The Telegraph, Thursday, January 04, 2007
The skirmish between the police personnel and the army during New Year’s eve in Calcutta has jolted the entire nation. It has brought to the fore the vices prevailing in the army yet again. The vandalism carried out by a group of army men while trying to rescue their fellow officers, who were locked up in the Park street police station on charges of misbehaving with a woman, will linger in public memory as long as the media will remain interested in the news for its sensational content.
This incident will strengthen the negative image of the army, especially among those who have been victims of atrocities committed by army men. Men in uniform have often been involved in bullying civilians. In January 2005, nine soldiers had shoved five passengers off a speeding train in Uttar Pradesh. The following year, in the month of March, an army officer attacked an employee of the Calcutta airport after a dispute over parking.
In this context, one needs to mention the fact that the armed forces in India have been given certain coercive powers by the parliament. Take for instance, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. This Act, passed by the parliament in 1958, invests the army with an unchallenged authority to arrest and kill people while discharging duty. This Act has been exploited by the army in the North-east, especially in Manipur. A few years ago, a group of armed soldiers burst into the home of thirty-two year-old Thangjam Manorama, tortured, raped and then murdered her. The United Nations’ human rights committee had pointed out that certain sections of AFSPA, which grant the army unrestricted power to kill, is incompatible with the articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that has been ratified by India. However, no government has come forward to repeal this piece of legislation.
It is necessary for army men to possess mental toughness and a strong physique. After all, no nation can win wars with a lily-livered army. The requirements of the job have made the prevalent culture in the defence forces largely masculine in nature. This has led to uncomfortable questions regarding the place of women in the army. The suicide of Sushmita Chakraborty a few months back had raised doubts whether the potential of women personnel were being fully realized in the armed forces.
A few sporadic incidents, including the one in Calcutta, is unlikely to tarnish the image of the defence forces. The army has been called upon to perform various tasks time and again. It is engaged in emergency peace time operation in many parts of the country. It had also done a commendable job in rescuing people and distributing aid after the tsunami struck two years ago. Besides, it should also be remembered that ordinary people are able to live in peace because the army has been guarding the frontiers, braving adversities like the cold in Siachen or violent deserts storms on the western borders. And, unlike the armed forces of neighbouring countries, the Indian defence forces have never been involved in anti-establishment activities like military coups.
Yet, the incident in Calcutta calls for some changes within the army establishment. It is necessary to increase the number of trained professional psychologists, who can offer useful advice to armymen who lead stressful lives. More women should also be recruited in the army to do away with stereotypical gender images and counterbalance the overwhelming male presence.
The police and the army need learn to work in harmony with each other. There is little doubt about the fact that society cannot do without either of these two institutions. The powers that be should realize that it is society which suffers everytime the police or the army crosses over the line of acceptable behaviour .