“The Prime Minister talks of Digital India, a cashless ‘yug’- so why punish a BSF jawan for having and using a mobile phone,” argued CRPF soldier Subedar Ranbir Singh when I asked him whether there was a dangerous precedent in troops taking to social media to air their (legitimate) grievances. The context of our conversation was of course against the backdrop of the now viral video SOS of watery dal and burnt rotis posted by Tej Bahadur Yadav, a BSF jawan on duty at the line of control — a video uploaded on Facebook through his phone.
The subedar’s answer was only partly rhetorical — of course the debate around the use of the phone was in terms of disciplinary breach — but his words rang true as well. Ease of technology and the advent of social media has indisputably become a new challenge in how we address the issues of our military and paramilitary forces. To be in denial about this in an otherwise much-vaunted digital age and throw the rulebook at them will not achieve much.
First it’s important to understand a few things about the Indian soldier. He is simultaneously the hardiest and most generous being you will ever meet. He is used to getting by with very little. When thrown a security challenge he responds with passion, with ‘josh’ and sometimes with the reckless, yet admirable bravado of youth. And he never complains.
Even during the Kargil War of 1999, deprived of basics like snowshoes, protective winter gear and night vision devices, then Army Chief General V.P Malik famously said: “We will fight with what we have.” Not once, during that conflict which I reported from the frontline, did one soldier ever so much as whine about these grave logistical disadvantages. These are men who go into battle with gritty daring. So, when a soldier – any soldier – feels compelled to go public with his angst you can be sure that he has been pushed to the edge and has possibly tried every other channel of redressal before doing so.
So, it’s not just about whether the dal had too much water or that there was no jam or butter to go with the bread. It’s about placing value on the soldier and giving honour to the uniform. And what’s ironic is that in an age of strident hyper-nationalism where pop-patriotism is the business-model of certain television hosts, when it really counts — beyond the banal hashtags and the prime-time shouting — no one gives soldiers their due. In the race to brand people as ‘anti-national’ what we have missed — at great peril to us — is the simmering discontent within and the growing gap between our security personnel and our civilian bureaucracy. Over the last few years there have been multiple flashpoints of conflict — the exclusion of the military from key decisions, the one rank, one pension agitation, the litigations against disabled soldiers and most recently the recommendations of the seventh pay commission which give a greater ‘hardship’ allowance to a bureaucrat posted in Guwahati than a soldier stationed at the Siachen glacier.
Among the paramilitary forces, the anger is even deeper at being treated as the stepchild among troops. Posted to some of the toughest conflict zones in India from the border to the thickly forested and inhospitable Naxalite areas, these men want to know why they don’t get some of the same privileges that the Army does. Constable Jeet Singh of the CRPF followed Tej Bahadur by posting a video that highlighted some of these inequities — paid leave, pension, canteen facilities, and medical benefits. Another fault-line within the forces has been the absence of a ‘Shaheed’ or martyr status to the paramilitary forces vis-à-vis Army personnel.
Much as I appreciate the concern among my military friends that protest-by-video cannot be allowed to become the norm in organisations that would collapse without discipline, fear of authority and hierarchical structures, we must ask ourselves — how and why did we get to this point. How many years will we brush aside the genuine concerns of our men and women in uniform believing that if we throw a lid on the pressure cooker we can reduce the heat? No, the cooker keeps simmering and bubbling and one day it boils over. And that’s what has happened with the soldiers’ SOS messages on social media.
Take the issue of food and nutrition of our security personnel. Again, from personal experience — no matter how remote the area or how limited the quantity of food, every jawan I have ever met has overladen me with steaming hot khana — vadas on a mountain peak, paranthas in a bunker and — there is always ‘ande ki bhoorji’— wherever you are. The generosity and pride with which a soldier shares his food is akin to that of a hospitable homemaker; that forward post or underground bunker you visit is his home and he takes joy in making you part of it. But do note that a CAG audit of Army troops submitted in 2016 flagged “very low level of satisfaction with quantity and quality of rations” and alarmingly noted that men were being given rations three months after the expiry date. It also said 74% of fruits and vegetables were not given in recommended proportions. So much for an Army marching on its stomach. Yet, till Tej Bahadur posted that video, did these issues get the national attention they deserve?
Smearing the BSF jawan and calling him an alcoholic who showed insubordination by pointing a gun at his senior will not take away from the real issues. If any of these details are true, why was he stationed at the line of control at all and more importantly, why was he allowed to carry a weapon?
Let these videos be our cue to address the real issues and concerns they raise. Challenges of indiscipline in the age of social media can be dealt with later. Right now, it’s about izzat.