Army jawans on Kolkata’s streets do not make a pretty sight. While they seem to have already achieved the objective for which they were brought in, I am deeply concerned with the implications of the growing tendency by state governments to summon the army at the drop of a hat.
There is relative peace in Kolkata now, unlike on Wednesday, when goons ruled parts of a city. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may congratulate himself on having brought the situation under control. But at what cost? There is a lot to be said in favour of summoning the army when a situation shows signs of going out of control. This alertness undoubtedly saves lives. This is normally a decision taken by the state government through the district magistrate or the police commissioner. And the army usually responds positively.
However, using the army mindlessly and too often is definitely an unhealthy practice. Kolkata has been witnessing protests over Nandigram for the past few weeks. But Wednesday was the first day when disorder was so acute that there seemed to be some justification for summoning the jawans.
Yet, this particular decision is debatable and was quite possibly a knee-jerk response of the state government to the flak it received from the Calcutta High Court on the police opening fire in Nandigram in March this year. It is possible that expediency in leaving operational matters to be taken by an external agency like the army rather than the local police propelled the move.
The army’s speedy response was astonishing, if not unprecedented. It would be interesting to find out what the present army chief thought of the army’s use in Kolkata. It is quite likely that he will frown on such frequent demands on his resources, which are so badly needed on the border. Seeking the army’s help is appropriate only when the local police have been outnumbered and have proved ineffective or incompetent. Did the Kolkata Police get a chance to prove themselves? My own feeling is that they did not.
The same holds true of central paramilitary forces. Too much and too frequent use of central police forces, such as the CRPF, demoralises the state policemen. It also leads to their developing an attitude of indifference to local situations and abandoning their professional responsibility to an outside force.
Incidentally, there is the charge that the CRPF summoned to tackle Nandigram were not allowed to go into the field for quite some time by a government that had, only a few days earlier, complained of delay on the part of the Centre to send them to West Bengal. If this allegation is true, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil will have to do some plainspeaking with Bhattacharjee. Such misuse of central forces dilute the efficiency and morale of CRPF men, who are even otherwise extremely stressed.
Two other aspects need to be highlighted of the decision to use the army in a city that has otherwise shown signs of revival from the olden days of disorder and violence between political parties. This semblance of revival has not been least because of Bhattacharjee’s pragmatic leadership, which has even attracted worldwide attention. The army patrolling one of India’s largest cities does no good, however, to the image of the world’s largest democracy. We are hailed in many regions as an example to follow, because of out rapid economic development, the training of skilled labour and our unshakeable hold over democratic practices, including total control over the armed forces.
Second, what message does the army’s presence in Kolkata, albeit only for a few days, send to the prospective investor? The latter will not understand the factors that led to the decision to deploy the army. The inescapable symbolism of it can be devastating. I remember a number of American professors pulling out of a Hyderabad conference a few years ago when there were some incidents of violence in J&K. My entreaties that the two regions were nearly as far apart as New York and Los Angeles fell on deaf ears, and the conference on environmental crime had to be called off. Till date, our efforts to revive the aborted conference have been in vain.
This is the stark reality of a situation marked by the West’s acute ignorance about India. Nandigram and Godhra may be local phenomena and aberrations that do not make up progressive India, which is the envy of many of our neighbours, including China. But if they happen too often, I am afraid the situation will change to our gross disadvantage. We may find it difficult to convince the thousands of investors excited about the promise of India that they can still safely do business with us.
R.K. Raghavan is former Director, CBI, and is the author of Indian Police: Planning, Personnel and Perspectives.