Legislate that every Undergrad serves in the Indian Military

Written by Abheek Barman | Published on: March 9, 2019
Early February 25-26, there was a skirmish above the India-Pakistan border. One of our planes went down, its pilot captured and released a few days later by Pakistan. Ambiguity shrouds all else.

News channels

Claims about Pakistan’s casualties range from 350 potential-terrorists, leaked by unidentified sarkari ‘sources,’ to zero by BJP MP S S Ahluwalia, who says the idea was to scare, not kill. Reporters, among them two from Reuters who visited the site, note four pine trees and a crow killed in the attack.

This is irrelevant. Because the real fight was not in air, it was fought over airwaves. For 10 days after a suicide bomber killed 40 soldiers in Pulwama, Kashmir, TV studios became theatres of war. Bloodcurdling slogans like ‘revenge for Pulwama’, ‘surgical strike 2’, and ‘we want the enemy’s blood’ rent our screens.

One anchor did a show wearing faux-military fatigues, brandishing a toy gun; another, dressed similarly, crouched among some bushes – presumably in Sector 16 A, Film City, Noida – squinting at the enemy, possibly at Dharam Palace Mall. Those who pointed out war between two nuclear-armed states would vapourise both, were called ‘coward’ or ‘Paki poodle.’

After the so-called surgical strike, Republic TV ran a banner announcing ‘Titanic victory for India.’ Humourist Vir Das, irritated, tweeted, ‘The Titanic sank, you idiots.’

It’s easy to dismiss this as populist bloodlust or unintended comedy, but that won’t do. Two things are important: one, not one person prophesying war on TV has ever fought a real one, where people get hurt or killed. Two, these warmongers, unlike most real soldiers, are well-heeled, move in Scotch-and-SUV society – and upper caste.

India’s giant army, including reserves, has around 2.1 million soldiers. Of these, around 35,000 – around 1.7% of the total – are officers. The other 98%-plus do the actual, dangerous stuff of fighting. They’re drawn from India’s poorest communities and regions and, if Hindu, rank low in the caste hierarchy.

It wasn’t always so. In early and Mughal India, militaries were egalitarian: class, religion and caste didn’t matter. It was common to recruit ‘barkandaz,’ mercenaries, called ‘Turki,’ though they could have come from Central Asia, Iran or Afghanistan. When the East India Company morphed from merchant to maharaja in 1757, it followed the same principle, recruiting from its three Presidencies: Bengal, Bombay and Madras.

The Revolt of 1857-58 changed everything. It was led by the Bengal Army, whose sepoy Mangal Pandey, a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, fired the first shot at a British officer in Meerut.

Afterwards, the Crown took over from Company and decided to rebuild the military from scratch. All three Presidency armies were dissolved. Bengalis and upper castes were no longer trusted, nor recruited.

Jats and Pathans were alright. New hiring targeted the most backward areas – arid Punjab, Rajasthan, poverty-stricken Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and so on. Mahars, Dalits from Maharashtra, the community of Bhimrao Ambedkar, were promising recruits. But the best were dirt-poor mercenaries from Nepal. Whether they were Gurung or Newar or whatever, the British called them ‘Gurkhas.’

History shows poor hillmen make enduring mercenaries: Carlo Cipolla’s magisterial economic histories of Europe say, for example, that Swiss from overpopulated cantons were in high demand among ever-warring states in the 1500s and 1600s. Textiles, then as valuable as gold, was a big part of wages. This is why even today, the Vatican is protected by swank Swiss Guards.

Anyway, to put a gloss to this churn in the colonial army, by 1860 Field Marshal Frederick Roberts and his successor devised the charming theory of ‘martial races’. It said, in short, that anyone with intelligence and education was a poodle; anyone backward, illiterate and would jump when ordered, was a pit bull. It also said people in area X would always be policed by regiments from area Y. Which is why Punjabis were massacred in Jallianwala Bagh, 1919, by Gurkhas.

Independent India inherited and preserved this. Thus today, we have posh poodles with no skin in the game, goading less-privileged folks to go forth, kill and be killed from TV studios. This has to stop. Here is how to do it.

Legislate this: every undergrad will serve two years in the military, from the lowest rank. Afterward, they can stay on. If not, the rest of their education, anywhere in the world, is free. The income of any family that violates this rule will be taxed at double the highest rate.

Do we have the stomach for this? After all, nations that mandate military service include North Korea, Israel, Myanmar, Turkey, Russia and Egypt, no poster boys of democracy. Norway has it too, but it’s not a bully.

But I guarantee you this: even the threat of such a law coming into force will morph primetime pit bulls into pacifist poodles. Paranoids will turn peaceniks. And the prime minister who does this will be a dead ringer for the Peace Nobel.  

(This article was also carried in the Economic Times and is being published here with the permission of the author)