Maverick: In Arm’s Way
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Oct. 16, 2007
What were the authorities in the armed forces thinking about when they asked Vivek Oberoi to join the Territorial Army? His father has been quick to assert, “Of course, Vivek won’t stop acting. He will join the Army on an honorary basis.”
The Territorial Army is indeed a buffer unit and operative during peace-time, but can be called upon during emergencies. Even if the actor gets recruited in one of the non-departmental units that cater for urban requirements, he will have to train on weekends throughout the year. Will the Army, that tom-toms its discipline, make exceptions? And if they need recruits why can they not tap the thousands of educated unemployed in the country?
The above-mentioned bit of information is particularly important in view of the fact that this year itself over 1,500 officers from the Army, Navy and Airforce have applied for premature release or retirement. The private sector awaits them with its fat pay packets.
The Vivek Oberoi honorary deal is a stinging slap and a total farce. People who have spent years want to leave because they do not have enough compensation. They are not endorsing colas and toothpastes and they are not coming back from the “ashes” (a typically weak tabloidy pun); they probably joined the Army with some ideals, like say teachers and doctors do. No, I refuse to talk about “doing something for the nation”. The nation has been sitting and fighting internal battles, protecting places of worship, deploying forces to lathi-charge morchas and manage devotees during festivals.
Most of us have a rather filmi and flimsy image of Armymen as the most respected professionals. People look up to them, think they are incorruptible and make us feel proud. That’s what surveys tell us. That’s what happens even in clubs smelling of old wood where a retired Armyman with his gin and tonic is looked upon with awe even if all he is doing is snoozing in a lounge chair or cracking off-colour jokes.
Some years ago I had met a particularly weird specimen of the species. Honoured and feted for sending his boys to ‘go for the kill’ he had transformed into a caricature. Yet, Colonel saab was a hero to youngsters, not because of what he did on the Front but because he talked rather loftily about the two pigeons he had shot dead in mid-flight with an air gun.
Two birds had slumped to the ground and Colonel saab had examined their plump flesh and wiped off the blood that had stained his fingers on his trousers and salivated over the possibility of a delicious meal.
He told the kids so, and they looked with wonderment, and I thought about the sort of hunger in people’s bellies. What kind of role model did they find in this Armyman – the patriot, the fighter, the raconteur, the wimp, the fool? What appealed to them – a man who had been isolated from their world or the chest-thumping victor? Did they believe he was for real or was he play-acting? Which would they have preferred, anyway?
If we were to take the Vivek Oberoi example, it would be the latter. The Army has to live out a fantasy of an imagined war-like situation. It has been a while since we went to a real big battle.
The problem is that peace does not suit them. The most obvious reason why men in uniform appeal is because they ooze power. People like to have someone to look up to, to feel confident that they will never be harmed. As a matter of fact, the power rubs of on those the powerful deign to associate with. For example, there is no reason why Army wives should follow a strict hierarchy, but their very position gives them this advantage. Look at the Army ‘brats’ who are into modelling and acting; they suddenly begin wearing a halo only because they have an Army background. What? Spanking clean cantonment, Army school, baked beans on toast, waltzing on powdered dance floors? There is a ghettoisation of sorts.
We are living in such a dream world of celluloid and televised gunfire that we don’t realise that the Army has become one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. There are cases of sexual harassment, of murder, of abuse of power. Not everyone can accumulate assets worth Rs. 50 crore as a serving major-general did and was discovered by the CBI. The small-time players indulge in small-time activities – sell rationed liquor and even high-altitude clothing meant for soldiers are sold by their own officers in the general market. A rather pathetic case was discovered in the Udhampur-based Northern Command where Army personnel were given show cause notices for supplying eggs lighter in weight than Army specifications; yes, that too is specified. What kind of minds can think up such devious ways of cheating?
Is it only money? After all, 50 per cent of the defence budget goes in salaries and other expenses for the soldiers. The problem is that a status quoism is thrust upon them of subservience to a goal and ideology they may not believe in. The number of soldiers who commit suicide or are killed by their colleagues exceed those killed by enemy fire.
If only we stopped glorifying the profession and treated it as another job, then perhaps there would be less pressure on the need to be macho. Trust an American millionaire Charles Burnett III to celebrate his 51st birthday in a Hampshire village by recreating the World War 11 theme. His guests were dressed in war gear, and there were low-flying planes. tanks and battle re-enactments. The prettifying of military might has never been so potently puff-cake.
Our boys are trying a reality version by roping in an actor.