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India: JNU And The Armed Forces – OpEd

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Why are retired military officers protesting against the actions of some of the sloganeering students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (JNU)? Is it because by serving in the defence forces of the country or donning a uniform makes them more patriotic or nationalist (take your pick) than these students at the university. Is raising a few slogans against the nation an indication that you love and care for your country less? Definitely not!

It is also unlikely that the defence officers ‘concern’ over the developments in JNU comes from the fact that on graduating from the National Defence Academy, they are awarded bachelor’s degrees by the JNU. Even more unlikely is the political motive being ascribed by referring to them as members of BJP’s ex-servicemen cell. However, there may be a more nuanced and meaningful explanation for the actions of these ex-servicemen.

In a comment on IDSA website, Lt General VK Ahluwalia (Retd), former Army Commander, highlights two issues in this regard; first, that the youth are quite impressionable and second, they lack an understanding of the rudimentary aspects of national security and its impact on society. The first issue regarding the youth and youthfulness is best described by BS Raghavan in his take on the same event as “idealism, intensity of emotions, acute sense of right and wrong and a burning passion for public causes.”

To understand the General’s point regarding national security, it would be appropriate to get a few aspects of the student’s protest at JNU out of the way, which is that incidents/events of similar nature have been taking place for years in the university; they are confined to the four walls of the campus and that, they are now coming to the fore because of vested interests. The surfeit of videos of the event including the ‘doctored’ ones and their proliferation underlines the fact that the manner in which information is shared, consumed and (mis)used has changed, unlike anything in the past. News is no longer the preserve of journalists nor is it sieved through the wisdom of a seasoned news editor. It is a phenomenon here to stay and each one of us has to adjust to its impact on the society.

Let us read down the ‘national security’ aspect to the level of the operational environment of our security forces in say Jammu and Kashmir (J&K); where, as events in JNU were coming to a head, an anti-terrorist operation at Pampore was underway. There were reports that while the operation was in progress local villagers had raised pro-independence and pro-Pakistan slogans. After the operations ended, there was news from another village, where the villagers refused to allow the bodies of the slain terrorists from being buried in the village burial ground. These reports highlight the intensity, diversity and the extent of polarisation of local sentiments and opinions, which are directed at the security apparatus.

There are also reports of increasing incidents in J&K of civilians of forming human shields or rushing at the security forces to provide protection to terrorists during operations. Only few days ago a young boy and girl were killed rather tragically in one such incident. Contrary to public perception these ‘peripheral’ incidents impact the security forces.

So narrow and closed is the ambit of our debates and deliberations that in years of discussions on human rights violations and excess in insurgency areas by security forces, not one “expert” has ever thought it prudent to highlight and discuss what goes through the mind of a soldier when he accidentally kills or even witnesses civilian casualties that occur as collateral damage during conduct of anti-terror operations. A soldier is seen as an insensitive instrument of the state. The shrieks, cries and laments from the families of the civilians killed do not just bounce off the soldiers protective body armour. In an operational area these incidents traumatise and stress a soldier as much as the anxiety of his own well-being.

The participation of women and youth complicates the operating environment for the security forces and this is the very reason why they abhor such situations and terrorists and their supporters on the other hand, seek to create one. While local reactions in such situations are factored-in by the security forces, it is this ‘external stimulus’ which adds to soldiers disquiet.

Therefore it came as no surprise when Syed Geelani-led Hurriyat Conference called for a state-wide band (shut-down) in the wake of the events at JNU and Shabir Shah referred to rule of ‘Brahmin elite’ in India and their efforts to muzzle the voice of the minority and lower caste in India.

Since there is nothing such as “in-campus proceedings” any longer, students at JNU have to be cognizant and cautious of the unintended consequences of their “academic deliberations” in a ‘connected world’. Perhaps, much in the same way as care is given by a director of a movie with smoking scenes is ensuring that his work does not end up condoning a harmful activity.

The reactions of the retired defence personnel to the events in JNU are not an attempt to tar or deride the protesting JNU students as ‘anti-nationals’, or to suggest that students should in any way forsake or “enjoy” less their right of freedom of speech. It is a plea, that for the sake of their countrymen in the security forces, they should exercise their right to free speech in a more responsible manner.

*Monish Gulati
is the Associate Director (Strategic Affairs) at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at: [email protected] This article was published by South Asia Monitor.

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Monish Gulati

Monish Gulati is an independent analyst based in New Delhi.. He can be reached at [email protected]

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