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In defense of the Military Tank display at JNU

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JNU is back in the news again, this time for a positive reason though. The JNU VC M. Jagadesh Kumar has made a request to the Centre for a static display of a military tank in the campus, which he believes “will remind thousands of students about the great sacrifices and valour of our Indian Army”.

Of course, there has been cheers, with many pointing out various static display of aircraft and tanks dotting the country, be it at universities such the Jamia Millia or even schools such as the Lawrence School, Lovedale.

But as expected, there has been opposition from some quarters, with one article making a comparison of this proposed display to the usage of tanks in China’s Tianamen Square. Some have expressed a fear that the static display may lead to jingoism, and such a display also symbolically tramples free speech and dissent.

Is the exhibition of a tank or any military equipment the harbinger of a military, jingoistic state? Is it a weapon of intimidation of young minds? The following arguments debunk that military symbols and civil society values are incompatible, especially in India.

Our Defense Services, be it the Army, the Air Force or the Navy are volunteer based, unlike at China, where military service is compulsory by law, or at North Korea where there is no escape from conscription. Our Services have a perennial shortage of officers and personnel in the other ranks. The latest figures show a shortage of 9000 officers and 45,000 personnel in other ranks. The national security scenario is not exactly rosy, and the nature of warfare is changing. The Services need the best talent to secure our borders and national interest. An exhibition of a tank, a submarine or an aircraft in a university will drive that zeal to volunteer.

Military has historically driven innovation, research and development. While it can be argued that the offshoot has been weapons for destruction, the other side of the coin is collateral benefits of such research. The German V2 rockets which rained over London during the WW2 also laid the foundations of future space programs. The ARPANET, which was a US Department of Defense project flowered into the Internet. Military armament and equipment therefore are a product of the best technologies at the time of their design. Exhibiting such equipment gives a glimpse of the technology of the present or past, and inspires young minds to drive it further. Even an exhibition of the 1960s vintage HF-24 Marut, India’s first indigenously developed fighter aircraft will inspire young students to build something better.

Training in the services is tough, and pushes young men and women to their physical and emotional limits. Successfully completing this training, arms a young person with remarkable confidence, which will stand with him or her, in peace and in war. Piloting an aircraft, navigating a submarine, or handling a tank require skill, courage, equanimity and above all discipline. The armament displays symbolize these finest qualities of a soldier, and are apt displays to enthuse young minds to take up the challenge to inculcate those qualities.

If the premise is that anything related to the military is bad, and if there is a contemptuous allusion to bullying free speech and civil society, then the argument holds no weight. For long, from 1948, we have the National Cadet Corps (NCC), again a purely voluntary corps, at schools and colleges. Generations of cadets of have been trained in small firearms, drill, gliding, basic seamanship etc. More importantly, they have been imbibed with leadership skills, and the spirit of national integration. There is absolutely no evidence of any detrimental effect on free speech, dissent and all the nice sounding things being fought for by the left at institutions such as the JNU, due to the NCC. Clearly the NCC has contributed to creating a set of disciplined and adventurous youth with the spirit of patriotism, rather than creating a set of society misfits masquerading as radical student leaders.

Display of military armament reminds us of all those who to use the cliché “who gave their today, for our today”. Woe betide a nation that does not remember its heroes and their sacrifice. As much as we remember our freedom fighters, we ought to remember the sentinels of our borders and their deeds. It is not statistics, it is not dry news reports which convey the message, it is their stories retold a countless time and their symbols which will remain etched in the collective national memory. That is the least we can do. And having these symbols at institutions of learning is the apt thing we can do, to teach our next generation.

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