It all began from Secunderabad Cantonment where civilians residing nearby objected to closure of some roads by the Army authorities earlier this month. The matter was picked up by elected representatives and soon landed on the desk of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. At her behest, the defence ministry issued orders to the Army to open roads in 62 Cantonment Boards across the country for civilians.
The news was met with anger by the defence community because of security concerns. A group of wives of Army officers even met the minister to resist the move. And because serving officers could not oppose the orders as they are a disciplined lot, defence veterans took up the fight. The Ministry has decided that the orders will be reviewed in a month’s time and that the Army will be permitted some discretion in how it implements them.
On the face of it, the restriction on civilians to use Cantonment roads as they go about their daily routine seem unwarranted and their anger is justified to an extent. As someone who has lived in Army cantonments all my life, I have a couple of observations. Ever since I can remember, Cantonments were usually situated far from civilian populated areas. Except for the civilian staff who worked in the establishments there, few citizens from the Civil Lines bothered to come. These were Cantonment Boards set up by the British. The old, British Cantonments in places like Ambala, Deolali, Jalandhar and even Delhi were open spaces where access to residential areas was rarely restricted, except for the military establishments within, which were guarded at all times. The families who lived there had to go to markets and schools in the civilian areas because very few facilities existed in the Cantonments back then. Some stations like Jalandhar and Ambala shared their clubs with civilian bureaucracy and over the years, a sprinkling of businessmen and professionals too managed to get membership at these exclusive institutions.
The present fracas has shown that vote bank politics trumps the concerns of the Armed Forces. The British system of keeping the military in relative isolation from the civilian world is also being severely tested
Cut to the present where rapid urbanisation has led to mushrooming colonies, and a sharp growth in the population of civilians living near the Cantonment boundaries. The Cantonments have also developed into mini-townships with shopping centres and commercial spaces and also house some of the best Army schools. That they also have the best roads and well-maintained parks - and in places like Chandimandir Cantonment in Haryana, which retains part of the forest from which it was carved - is another plus point. Not only are the boundaries between civilian and military areas in rapidly expanding towns narrowing, but in many cases have also begun to overlap.
Nevertheless, I cannot remember any place where civilians were banned outright from entering these premises. Even in Chandimandir, headquarters of the Army’s crucial Western Command and which is a closed Cantonment with guarded entry gates, any civilian without a valid pass and who wishes to enter was able to do so by registering at the gates. The rule to register applies even to those who reside inside but may have forgotten to carry their passes on a given day. Since I lived in Chandimandir for several years, I know that entering through the Cantonment gates a few days before Republic Day or Independence Day invariably took longer than usual because the guards were especially alert and would frequently ask to inspect our car boots. It's a small price to pay for securing the premises from potential sabotage and terrorist attacks. Untoward attacks impact the morale and prestige of the forces and the nation.
The argument made by Army officers' wives, particularly those whose husbands are in conflict areas like Jammu and Kashmir or the Northeast, that they and their children are vulnerable to attacks if the restrictions are removed, has some substance. Every Cantonment has accommodation for such families and the soldiers are able to perform their duties in high-risk areas only because they have the assurance that the organisation is protecting and looking after their wives and children.
But we are a democracy, and the present fracas has shown that vote bank politics trumps the concerns of the Armed Forces. The British system of keeping the military in relative isolation from the civilian world is also being severely tested. It served the nation well in all these decades after Independence, its usefulness having been proved repeatedly in times of internal strife and tension. The gap between the military and the civilian population has narrowed not just physically but psychologically too, as the Army and the Air Force are now increasingly drawn into internal security duties.
Though the rumpus over opening Cantonment roads may have died down for now, unless the government comes up with a lasting solution to address this contentious issue in a rapidly urbanising and increasingly voluble nation, spats like these will only grow.