strikes” has
culminated in a perverse logic amplified by a shrill media: you cannot
question the government on matters military as it is equivalent to
insulting the army, which itself is beyond scrutiny and reproach.

Nissim Mannathukkaren
Aggressive nationalism

The question here is not of the veracity of the surgical strikes but
whether questions can be asked of the government and the army. The
logic that answers in the negative is one that suits a military
dictatorship, not a democracy.

If this logic held, we would have never known how the American and
British governments led their people to the catastrophic Iraq war over
flimsy reasons of national security. The Abu Ghraib expose too would
have never seen light. Nor would have our own Kunan Poshpora. That
such logic shows a tendency towards the militarisation of society,
especially now when an aggressive nationalism gains ground.

Witness the closing of public mind since Uri and the surgical strikes.
Actors are facing a public outcry either for “disrespecting” soldiers
or for “supporting” Pakistani artistes. Parties are being condemned
for demanding “proof”. And farcically, television guests are thrown
off studio debates for speaking over martyred soldiers’ fathers. The
army, in essence, has become a holy cow.

This is a dangerous tendency, for the militarisation of society and
the predominance of militaristic values is opposed to some fundamental
tenets of democracy like critical thinking and questioning of
hierarchy. Militaristic values are also intrinsically connected to
notions of hypermasculinity. Of course, unquestioning obedience is
useful in the institutional context of the army and in limited
situations of war, but it cannot become a general value of society for
all times.

More crucially, militarisation fundamentally obfuscates society’s real
problems. Fear becomes the basis of society, and a soldier’s job
becomes the most important occupation. People who clean the sewers
with no protective equipment, and at great threat to their lives, do
not, in this narrative, serve the nation. As the writer Aakar Patel
asks, why are sewer cleaners, dying in the hundreds, and sanitation
workers not considered martyrs?

The tragedy of a dead soldier is justifiably commemorated by all. But
millions die unsung, performing jobs in hazardous conditions. The
precariousness of soldiers on the Siachen Glacier is rightly
sympathised with, but not the horrors of manual scavengers who have to
handle human faeces and die due to diseases.

Shouldn’t there also be outrage over men carrying their dead daughter
and wife on their shoulders because hospitals refused ambulances, as
was the case in two separate incidents in Odisha? Where is the outrage
and TV coverage about the 1.2 million (preventable) child deaths in
India last year, the highest in the world? How does this number
compare with deaths caused by terrorism? For society’s well-being,
should this not be the most important problem exercising discourse?

Ironically, a militarised society despite valorising the soldier does
not actually speak for him/her. Warmongering could only lead to the
deaths of more soldiers. While Kargil and its 527 war heroes entered
India’s military folklore, Operation Parakram and its 798 dead
soldiers are little discussed by the public. How is it justifiable to
lose nearly 800 soldiers without even fighting a war?

Further, in every violent conflict like Uri, the overwhelming numbers
of the dead are sepoys and non-commissioned officers hailing from the
most marginalised strata of society. It is a tragedy at many levels.

The uniting factor

The valorous soldier versus the pusillanimous civilian and the
patriotic soldier versus unpatriotic civilian are false binaries on
which a militarised society thrives. On the one hand, defence arms
procurement, and land and recruitment scams show the involvement of
both higher echelons of the military, and civilians (politicians and
bureaucrats). On the other, what unites both is that tragic social
conditions are disproportionately shared by the soldiers and civilians
from the poorest and most oppressed groups, especially the costs of
war. After all, the shrieking TV anchors and the elite civilian
classes wanting a war are not the ones fighting the war, or are among
the 15 lakh people forcibly evacuated from border village homes and
living in makeshift camps.

The valorisation of the military in a democracy is ironical.
Ultimately, what is the military fighting for? Is it merely Indian
territory? The military, while protecting the nation, does not dictate
India’s constitutional values. By conflating the two, a fundamental
mistake is made. In the eyes of the world, what distinguishes India
from Pakistan is not that it has a bigger military, but that it is a
settled, even if flawed, democracy. The Indian Army is different from
the Pakistani Army because it is, ultimately, under the control of the

Every public institution, including the military, has to be subject to
public accountability and scrutiny. There is no maxim in a democracy
that says you cannot ask questions of its army.

Similarly, striving for non-violent resolutions is not being
anti-national. An army veteran writes: “It’s easy to ask for peace
when you are a thousand miles away from the Line of Control.” This is
why soldiers facing bullets at the border are not the ones in charge
of public policy in a democracy. As Onkarnath Dolui, who lost his son
in Uri, painfully pleads, “Believe me, I don’t want war as it demands
countless of lives, like that of my son, on either side.”

Soldiers and their sacrifices deserve respect in society, but they
cannot overwhelm every other aspect of society. Military fables have
their place, but they cannot substitute democratic debates. While we
mourn the deaths of soldiers, we have to understand that poverty is
the biggest killer in India, by a million times over. A militarised
society prevents us from seeing that.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies,
Dalhousie University, Canada. Email:

Peace Is Doable

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups 
"Green Youth Movement" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email 
To post to this group, send an email to
Visit this group at
For more options, visit

Reply via email to