India saw the creation of Cantonments under the British we then had Military Stations come up. Barrackpore in West Bengal came into being in 1765, Danapur Cantonment Bihar was next. A total of 64 such cantonments exist.
Each such Cantonment has been nurtured with the utmost care by the ‘Formations’ and the Station Commanders to create areas of green cover, cleanliness and discipline which can all be seen immediately on entering a Cantonment.
There has been a Cantonment Act and a Cantonment Board formalised and charged with the responsibility of the care, maintenance and other responsibilities. Funds are allocated by the Centre and also raised by the Cantonment Boards for use to good purpose.
The army is said to be the “Last Bastion’ for a Nation and therefore for a Government and the citizens to fall back upon in times of Crisis.
Intermingling and excessive exposure to the civil public runs the risks of:-
- Overexposure to the public resulting in the ‘dilution’ of the aura, respect and fear that deployment of the Army generates to bring any given situation quickly under control.
- Prevent acts which might compromise security, subversion of service personnel, army training activities, movement for deployment on operations/training, the security of equipment amongst others.
- The security of Families staying in Cantonments while the forces are away on deployment, especially on operations involving counter-terrorism is at serious risk.
Examples through Experience
Punjab & Kashmir
In the years 1990 to 1992, when deployed in Punjab, we had our families at Meerut and Kanpur. On both occasions, individuals working with or linked to terrorist organisations were apprehended garnering information and details of Officers, their families and locations.
Operatives managed to get close to men in Uniform under various pretexts ranging from ‘help in getting recruited’ or’ being from the same village’ and so forth. All nameplates and boards from Units, Homes were ordered to be removed and security tightened by sending back additional troops to guard such areas.
Events in Kashmir have clearly thrown open the risks to families and cantonments in the recent past.
Amritsar, Jabalpur and Ahmadabad
The Gymkhana Club has been opened for membership to Civilians for some time, links were discovered with a ‘gangster’, an encounter lead to the killing of three near Bhuj.
A second incident involved an NCO working with MES, he was caught running a business involving the sale of ‘Alcohol’ in black, the modus operandi was simple, he would bring in liquor from Rajasthan in a truck carrying construction material, dump the construction material on-site and hide the ‘alcohol’ in an ‘Old Grant Bungalow’!
Amritsar, Jabalpur and Ahmadabad
Saw a demand by civilians seeking permission to take their ‘morning & evening’ walks in the cantonment! This was raised in the ’Civil-Military Liaison Conference’.
The claim for taking walks was based on the fact that in contrast to civil areas, cantonments were well laid out, neat, green and reflected a healthy environment which residents living close by wanted to enjoy!
In response the Station Commander explained the need to prevent such activities and informed the participants that for reasons of ‘security, upkeep, cleanliness’ civilians may not be allowed.
He further emphasised that the Civil Administration would do well to ‘plan and maintain’ neat, clean and green towns/cities instead, he closed by saying that the Army had taken great care in planning and development of Cantonments over 60 odd years while the Civil Administration had messed up things!
The recent and ongoing pandemic brings out another serious flaw in opening Cantonments. All Army Units and Formations went into a ‘Force Preservation’ mode, possible only due to closed cantonments and military stations. What would have happened if the Forces had taken ill by contracting COVID-19 and we had China/Pakistan showing aggression along the borders?
Representations and beyond: Cities and Cantonments
Military establishments have been on the back foot for several years now, with various training facilities including ‘field firing ranges, small arms ranges’ being closed due to construction within the danger templates in clear violation of rules. No signs of improvement in the status is visible; on the contrary, more land grab can be expected.
Indifferent planning and vested interests of Land Mafia, Builders and some MPs/Politicians, has resulted in the exponential expansion of towns/cities in a haphazard manner, almost assimilating Cantonments within them.
Representations by Cantonment Boards/Military Authorities went ignored.
A unilateral decision by the Defence Minister without taking the views of the Army hierarchy invited a major backlash and hue and cry from all quarters including Families and Veterans.
It was seen as an effort to appease civilians residing in Cantonments, vote banks for MPs and MLAs, some of them even held land in the cantonments or were in league with Builders/Developers.
Apart from sending a letter to the defence minister, the families residing in Cantonments decided to meet her and press their demands on the lack of security which would flow from her decision.
Most families are neither residents of the state nor know the local language. They reside in Cantonments mainly for educational purposes and the fact that their husbands last served here.
Further, within cantonments, they feel secure being alone with small children, in confidence that their basic amenities would be cared for. Any militant strike on families always impacts the morale of the soldier.
While the army avoids interacting with politicians, the DEO interacts with them and civilian residents as they are part of his responsibilities. Being a civilian cadre, the DEO is naturally influenced by political authority and pressures.
Since security is not their responsibility, they would invariably seek to support the public against the army, rather than processing the army’s viewpoint.
The amendment to the Cantonment Act vide Bill Number Bill No. 252 of 2018 is fraught with the risks of bringing in more Political Control to weaken the fabric of Security’ Insertion of new Chapter IVA. Constitution of the Inspection and promotion Committee, introduced in the Lok Sabha.
The Committee shall consist of:-
(a) the Union Minister of Home Affairs, ex-officio Chairperson; (b) the Union Minister of Defense, ex-officio member; (c) Chief Minister of States with Cantonment Boards, ex-officio members; (d) two members of Parliament, one from the House of the People and one from the Council of States having experience in dealing with the Cantonment Board area, and possibility of an increased number of civilians through Group Housing, declaring select areas within Cantonments as ‘Civilian Areas’ which will be administrated by a separate Civilian Committee as per Clause Number 48.
While clause number 22 permits Group housing schemes. A Board, may in accordance with the bye-laws framed for the purpose, allow group housing schemes for construction of houses.
It is for the Government and Administration to ensure that the Defence forces of India which have been a ‘pillar’ of strength for India in her times of need are not dismembered for favour of ‘personal ‘interests against National Interests.
However, the message being sent out is one that ‘strikes at the very heart ‘of every soldier, officer, Veteran and family; that the government has no care for its soldiers or families but only for those from whom it could obtain a few votes.
Is there a need for amending the Cantonment Act at all? Has the Government made public the weakness in the existing Act/Provisions? If not then why not do so and justify the changes required, before making any amendments?
(A veteran with 35 years of military experience under his belt, Brigadier Sharma, was commissioned into the JAT regiment. He has had rich exposure to the travails of the country in the remotest of areas. He has seen closely the happenings in J&K, Punjab, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram in operational circumstances.
In addition, he has had the proud distinction of being, selected to raise the NSG and being a squadron commander with the 51 SAG, an Instructor in the Indian Military Academy, Colonel General Staff of an active division, Commander of a Brigade in super HAA, Directing Staff in Army War college, and the Brig Gen Staff responsible for facilitating the training in various Military Establishments including the School for Counter Insurgency & Terrorism & Jungle Warfare.
He has been a member of study groups on China as well as Officer Cadre management in his time. This article was first published in the 'Financial Express' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')