THE ARMED FORCES IN THE TIME OF CORONA…

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This piece is intended for the Indian public at large. Before setting off, let me remind the reader that the armed forces belong to the nation – they belong as much to you as they belong to those who wear the olive greens, whites or sky blues. They are as much in the fight against the Coronavirus as are several other medical, humanitarian, paramilitary, police and civil services. ‘Aid to civil authorities’ is one of their constitutionally mandated roles which they perform through the year in different forms ranging from providing relief during natural disasters (along with other agencies), pulling children out of wells and recovering dead bodies from the sea. Discipline and efficiency characterise the working of the armed forces and it is no surprise therefore, that they deliver well beyond expectations.

For this reason, there is often an early clamour to deploy the armed forces during every difficult situation. The COVID 19 pandemic is no exception. There are people who think, including some in the military, that the armed forces should be called in for tasks ranging from medical to administrative to law and order. The armed forces are deeply involved in several ways already like creation of field hospitals, supporting medical research, producing innovative solutions in support of medicare, manufacturing masks and protective equipment, caring for daily wage earners in certain areas, creation of quarantine facilities, assisting civil administration with human resource, training non-medical personnel on essential paramedical care for COVID 19 and looking after its own personnel, veterans and their dependents in addition to keeping its own vast geographical areas sanitised. While doing this, the country expects them to perform their primary role as well – in which failure is just not an option.

We must know whom we are fighting other than the Coronavirus. There is an internal battle and an external battle. We will be totally deaf, dumb and blind if we have not yet realised who our enemies are – both internally and externally. These enemies do not always wear uniform, carry arms or follow the laws of armed conflict. They are individuals, countries and interest groups which are inimical to the Indian state. They will use asymmetry, disruption and pressure tactics as their weapons at a time when we are acutely vulnerable. The police and paramilitary forces are professionals trained in the mechanics of internal battle. They are trained and equipped for internal security tasks involving our own citizens. The armed forces, on the other hand, are trained to fight an external aggressor and defeat it by all means at their disposal – shoot to kill, in other words. Ordinarily therefore, they do not exercise policing powers and require invoking the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 when deployed to maintain public order. While the country battles the virus, the armed forces continue their vigil over the land borders, maritime areas and national airspace. This is the time for adventurism by inimical forces and the armed forces must ensure no such attempt succeeds.

That notwithstanding, the armed forces will do everything in their power to support, bolster and enhance the national effort against the pandemic. If necessary and as the very last resort, they could be called in for maintaining public order. If that happens, expect no niceties because it would mean that internal security mechanisms have failed and desperate times will then call for desperate measures.

Let us all be soldiers in the internal battle. Leave the armed forces to do what they know best in the confidence that they will appear whenever called in to assist the civil administration – like the proverbial ‘Genie of the Lamp’.

08 Apr 20

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