Lalitha Sridhar on the army's facilitative role in Ladakh
July 2002: "The strongest force in our country is inertia," says the man who took all of seventeen months to make a success of Operation Sadbhavana in Ladakh. Lieutenant General Arjun Ray, VSM, does not mince words. He uses them as weapons in a bloodless war he seems to be winning. "Sadbhavana was existing before. I only reinvented it. It was discussed and endorsed by the upper echelons. I scripted it myself. Yes, it was very difficult to convince people that the armed forces have a role to play in nation building. But every person in the defence is a citizen first and a soldier second."
Operation Sadbhavana envisaged the army functioning as a ‘facilitator’ in the thrust areas of primary education, secondary and tertiary health care, community development and empowerment of women. There are 16 Sadbhavana Schools which provide free meals and use computers extensively "with a student-computer ratio better than even the UK". Besides giving scholarships to students from economically deprived backgrounds, the schools have a maulvi and a lama teaching religion.
Other highlights include inclusive education for mentally and physically challenged children (who form 10% of the population, the highest in the country). Three levels of enhanced healthcare with free treatment and extensive follow-up include flying patients to and fro in army aircraft, gratis. Community development initiatives have provided rural electrification, vocational training, village irrigation and co-operatives for poultry farming. Nearly 500 girls have been trained under a composite package which covered computer literacy and imparted job skills. Widows are rehabilitated, all school teachers are local girls, uneducated women have a 150 hour programme of functional literacy and two army-run working women’s hostels in Kargil and Leh offer rooms "comparable to three star luxury for 400 rupees a month". 190 villages with a population of 109,541 have been covered with a financial outlay of Rs.1.4 crores and 2 crores in the last two years repectively. Since Operation Sadbhavana began spreading its goodwill, Lt Gen Ray says, with not a little conviction:"There has not been a single incident of militancy in Ladakh. Not one."
Help has come from the most unlikely of places. Bangalore has been involved in the project right from its inception. Besides significant funding from IT giant Infosys, scores of Bangaloreans alongside a smattering of Gujaratis and Maharashtrians have been volunteering to work for Operation Sadbhavana. For a stipend of Rs.1,000 per month, air passage, boarding and lodging, software consultants, dancers, IAS retirees, doctors and even a dog trainer have braved the bitter winters to form the backbone of the project. Says Lt.Gen. Ray, "The Ladakhi is at peace with himself. He eats what he grows and grows what he eats. In relative terms the rest of us are very agitated and restless. The size and stillness of the mountains infuses the Ladakhi’s will and spirit too. And when we have volunteers from far corners of the country working with us there, it makes him feel that the whole country is with him. It’s our way of saying let’s work together and forget all the worries. We can have different views but be madly in love with each other. Once people are empowered, nobody will allow it to be switched off. You cannot stop it. Whoever says the gun is the answer needs to go to a shrink and have his head examined."
Also the author of the noted ‘purple primer’ The Psyschology of Militancy, written with the experience of his days in Kashmir, Ray explains, "We had to instill trust by proving that human security is a core element of national security. Sadbhavana is simply the human face of border management. In the 21st century, there are no ideologies. All the 'isms' are dead. Who cares about 'isms' when what everybody needs is just roti, kapda and makaan. The winning of hearts and minds is a terrible cliché. How can you win minds unless you have won the heart first?"
The son of a British mother and a Bengali father, Lt Gen Ray believes, "Disagreement is oxygen." It is a principle he infuses his relationships with. "We have to give each other space, permit a certain amount of dissent." His wife’s biggest task is to "pull me up when I do something wrong. She is my best critic and keeps reminding me that I am not Caesar."
"Sadbhavana will work anywhere," explains Ray. Chandrababu Naidu has evinced interest in promoting it in Naxal affected areas. Kashmir and the North East are places which have come to his mind and ours. "It is wrong to say once alienated, always alienated. You can have a leg in the past, not a head there. The objective of development has to be happiness. We have to pay attention to our GNH too. That’s the real index of success - Gross National Happiness."