Why India should introduce compulsory military service

26 November 2016 Ajay Kamalakaran
Russia is one of many countries that have conscription, albeit just for men. There are plenty of arguments for and against the practice in the country, but it’s hard to argue against a system that brings far more benefits to young people than just serving the country for two years.
Soldiers
Military service is compulsory for men in Russia. Source: mil.ru

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the Indian Navy Half Marathon, which was organized by the Western Naval Command in Mumbai. Members of the general public were encouraged to participate, and there was a good mix of civilians and defence personnel taking part in the race. 

The Indian Navy also tried to use the run as an occasion to encourage new recruits both for short service and as permanent employees. The navy band played some nice music after the run and the event tried to showcase the fun aspects of life as a member of the armed forces. The Indian armed forces are a professional and disciplined unit that attract some of the best officer and soldier-cadre candidates, but unfortunately young Indians miss out on a life-changing opportunity because of the lack of compulsory military service in the country.

Conscription for men is a part and parcel of Russian life. Being a highly patriarchal society, women are excused from service in the country, unlike Israel where everyone has to serve. A large number of my Russian friends have served in the army and it’s easy to tell the difference between them and Indian men their age who haven’t.

In India, middle class parents encourage their children to drown themselves in studies at the cost of everything else so that they can enrol in the best university and then get a great job and then get married! Boys, as a result, are spoiled to such an extent that they’ve never done a single household activity well into their 20s. This is unimaginable in a country like Russia where military service, at least partly, ensures that a young man has a basic level of discipline.

I once had to share a hostel room in Italy with an upper middle class young man from Mumbai. The son of two doctors, he was a bright student but never ever had to clean his own bedroom. Needless to say, he kept our room in a terrible mess, and I had to remind him on numerous occasions that his servants didn’t work in Tuscany! This is exactly the kind of person who needs two years in the army. A good army officer would have figuratively and literally knocked some sense into this “studious boy.”

Another good thing about military service is that it is a great leveller. You can come from a rich or poor background, any ethnic or religious community (and in the case of India, any linguistic background) and you’re treated the same way. The time in the armed forces helps mould young people and makes them more tolerant and accommodative. It’s no wonder that armed forces personnel are the least bigoted (or communal) people in all of India. Many Italian commentators hailed the role of compulsory military service (discontinued in 2004) in integrating the people of the country that spoke various different dialects.

Of course, the Russian armed forces are not utopian units by any means. There have been complaints of hazing  (ragging), abuse of power and even favouritism when it comes to the draft with children of the elite and influential escaping service. There’s also a very valid argument about the fact that there’s mandatory service for women. Mild reforms would fix this otherwise excellent system in Russia, even as the country explores the option of professionalizing its army.

I once asked an Israeli colleague why he was such a strong proponent of obligatory military service. He replied that the country constantly faced an existential threat with hostile neighbours that had an agenda of wiping the country off the map. In all fairness, India has a rogue state as a neighbour that has similar aims as those that hate Israel. If the situation ever deteriorated to the point of war, then having a large pool of trained young men and women would work to India’s advantage.

And for peacetime, India would obviously benefit from having young people who had to undergo the rigours of military training for a couple of years. Even if just a small percentage of those who served in the armed forces maintain the discipline that was imparted on them, we’d have a much larger number of healthy citizens. There are false arguments claiming democracies don’t have conscription but it’s a well-known fact that many European countries had compulsory military service until very recently. One can easily tell the difference between those who served in the army and the careless and carefree European millennials who in many ways are just as lazy and spoilt as their counterparts in India.

Tailpiece:

There are growing calls for professionalization of the Russian armed forces, and this is one area where Indian expertise can come in hand for Russia. Both countries would be better off with professional armed forces that had a proper system of compulsory military service in place. I’d also vouch for the Israeli non-discriminatory approach.

Views expressed in this column are personal.

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