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Unrestricted public access to cantonment roads will cause a security nightmare

The Prime Minister’s Office must have the ministry of defence’s order on cantonment roads rescinded before any major attack occurs inside cantonments

opinion Updated: May 30, 2018 12:04 IST
Kamal Davar
Kamal Davar
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman during the press conference (Representative Photo)(PTI)

India faces many security challenges, yet continues to be lax when it comes to vigilance about security. Otherwise, how can anyone explain the order promulgated a few days ago by the ministry of defence (MoD) to open up all roads in army cantonments for unrestricted civilian traffic movement? The powers-that-be have opened the floodgates for terror strikes and lawlessness inside cantonments, which till today have been a haven of security for those who guard this nation and the prohibitively expensive equipment they have. Apparently, political expediency and votebank considerations have overridden basic security considerations.

It is essential for the public to understand what constitutes a cantonment. Its critics term it a relic of the British raj that has no place in today’s democratic milieu. Inconvenience to civilian traffic and prohibiting unrestricted movement for citizens are cited as the reasons. This disregards the military and social significance of cantonments.

It is essential for the public to understand the raison-de-etre of cantonments since the first of these garrisons came up in Meerut in 1805 during the British raj. Cantonments were set up some distance away from townships and cities, in open places to lodge troops, their animals and equipment of the advancing troops before they were sent to battle. Gradually these camps became permanent and were spread all over the country for accommodating and administering the troops as also putting them through the rigours of intensive military training which required open spaces and privacy.

Over the last two centuries, 62 cantonments were duly notified by the MoD apart from some military stations — the latter are exclusively for the military, their accommodation and combat equipment. Cantonments, which spread out over large areas, have exclusive military pockets, bustling civil bazaars and certain pockets which have a civil-military mix in its demography. In reality, there is no prohibiting the movement of civilians in the military portion of a cantonment as long as the person shows identity proof. Visiting any housing complex or five star hotel, citizens are put through more extensive security checks than going into a cantonment.

Army personnel at the traffic barriers in cantonments always conduct themselves in a people-friendly and polite manner. Thus to veterans like me, this order is shorn of any common sense, especially with regard to security or civil-military relations. Thousands of civil shopkeepers and those providing other day-to-day facilities to large army garrisons may suffer if local civil administrations drive a wedge between the military and civilians.

Importantly, certain pockets in cantonments exclusively house headquarters of formations, units, troops and their arms, ammunition and sensitive equipment. It does not require any great strategic sense to conclude that permitting the free flow of unmonitored traffic all over the cantonment could be disastrous. It would be best if the PMO has this MoD order rescinded before any major terrorist incident occurs inside the cantonments.

The army, on its own, must carry out an in-depth survey of the geographical layout of the cantonments, security threats to their units and personnel and also ensure that no law-abiding and peaceful citizen gets inconvenienced. Some rumblings from civilians have been heard from the Secunderabad and Pune cantonments. These local irritants can be resolved by the military and civil officials in these places and cantonments can be maintain their security and yet be accessible.

Kamal Davar, a retired Lieutenant General, is the first chief of defence intelligence agency

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 30, 2018 12:04 IST