World Culture Festival: Our armymen are not POWs, and this is not the bridge on the River Kwai - Firstpost
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World Culture Festival: Our armymen are not POWs, and this is not the bridge on the River Kwai

I am all for the 'art of living' (as opposed to dying, I guess), but using the armed forces personnel for building bridges for what is essentially a private civilian function is going well beyond the boundaries of propriety.

This is not what the army is for and by ordering them to take this contract, it is tantamount to using slave labour since there is no payment to the ‘labourer’. The advantage accrues to the organisers, which in this case is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation. If you could build five bridges with civilian contractors why give the army the onus to build the sixth pontoon.

It was in 1959 that Operation Amar was conducted in the Ambala cantonment, when the might of the famous 4 Infantry Division was pressed into service to build housing for its personnel. There, at least, was the saving grace of the men constructing roofs for themselves and their comrades. Since then, the armed forces have stepped into the breach on several occasions in crises — both natural and man-made, been there for their civilian brothers and sisters in times of trouble, and performed impressive acts of heroism.

Building bridges for a private function is a gross misuse of the army. Representational image. AFP

Building bridges for a private function is a gross misuse of the army. Representational image. AFP

Landslides, earthquakes, floods or any other such situation and nobody would question it. Even if the city of Delhi currently playing host to 10 unidentified terrorists was saturated by an army flag march to flush them out, it would be within their purview.

Come to think of it, that is what they should be doing.

But to take a private ‘cultural’ function at a time when 'culture' is a word with ominous connotations, and revive a sort of 21st Century Woodstock and force the army to do ‘dyadi’ (daily labour) is unacceptable.

One is hard pressed to understand how the defence minister, the defence secretary and the army chief thought this was fine.

They should at least announce that the army contingent is being paid for this work. And it is not free.

Fine, you don’t give the money to the men, but give it to the headquarters of the regiment or battalion involved. For example, if you wish to hire the Signals Mess in Delhi for a wedding you get it for a price. If you want the military band to play for 60 minutes at your private function you pay around Rs 25,000 or thereabouts, and this money is used for the soldiers' welfare.

To not pay is equivalent to exploitation. It would be a step in the right direction to clarify that the AOL Foundation is coughing up adequate remuneration for the time and effort. Instead of pooh-poohing the criticism, it would have been salutary to show the invoice. Not that it makes it right, just that at least there is compensation.

The argument that the armed forces are playing a role in a three-day fest that enhances the image of the country is also not a justification. It does not matter how beautiful the event is or what revenue it brings, misusing the armed forces is just that — misusing the armed forces. That this is a bridge over troubled waters what with environmentalist going nuts over the damage to the ecological balance on the banks of the Yamuna only makes things worse. If something goes wrong, will they make the army the scapegoat?

We cannot romanticise this travesty. These are soldiers, not prisoners of war and this is not the River Kwai.

How was this request made and why was it sanctioned?

There is no way to explain the use of military men and materials in a civilian enterprise and bring them down to the level of daily workers.

There should be a ban on this sort of commandeering of forces just because of clout and connections.

Bad move.

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