Military & Aerospace

Denigrating the Armed Forces : a dangerous agenda
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Issue Vol 25.3 Jul-Sep 2010 | Date : 06 Oct , 2010

While addressing the Passing Out Parade at the U.S. Naval Academy on 07 April 2010, Secretary of Defence Robert M Gates said, “You have answered the trumpet call, and the whole of America is grateful and filled with admiration. I salute you and thank you for your service. For my part, I consider myself personally responsible for each and every one of you as though you were my own sons and daughters. And when I send you in harm’s way, as I will, I will do everything in my power to see that you have what you need to accomplish your mission – and come home safely.” Can anyone recall similar sentiments expressed by an Indian political leader?

While watching TV on 03 June 2010, viewers were shocked to read breaking news – “Army shamed by sex scandal.” Another channel informed viewers that a serving Lieutenant General had been forced to resign for molesting another officer’s wife while on an official tour to Israel. Every channel tried to outdo each other by sensational headlines. Reputation of the military leadership in general and that of the General Officer concerned was torn to shreds. Most e-papers reproduced the news item released by PTI. The furor got somewhat dampened when the Army Headquarters (AHQ) issued a denial. It said that preliminary investigations had shown that there were a number of loopholes in the account of allegations and that further investigations were in progress. It also clarified that the General Officer had neither resigned nor had been asked to submit his resignation.

Compare the above coverage with the unearthing of enormous wealth acquired by corrupt means by an IAS couple in Bhopal. “¦ Media has neither cared to delve deeper into the matter nor carried out intense studio debates about the falling standards of morality as it did in the Sukhna land case.

It is learnt that the high level Court of Inquiry (C of I) convened by the Army Headquarters has found the allegations to be totally baseless. Apparently, either the concerned PTI correspondent had erred in not confirming the veracity of the report with AHQ or was a willing party to the slander campaign. It is doubtful if he would ever be taken to task for his transgression. Predictably, PTI did not consider it necessary to apologise for its senseless blunder. Similarly, it is unlikely that other over-enthusiastic media players can muster enough moral courage to regret their mistake publically.

Similarly, media coverage of the Sukhna land case is characterised by unrelenting campaign to tarnish the image of the armed forces by targeting its senior officers. Facts of the case were totally and intentionally ignored to justify allegation of gross misappropriation. The case was nonchalantly termed as a scam despite the fact that the land in question was privately owned and did not belong to the Army; no transfer took place and no money ever exchanged hands. The civilian owner wanted a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Army before investing resources in the construction of a school on the said land, lest there be objections subsequently. The total case revolved around an act of indiscretion by a General Officer when he recommended issuance of NOC to the incumbent Corps Commander. Incidentally, no pressure can be exerted by a Military Secretary as Corps Commanders do not report to him.

Not one media personality cared to find out as to what the scam was. The coverage dealt with the case as if it were another fodder scam or Chhattisgarh loot. As most TV channels thrive on sensationalism, speakers from various fields were invited to air their views. Without understanding the real nature of the case, they took stands as per their own prejudices and mindset. A rare sane voice was invariably silenced by an aggressive anchor carrying the mandate to steer discussion as per the channel’s agenda. Objectivity was the inevitable casualty. One self-proclaimed military writer of suspect credentials went to the extent of stating that the accused officers should be publically shot dead. He forgot that Indian governance works purely on recommendations – every political leader and bureaucrat issues numerous letters of recommendations every day. Should they all be shot dead or is the law of the land different for the services?

“¦ targeting military leadership amounts to targeting military as an institution as military sustains itself on the credibility that its leadership enjoys amongst the rank and file.

Nobody questioned Headquarters Eastern Command for ordering a totally unwarranted and belated Court of Enquiry (C of I). In any case, it had exercised its due right and overruled the Corps Headquarters. Worse, no questions were raised against the manner in which C of I was convened and conducted. No attempt was made by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to clarify issues involved to the media and present the case in the correct perspective. Worse, regular inputs were provided to the media to keep the case in the limelight. All limits of propriety were breached when details of private dialogue between the Defence Minister and the Army Chief were leaked to the press.

Compare the above coverage with the unearthing of enormous wealth acquired by corrupt means by an IAS couple in Bhopal. The whole episode has been put on the back-burner after a day’s exposure. Media has neither cared to delve deeper into the matter nor carried out intense studio debates about the falling standards of morality as it did in the Sukhna land case. No TV channel invited retired IAS officers to ascertain reasons for rampant corruption in the bureaucracy. Ostensibly, the media had been cautioned to play the incident down. Coverage of Sukhna land case has been compared with that of the arrest of the IAS couple in Bhopal only to illustrate different yard sticks applied by the media.

Although considerable blame can be apportioned to India’s inept political leadership, it is the deadly combination of scheming bureaucracy and patronage hungry media that is responsible for the sordid ongoing campaign to discredit the military.

Bureaucracy’s Hostility

As regards bureaucracy, its main agenda seems to be to maintain its monopoly on governance in India. Naivety of political leadership was exploited by the bureaucracy soon after Independence to strengthen its stranglehold by putting the fear of military take-over in the minds of gullible leaders. The role of bureaucracy deserves thorough scrutiny to understand reasons and the modus operandi. Bureaucrats’ demeanour of self-importance is a façade to hide their acute sense of inadequacy. Commonly referred to as ‘one-exam wonders’, they suffer from acute inferiority complex in relation to specialist cadres. With respect to the calibre of highly professional service officers, they feel ill-equipped. It gives rise to intense dislike of the military.

“¦ different agencies shows the military at the top and other bureaucratic institutions at the bottom of peoples choice for probity, loyalty and selflessness. Sadly, instead of improving the image of bureaucracy through constructive measures, certain elements are stooping to despicable levels to sully the image of the services.

Recently, Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions informed Rajya Sabha in a written reply that as on 31 March 2010 eighty four IAS officers and thirty three IPS officers were facing trials on criminal charges in CBI cases. He also revealed that twenty-one cases were being investigated against IAS and six against IPS officers by CBI. Further, investigations were in progress by the CBI against fifteen IAS officers and one IPS officer under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The above mentioned number of cases is alarming when considered in the light of the fact that CBI needs prior sanction of the Government (that is bureaucracy) to launch proceedings against Joint Secretaries and above. And, it takes decades for such a sanction to materialise.

Every survey carried out by different agencies shows the military at the top and other bureaucratic institutions at the bottom of peoples’ choice for probity, loyalty and selflessness. Sadly, instead of improving the image of bureaucracy through constructive measures, certain elements are stooping to despicable levels to sully the image of the services. Every opportunity is exploited to show the military in poor light as if to convince the countrymen that the military is equally bad.

Political Neglect

Generally, political leaders are inclined favourably towards the soldiers. However, their ability to deliver is stymied by their inability to comprehend even simple issues concerning the armed forces. Unlike advanced countries, any political leader can be appointed Defence Minister in India. He may have neither the knowledge of military matters nor urge to learn them. His inadequacy results in total dependence on the bureaucracy. Consequently, bureaucracy gets to call the shots.

Additionally, failure of Indian political leaders to identify themselves with the soldiers stems from two distressing realities. One, soldiers do not count as a meaningful vote bank and can be ignored as they carry little political relevance. Secondly, political leaders have no progeny or family member in the services. Their total focus is on grooming their offspring to take over reigns of their respective political parties as most political parties have become family enterprises and are highly profitable as well. Therefore, they neither have interest in soldiers’ service conditions nor empathise with them.

Media’s Penchant for Sensationalism

Mushrooming of media, both print and electronic, has intensified fight for sensationalism and patronage. Unfortunately, standard of journalism has fallen to abysmal depths. When a leading media house invited a vicious and remorseless enemy like General Pervez Musharraf and groveled before him, it marked the lowest depths to which media could stoop. Instead of castigating him for Kargil war, non-release of numerous Indian prisoners of war rotting in Pakistani jails and barbaric treatment meted out to Lt Saurabh Kalia and his patrol, he was treated as a peace loving guest. For media men, Lt Saurabh Kalia was just another officer killed in remote border areas, unrelated and unconnected to them – disgracefully, we get stirred only when tragedy strikes us personally.

“¦ there is a trust deficit between the bureaucracy and the military. Considering soldiering to be a lesser career, no bureaucrat sends his progeny to the services.

Indian media is afflicted with the twin virus of commercialisation of intellectual honesty and craving for official patronage. As per the reports appearing in the press, a committee appointed by the Press Council of India has found that both print and electronic media have been resorting to unscrupulous and dishonorable practice of presenting ‘paid for’ material as editorial or independent content, thereby misleading gullible public. Most abhorrently, many media personalities distort facts and present them in a manner favourable to the officials. They covet official rewards (Padma Shree to Rajya Sabha nomination) through such subjective reporting. As the services cannot oblige them in any manner, the media has no hesitation in targeting it.

Media has never complimented the Army for prompt launching of court-martial proceedings against more than 20 officers for various acts of misdemeanor, whereas all other organisations stall disciplinary action against their members. Similarly, instead of lauding the fact that in a 1.3 million strong force there have been miniscule aberrations of indiscipline and indiscretion, the media paints a negative picture by repeatedly referring to ‘Ketchup Colonel,’ ‘Booze Brigadier’ and ‘Frisky General’. It appears that a premeditated media campaign is being orchestrated to damage the standing of the services in the eyes of the general public which still holds soldiers in high esteem.

Soldiers draw strength from the recognition received from their countrymen. To them, military honour provides sustenance. They see the military as the sole guardian of national security concerns and want the society to acknowledge the same. As the soldiers know that their image in the society is dependent on media projections, they tend to be very sensitive to adverse publicity and undue criticism. Soldiers feel betrayed that their national media ignores their contribution to the national well-being and highlights a few aberrations, thereby giving them adverse publicity. In their enthusiasm to outdo other channels, most media personnel forget that they owe allegiance to India and its interests.

Denting Morale

It must be appreciated that targeting military leadership amounts to targeting military as an institution as military sustains itself on the credibility that its leadership enjoys amongst the rank and file. Deliberate vilification of the image of the military leadership can upset the vital trust-loyalty equation. Whereas trust is the expectancy that the followers can rely on a leader, a commander’s ability to gain unstinted loyalty depends entirely on the credibility he establishes through his personal conduct and competence. Therefore, any deliberate damage caused to the standing of the military leadership can dent its ability to command commitment. It can prove extremely dear to the country in the long run.

During World War II, many German Generals had acquired an aura of invincibility. Names of Rommel, Guderian and Mansfield not only inspired the German troops, they struck terror in the minds of the allied soldiers. The British realised that the reputation of military leaders was a force multiplier. While facing reverses everywhere, it set about making heroes of a few selected Generals by creating media hype about their military competence. Mediocre military leadership was put on pedestal to counter fears of German unassailability. Every battle won with overwhelming logistic support was projected as a military master stroke delivered by the genius of the British Generals.

“¦ political leadership and bureaucracy have made no attempt to understand the intensity of the sense of hurt of the soldiers at their continued neglect and deliberate degradation.

Instead of faulting military commanders for the unquestionable rout suffered at Dunkirk, wherein the Allies were forced to evacuate 345,000 troops in utter confusion and panic, the press went full throttle to project the withdrawal as a great strategic success. While admitting Dunkirk to be ‘the greatest military defeat for many centuries’ in private, Churchill publically claimed ‘there was a victory in that miracle of deliverance’. Perpetuation of the myth of British military leadership’s indomitability was considered essential to maintain morale. It was correctly recognised that public standing and professional reputation of military leadership were crucial battle winning factors. Failure to appreciate this vital fact can prove highly perilous for the country in the long run.

The Way Forward

While addressing the Passing Out Parade at the US Naval Academy on 07 April 2010, Secretary of Defence Robert M Gates said, “You have answered the trumpet call, and the whole of America is grateful and filled with admiration. I salute you and thank you for your service. For my part, I consider myself personally responsible for each and every one of you as though you were my own sons and daughters. And when I send you in harm’s way, as I will, I will do everything in my power to see that you have what you need to accomplish your mission – and come home safely.” Can anyone recall similar sentiments expressed by an Indian political leader?

As stated earlier, there is a total disconnect between the political leadership and the military, resulting in indifference and unconcern. On the other hand, there is a trust deficit between the bureaucracy and the military. Considering soldiering to be a lesser career, no bureaucrat sends his progeny to the services. Green cards and foreign lands offer greener pastures. Dislike of the military stems from bureaucracy’s attitude of egocentricity and is a manifestation of acute desire to ensure perpetuation of its stranglehold over governance. Exploiting its power, it keeps lowering the status of the services through periodic revision of pay-parity that governs inter se equation.

Bureaucracy considers military to be its main competitor for people’s respect. However, denigration of the military through subtle but well thought-out media campaign is a phenomenon of recent times. With the growth of numerous TV channels, bureaucracy was quick to recognise the power of visual media to show the military in poor light. It also understood pliability of patronage-seeking media and exploited it to military’s disadvantage.

A clarification will be in order here. At no stage it is being advocated that the Indian military should not be subjected to scrutiny. Not at all. However, criticism should be balanced and objective. It should not be malafide in intent with the sole purpose of maligning the services. Further, it should also be appreciated that like normal social organisations military consists of living human beings with their normal share of failings and idiosyncrasies. It is unfair to expect that there would be no aberrations at all. However, what is of importance is their frequency and the efficacy of the organisation’s self-correcting mechanism in place.

Finally, apathetic political leadership and bureaucracy have made no attempt to understand the intensity of the sense of hurt of the soldiers at their continued neglect and deliberate degradation. False and unsubstantiated character assassination of senior military officers has a deleterious effect on the psyche of the whole military. The political leadership, bureaucracy and media must realise that through their ill-conceived campaign of denigrating the armed forces they are causing irretrievable damage to its morale and degrading its fighting potential. It does not augur well for the nation and is a highly dangerous agenda.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Mrinal Suman

is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Services Group of CII.

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