Of army camps, fortresses, scapegoats and accountability
Lt General K J Singh
Ancient scriptures articulated realistic wisdom, Veer Bhogya Vasundhara implying that brave soldiers will enjoy the privileges of universe. Chanakya, the wise sage, counselled rulers to look after their armies in billeting, emoluments and privileges. Britishers abiding by this logic, created quaint but very habitable cantonments like Mhow and Deolali with micro climate of their own, facilitating training and recuperation. The issue of military camps and their security has become relevant due to reported move to compulsorily retire some camp commanders to fix exemplary responsibility consequent to terrorist attacks.
After Independence, new set of ‘paper tigers’ emerging from files, decided to abandon seminal wisdom pushing forces to peripheral areas. Consequently, three largest, post-independence military stations, Bathinda, Hisar and Binaguri defy all planning parameters. They have extreme climate, debilitating humidity, and the largest one figures in old Punjabi expression, ‘via Bathinda’. The land allocated to Army had to be reclaimed to make it even buildable. Unfortunately, after cantonments have been developed as islands of excellence, desire now is to grab them and push Army to wilderness.
Most camps came up in pre-insurgency era, when security was elementary and routine function. Our military stations have rudimentary protection in terms of cattle fencing, without even boundary walls. This apart, they lack perimeter patrolling track for surveillance and quick reaction. The scenario is grave in stations located in insurgency affected areas. Army camps are in penny packets, posing challenges in providing separate stand-alone security grid for each pocket. In Jammu, Army is in eight pockets with highway passing through them. Ill-advised settlement of Rohingyas in proximity of Sanjuwan was flagged, but dismissed, unfortunately it served as probable launch pad for terrorist raid two years later.
Airforce stations are comparatively better off with basic boundary wall and Defence Security Corps (DSC) pickets to protect them. The main problem is encroachments, violating statutory, “no construction” buffer zone with highrise constructions overlooking these vital stations. Influential parties with right connections have stymied efforts to remove such encroachments.
Few important parameters for camp security are: First, no camp can be impregnable as history bears testimony to repeated breaching of even most formidable Berlin wall. According to official records, more than 1,00,000 people attempted to breach legendary wall, 5,000 succeeded and nearly 150 lost their lives. Second, security requires multi spectrum response with combination of technical surveillance and human element, latter include designated security and access control elements as also pro-active involvement of all inmates. Third, surveillance requires networking with civilian populace, police and intelligence agencies. The biggest deterrence is quick reaction and assured neutralization, which has exponential effect. It is best to have layered security and ideally neutralize nefarious elements even before they reach their target. Finally, guard against fortress mentality, which ties down troops in tiring repetitive activity thereby deflecting them from core functions of domination of environment and training. Such diversion furthers terrorists’ design.
The crux of camp security is inclusive people-centric approach, which at macro level translates into involvement of all agencies and people. The socio-political elements must address the Kashmir problem at its core. In all hybrid war scenarios, centre of gravity or focus must be on people but we seem to be getting caught in quagmire of fortress mentality, shifting from pro-active to defensive approach. Border guarding needs major revamping but requires complementing with multi-tiered deployment and participation of all agencies.
As Army Commander, I had to take up special drives to put together basic semblance of perimeter security. We had Depots and installations swamped by jungles. These exercises were called, paridhi suraksha (perimeter security) and swacch paridhi (clean perimeter). It simply implies keep the perimeter clean, develop patrolling track, dominate periphery with training and maintain quick response teams. Onerous responsibility of camp security has to handled in ‘mission mode’ with all hands on board yet not allowing it to overtake core functions. Theoretical studies with ambitious budgetary projections and skewed over reliance on gizmos must be supplemented with short-term jugaad solutions in the current environment of budgetary choke. At best, technical solutions can only be provided in incremental manner and these have gestation delays. Smart fences are effective but certainly not panacea and suffer degradation due to weather and require manning by trained personnel. The need is to motivate Jagruk Hindustanis (citizen warriors) like carpenter, who detected presence of terrorists much before Samba and vectored army reaction disregarding personal safety.
Armed forces unlike most other agencies have very rigorous norms of accountability, where justice is quick and punishment severe. In Army, mere court of enquiry is enough to jeopardize well-honed careers and destroy reputations. Ironically, punishment is invariably diluted or set aside by Armed Forces Tribunals and courts, who give benefit of doubt to the accused. Those at the helm must fix incorrigible ones but more important is to nurture a climate to build leaders and guard against ‘zero-error syndrome’. Responsibility in these cases is diffused and shared with elements outside Army with differential levels of accountability. Enough and more has already been meted out to camp commanders. Those advocating scapegoating may like to read the story of Col Megh Singh, creator of ‘Meghdoot Force’, fore runner of Special Forces. Despite his court-martial, Gen Harbaksh gave him responsibility and later promotion on execution of successful raids. It is hoped that wiser counsel will prevail and the issue will be left to discretion of Services.
The writer is former Army Commander, Western Command
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.