WAR WIDOWS NEED HELP – BUT WITH DIGNITY

The controversy over Pakistani actors being cast in an Indian film as related to Karan Johar’s pre- Diwali production “Ai Dil Hai Mushkil’ (ADHM) had many familiar elements that reflect the uglier face of Indian politics and the manner in which sanctity for the law of the land is placed on the back-burner for short-term political expediency. The MNS, a local Mumbai party stoked the post Uri sentiment in the country and wanted ADHM to be banned since it had Pakistani actors in the cast. Many voices were raised in the country – both for and against the MNS stand – and this would have remained a domestic Mumbai matter but for an anomalous development that brought the Indian army into the unsavoury MNS-ADHM grid.

A group of film producers sought the intervention of the CM of Maharashtra to enable the release of the film – given the sizeable amount of money that had been spent on it and what followed was the anomalous development. After the meeting with CM Fadnavis on October 22, Raj Thackeray, the MNS leader stated: “All the producers who have Pakistani artists in their film will as penance have to pay some money. I suggested Rs 5 crore per film… and to give the money to the Army welfare fund.”

That this amounted to diverting extortion money to the army triggered considerable anguish within the ‘fauj’ and many veterans expressed their dismay. No amount of sophistry from Mumbai could ‘sweeten’ the offer and it compelled the government in Delhi to intervene and engage in damage control. On October 25, at the Naval Commanders Conference in Delhi, RM Manohar Parrikar clarified that any donation to the Army had to be “voluntary” and that he does not appreciate the “holding of someone’sneck.” This rejection of extortion money by the ‘fauj’ and appropriately conveyed by the Minister is welcome but this controversy also draws attention to some larger issues.

It is a reality that the Indian military as an institution has been dealt with in a shabby manner by the political leadership of the country. At the time of writing this comment,the new rules regarding equivalence in the Ministry of Defence between service personnel and their civilian counterparts have been announced and point to this egregious trend. Disability pensions and related benefits have been revised to the detriment of the soldier – and yes, the welfare and status of the widow of an Indian combat veteran can definitely be improved upon – but not in the ADHM manner. What has been suggested as ‘penance’ by the MNS is rank extortion money – albeit brokered by the Chief Minister – but it still remains the equivalent of the ‘hafta’ payment that the hapless Indian citizen knows all too well.

Post the Uri terror attack and the Indian response through a surgical strike, there has been an undesirable contour and pitch to the prevailing public discourse on nationalism, patriotism and what constitutes national security.The opposition parties have accused the ruling BJP led NDA government of seeking to gain political mileage from the post Uri operation and introduce a militaristic jingoism into the national mood. This is an issue where the political parties will have to evolve a modusvivendi and draw their own ‘Lakshman Rekhas’.

Democratic leaders do seek to gain electoral mileage from military victories and both PM Indira Gandhi (1971 Bangladesh war) and PM Margaret Thatcher (1982 Falklands war) are case in point. However, imprudent initiatives to involve the military directly for political advantage have been discretely but firmly resisted. The Emergency experience with PM Indira Gandhi at thehelm in 1975 and more recently the 1999 Kargil war when PM Vajpayee prudently kept the fauj out of the election rhetoric are illustrative. Former Army Chief General VP Malik has spoken about the latter experience. I recall a conversation with late Lt. Gen. AN Vohra, then VCOAS during the Emergency, who recounted the manner in which PM Indira Gandhi reined in her son Sanjay Gandhi and the RM of the day Bansi Lal from dragging the fauj into the political domain in a direct and thereby damaging manner.

The welfare of the wounded Indian soldier and the families of those who lay their lives in combat must be addressed and redressed urgently – but not through political parties that flout the law and generate extortion money.The silver lining of the MNS-ADHM controversy is the attention it has focused on the need to improve the welfare and fiscal assistance for battle casualties and families of those who have died in combat/ operations. RM Parrikar stated that the concept behind the newly created Battle Casualty Fund was to ensure that all those citizens who wanted to donate voluntarily for the welfare of the family of martyrs could do so. He added that this new scheme would be managed by the Defence Ministry with assistance from the AG’s branch. While this scheme may take time to translate into tangible benefit for those who need this assistance the most – perhaps the Army’s regimental centres could create their own Aadhar card equivalent data bases and identify the widows/families in their own ‘biradari’ who are the most vulnerable. The fiscal support can then be generated and my sense is that Bollywood will step forward – voluntarily.


Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He was previously Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and prior to that he headed the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)
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