Turning guns into ploughs is not so far-fetched

Politicians do not question the ways in which accelerating defence spending might retard social welfare as they recognise a key fact: The growth and consolidation of a national psyche of militarism, writes Sanjay Srivastava.
By Sanjay Srivastava | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON MAY 06, 2014 12:00 AM IST

In this, as in all other elections, development and economic growth are major topics of discussion. Among other things, political parties have outlined their strategies for reducing poverty, increasing employment, improving healthcare, enhancing conditions for foreign investment and industrial capacity, and expanding educational infrastructure. Indeed, there is now even a term — the ‘Gujarat model’ — for specifying the significance of economic factors as campaign strategy. If there are disputes over this model, these are not about the importance of growth and development, but the model that is most suitable for all of India, as distinct from one with apparent success in one state. There is, then, a consensus about the need for greater material improvement in people’s lives. At the heart of this consensus, however, is a taboo: An enforced silence on a topic that seriously affects our development prospects.

A just-released report by a US think-tank points to the heavy price we pay for being one of the largest purchasers of armaments in the world. It is well known that our public expenditure on health is less than what the central government allocates for defence spending. Also, State spending on education barely outpaces that on defence. It is also well known that increased expenditure on private healthcare and lack of access to a well-run public education system are both causes of a vicious cycle of poverty and misery.

Politicians do not question the ways in which accelerating defence spending might retard social welfare as they recognise a key fact: The growth and consolidation of a national psyche of militarism. Indian public discourse veers between proclamations of our ‘peaceful’ nature and deep admiration for the culture of militarisation.

Ironically enough, militarism may be less rife among those who serve in the defence forces and rather more prevalent among the general population. Militaristic romanticism breeds more feverishly among those who have never been sent to the battlefield. Perhaps the most insidious of these is the use of defunct military hardware as decorative items on the school premises. It is not uncommon to see displays of old planes and tanks within institutional spaces that should be devoted to asking how we can avoid making war. From a very young age, our children are socialised into the ways of militarism.

Childhood socialisation is reinforced by a broader culture through which we internalise the military complex into our psyche. It is noticeable that neither our popular nor literary cultures have any tradition of either questioning or satirising militarism. We have nothing to match either George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894) or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Our cinema, in particular, revels in presenting hagiographies of military adventurism and even the most progressive of our writers have not tackled our cultural tendency to glorify it.

Perhaps an important aspect of this is that those at the helm of our culture industry are largely unaffected by the diversion of resources as a result of the billions of dollars going into defence spending. Research suggests that when there is a resource crunch, it is easiest to reduce public expenditure on items such as health.

As a poor country such as ours fattens the coffers of arms-supplying rich nations and helps in the upkeep of their schools, universities, hospitals and transport systems, we should think about what this kind of expenditure might have done for the education, health and general welfare of some of the poorest in the world.

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University

The views expressed by the author are personal

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