India’s Jammu and Kashmir is in the throes of the worst natural disaster in its history. Unprecedented rain, swollen rivers, indiscriminate deforestation, sand mining and illegal construction have caused apocalyptic floods in the entire state. More than 200 people have been killed. Tens of thousands are missing.
The Indian Army has rescued almost 170,000 people to date and is continuing its operations against all odds; even stone-pelting by some Kashmiris -- angry with their state government officials, who were reportedly the first to scramble to safety -- vented their wrath on army helicopters instead.
There is a gigantic and long-term Indian Army presence (estimates range between 30,000 and 600,000 troops) in the northern Indian state bordering Pakistan.
It is largely because of that presence that infiltration across the international border by terrorists armed and trained in Pakistan has dwindled dramatically. On the other hand, Kashmiris themselves have grown disillusioned with Pakistan and increasingly comfortable with India’s growing economic clout. Investment in J&K has gone up multi-fold. Tourist arrivals over the past several years have broken records. Bollywood is filming in the ethereal Valley again. Luxury hotels are overbooked. Ordinary Kashmiris whose livelihoods lay in shambles during the years of bloody militancy, are back in business. There may still be the odd demonstration for ‘azadi’ (which can mean various things -- freedom, independence, autonomy or self-rule), but there is no longer a desire to secede to Pakistan.
And yet, the Indian Army in Kashmir remains everybody’s favourite whipping boy. At the root of the resentment is a special law that endows the army with extraordinary powers to conduct search-and-rescue operations at free will. The law has undoubtedly and on occasion, been abused by the odd soldier. There are charges of random killings and rape and offenders are being court-martialled.
But while anger over alleged human rights violations among the residents of J&K is understandable, it grates to witness many of India’s urban, western-educated chattering classes, intellectuals, academics and activists, rant against the army (and indeed, all uniformed authority) in India while they themselves are secure, prosperous and in many cases, thousands of miles away from the contingencies of daily life in India.
Over the past weeks, live pictures of troops carrying out risky evacuations round the clock in Kashmir have rendered most left-liberal babblers squirming
And yet, a world-famous journalist who was born and schooled in India but lives overseas, last week put his foot into his mouth. From across the Atlantic, he loftily declared in a discussion forum that all of India’s administration, including 75% of the Indian armed forces, is an ‘unmitigated disaster. I asked him to substantiate his irresponsible statement. He took umbrage at my ‘insult’ (how dare I ask such a famous writer for proof !) but slunk away from the forum, even as outrage over his insolent remark grew below it.
Western education and exposure to western consciousness has its pluses and minuses. Indian schools churn out bookish if brilliant scholars. Western universities, on the other hand, offer leafy campuses, superb recreational facilities, every conceivable kind of infrastructure and a rich and varied curriculum that encourages students to think and create, not merely learn by rote.
But academic circles the world over tend to favour left-leaning ideas. Living among such values while blissfully ignorant of ground realities in the countries they left behind decades ago, is what prompts fatuous commentary by many South Asians on the countries of their birth.
So great is the eagerness to be lauded by their colleagues in their adopted lands as ‘one of them’, as ‘neutral’ and ‘fair’ towards India’s ‘evils’, that many elite Indians both within the country and overseas, myopically slam all in India that do not satisfy western left-liberal expectations. In my youth at university in Germany, I too was a fashionable dissenter. I wore a Palestinian scarf, sipped green tea, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and -- even though India had a squib of a nuclear test in 1974 -- was dead against nukes. “Atomenergie? Nein, danke!”, read a sticker on my old VW Beetle with the atomic icon in menacing purple. “Sonnenenergie” Ja, bitte !” read another on a cheerful, yellow emoticon of the sun.
On the other hand, I had grown up in army cantonments in India. My father was a military doctor. He spent long years in hospitals on war fronts at the expense of time with his own family, he was proud to wear the uniform. At Pune’s Artificial Limb Center, it was common to see soldiers hobble out on wooden legs and crutches. They would wave to my father’s car in passing, he would salute back respectfully.
Consequently and though I couldn’t understand the western disdain for “uniforms” be it the police or the army, I still sat in at protests, if only to ‘fit in’. In the Europe of the seventies, being angry at everything connected with the ‘establishment’ was de rigeur. After all, the Continent had seen two world wars and still hosted Allied army presence, complete with Pershing missiles pointed in the direction of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
India’s troops are sometimes deployed to keep peace in potentially explosive sectarian face-offs. They do so at risk to their own lives. They do so because civilian administrations have been steeped in corruption and indifference for more than six decades (though things are beginning to change under a dynamic majority government since May this year). They do so to keep 1.2 billion Indians including the country’s overseas chatterati free and safe, when the latter breeze through India in the balmy winter months on various ‘lecture-tours’.
Whenever state-owned infrastructure in India collapses, the Indian Army steps in too. Be it to rebuild a collapsed bridge, rescue trapped miners, repair a damaged road; the Indian Army is the general dogsbody in every kind of catastrophe.
It is for these reasons that western reservations about ‘armed men in uniform’, which are rooted in western history, cannot be naively applied to uniquely Indian / South Asian situations. Western armies hardly ever need to leave their barracks to combat civilian crises, because the administrative machinery in those countries is well-oiled and equipped to deal with them on its own.
South Asia is developing rapidly. There are still many infrastructural shortcomings. Growing security threats in the neighbourhood make it a potentially explosive region too. Be it in the very north of the Indian subcontinent, or its watery southern boundaries in the Indian Ocean, all South Asians would do well to factor in regional realities, not those in La-La Land.