There is widespread anger in military circles against the government’s decision to deploy the Army for building two pontoon bridges for the World Cultural Festival being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living foundation.
Many of them also see a growing pattern of Army being called in at the drop of hat, often made to do work that is demeaning, such as as laying mats for International Yoga Day.
Army has been called to aid or carry out civilian activities repeatedly in recent months — Chennai floods, International Yoga day last year, Haryana riots last month and the upcoming World Cultural Festival.
In an interview to Aaj Tak, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar referred to Army being involved in activities like the Kumbh Mela and said in this case “it was done with the sole purpose of avoiding accidents.”
Officials defended the decision saying that it was done in view of “public interest” as several lakh people were expected to attend. But this assertion found few takers with several serving officers questioning the logic of the Army being involved and some calling for drawing a distinction on the matter.
"If this was an event of national pride, interest or significance, saving human lives and dignity then yes but if not the military should not be the first agency,” said Lt Gen Anil Chait, former Army Commander.
Another officer Lt Gen Thomas Mathew (retd) said, “The Army is being reduced to an contractor doing outsourced work.” He was referring to the various other agencies and private agencies that are involved in the event.
Stating that there is ambiguity on the regulations guiding the deployment of Army for public aid, Gen Mathew said somebody has to take a call. He observed that just calling it a world event would not qualify it as a public event and said the use of wartime equipment should be restricted. “Tomorrow when somebody holds an event and calls it international would the Army be involved,”” he wondered.
Former Army Chief General VP Malik while observing that there is nothing illegal, wished that they do not do such kind of things. “There is nothing illegal about it but when wartime equipment is employed for this kind of event, which is purely private, it should be the last resort,” he told The Hindu .
While there is disgruntlement, surprisingly there is hesitation on the part of many retired officers in voicing their concerns for being perceived “politically incorrect”. A former Army Chief who did not wish to be named said that “all said and done the event has a religious tinge to it” and the Army should have been kept away.
At least two senior retired Army officers presently associated with government supported institutions declined to comment.
Some officers saw it as the last in a series of events to undermine the stature of the Army. One officer said they are being reduced to a “conscript service”.
One senior serving officer with knowledge of the matter termed it “unfortunate” but said the order came from the highest level and questioned, “When the government orders you what else can you do?” His disappointment was palpable when he talked about the Army being called for laying mats to building bridges and wondered what else is in store in future.
While there were several references to the Army building similar bridges for musician Yanni’s concert in 1997 near the Taj Mahal one retired officer said that one wrong doesn’t justify anther wrong.