by Uttam Sengupta

Since what America thinks today, India must think tomorrow, the press conference on Friday addressed by the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat (when is he getting promoted as Field Marshal?) in the company of the three services chiefs should not have come as a surprise.

US President Donald Trump had announced on April 23 that thunder birds of the US Air Force would streak through the sky across the United States to thank medical professionals fighting the coronavirus. The White House explained that although each flying hour for a squadron would cost $ 60,000 (Washington Post put the cost of flying hour for each F-16 at $20,000) or ₹45 lakhs in Indian Rupees, there would be no extra burden on the taxpayers. It was already budgeted and the planes would be making up for exercises put off by the pandemic.

So, when the services chiefs announced in New Delhi on Friday that Indian Air Force planes would fly past on Sunday from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat to salute the ‘corona warriors’, it should have come as no surprise. Flower petals would be showered on select hospitals and army bands will play in almost every district. Indian Navy will light up its ships and naval helicopters will take off to shower petals on select hospitals on Sunday.

It is possible that the expenses were all budgeted and that it would actually boost the morale of the medical professionals, who are bearing the brunt of the deadly virus. But whether the medical professionals are excited or not, the few army and air force officers I spoke to are seething with indignation. “This does nothing to boost our morale; it looks like a political orchestra and defence services are being used as pawns. We look foolish,” said a young serving officer.

While discussing the issue with a few veterans, I drew their attention to what Sunanda K Datta-Ray had written in The Telegraph last month. Pointing out that China had sent 10,000 troops to Hubei province to assist civil authorities fight the coronavirus and the British Army had deployed 20,000 soldiers to assist the National Health Service in UK, he had suggested that it was time for the Indian Army to step in.

“The army can pitch tent and set up camps for stranded labourers. Military trucks and lorries can facilitate their repatriation. Experience of langars would enable kitchens to serve wholesome inexpensive food. The military can even police slums that house 24 per cent of the population to ensure social-distancing and hygiene in general to avoid a second wave,” is what Datta-Ray wrote before concluding by saying, “Swords are not easily beaten into ploughshares. But reports suggest troops are laying aside their guns to help out peacefully also in Israel, France, Mexico and Switzerland.”

I suggested to the veterans that the Army could put up make-shift isolation wards in every district –they have put up a few at Bikaner, Manesar and other places—set up tent cities to quarantine people and even put up special , temporary hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

The reaction of the veterans was one of shocked outrage. “While civilians lock themselves up to stay safe, you want our troops to risk their lives? This would demoralize them and we have been saying all along that this is not our job. Don’t involve us in cleaning the mess created by you,” said one.

But soldiers have helped in the past in time of natural calamity? And even now troops in various countries are engaged in helping health workers, I pointed out. This provoked another veteran to tell me bluntly, “If thousands of civilians lie dead and you have nobody to lift the bodies, we will be the first to volunteer. But don’t drag us to do your job.”

All the veterans and the two serving officers I spoke to had harsh and uncomplimentary things to say about the Chief of Defence Services.

The harshest comment was, “General Rawat has reduced the army to a circus”.

Has he?