A number of social scientists and military historians have been trying to discover reasons for Britain’s success in ruling the world while retaining its own independence throughout known history. Many are of the view that the secret of the British success lies in the fact that it always values its soldiers and the military, unlike most countries who forget them the day the war is over. No other country bestows so much honour on its war heroes.
To prove their point further, they recall that before World War II; it was not uncommon to see placards hanging outside some restaurants in Paris which read, “Dogs, lackeys and soldiers not allowed.” On the other hand, even pregnant women used to get up and offer seats to soldiers in London buses. When the war broke out, they recall, France capitulated in no time while Britain remained undefeated.
“Our God and soldiers we alike adore evn at the brink of danger; not before: After deliverance, both alike requited, Our Gods forgotten, and our soldiers slighted”. (Francis Quarles)
Soldiers are highly sentimental by nature. Their dedication to duty, loyalty to the nation and willingness for the supreme sacrifice are driven less by material considerations and more by an overwhelming urge to earn love and respect of their countrymen. A grateful nation’s recognition of their contribution to national security acts as the strongest motivator. Unfortunately, only a few nations have understood this aspect. It is often said that any country that does not care for its soldiers, loses moral right to expect them to die for its security.
The standing of soldiers in a country is dependent on the interplay of a number of dynamic factors like the conduct of military leadership, treatment meted out by the political leadership, relationship with bureaucracy and the image created by the media.
As regards India, public at large still holds the military in high esteem. However, its standing appears to be getting unduly affected by some unsavory trends noticed over the last few decades. First, the military is in media for all the wrong reasons. Secondly, there is a deliberate attempt to downgrade soldiers in some segments of the society. Thirdly, India has not fought a major war since 1971 except for the Kargil conflict which was localised in nature and did not affect the whole nation as such. Lastly, with growing economic prosperity, there is an increasing apathy amongst many countrymen towards security matters.
The Military Leadership
Maximum blame for the diminishing stature of the Indian military can be apportioned to the military leadership. A few ‘Ketchup Colonel,’ ‘Booze Brigadier’ and ‘Frisky General’ have done immense damage to the public image of a military officer. Worse, excessive media coverage has dented his self esteem as well. The spectacle of a Chief and a three star officer fighting for the chairmanship of a club in full media glare reflects very poorly on the top military leadership. Similarly, the unheard of refusal of an Army Commander to obey transfer orders drew snide public comments about military’s much touted culture of unquestioned obedience of orders.
If the Service chiefs cannot extend basic protocol courtesies to a military icon on his last journey, they have no right to fault the Government for the alleged neglect of the Services,” lamented a retired military officer.
Opposition to inter-services jointmanship on specious and tenuous excuses has exposed senior officers to public ridicule for their selfishness. Nobody is taken in by their professing of national interests. Worse, the bureaucracy and other antagonistic entities play up inter-services differences to show them as highly disunited and self-serving individuals. It was shameful to learn that both the Naval Chief and the Air Chief did not consider it necessary to attend the state funeral of India’s greatest military leader Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
No words are sufficient to express disapproval of their conduct. One columnist has commented adversely on the quality of current military leadership. Another observer has called them unworthy of the ranks they have come to occupy. “If the Service chiefs cannot extend basic protocol courtesies to a military icon on his last journey, they have no right to fault the Government for the alleged neglect of the Services,” lamented a retired military officer.
It is often said that higher an officer rises in rank, more ‘impotent’ he gets. In the fond hope of bagging a good post-retirement assignment, he becomes a weakling and never takes a stand. In the process, he loses both peer respect and public standing.
The Political Leadership
Indian political leadership lacks compassion for the military for the following reasons:-
- No political leader has even the remotest connection with the Services. In the history of independent India, no political leader has sent his progeny to the services. Therefore, they can neither relate to the military nor empathise with their lot.
- Political leadership is inadequately qualified and equipped. Any politician with no knowledge of national security imperatives can be appointed as India’s defence minister. They neither possess basic military knowledge nor display any penchant for educating themselves. Further, there is no culture of orientation training or briefing. Inadequacies of the political leadership result in their over dependence on the bureaucracy for governance.
- Most importantly, soldiers do not count as a worthwhile vote-bank and hence do not need to be cultivated.
No political leader has even the remotest connection with the Services.
A few years ago, some bureaucrats were ordered by the then Defence Minister to visit forward areas to get a feel of the ground conditions. The services were very excited as they felt that at last they had a Defence Minister who empathised with them. The Defence Minister’s stock went up considerably amongst the soldiers. In a social gathering soon after the above incident, a few service officers were busy eulogising him. Overhearing their conversation, a senior retired bureaucrat told them that the euphoria was premature. He advised them to watch for a few days. “Military salutes and guards are good for ego but politicians need funds to fight elections. Therefore, they need bureaucrats and listen to them,” he added.
Political leadership is highly uncomfortable in dealing with military officers and prefers to let the bureaucracy handle them. However, it does not hesitate in ticking off top military leadership in public to show its supremacy. Courtesies mean little to them. An inconsiderate and grossly ill-suited Defence Minister always took pleasure in bypassing the military leadership to establish rapport with soldiers, thereby denting the chain of command. He shall be long remembered for his unethical sacking of an honest and forthright Naval Chief in collusion with the bureaucracy.
Recent criticism by the Defence Minister of the Naval Chief for accusing Russia of reneging on contractual terms follows the well-set pattern of trying to put down the service chiefs. A well known opposition leader lost respect of the servicemen when he publicly criticised the Army Chief for his comments on the Chinese incursions. It came as a surprise to many as he is an ex-army officer and was not expected to make impolite comments.
The services blame the bureaucracy for lowering their standing in public eyes. Soon after Independence, exploiting the inexperience and gullibility of the then military leadership, bureaucracy took two major steps – one, put the services out of the governance regime by making Service Headquarters as departments of the Government, and secondly, perpetuated the notion that civilian control of the military is synonymous with control through the bureaucracy. Indian military has not been able to recover from this body blow to date, and worse, there has been a continuous flow of policy changes which have further reduced the status of the services.
Military salutes and guards are good for ego but politicians need funds to fight elections. Therefore, they need bureaucrats and listen to them, a bureaucrat.
According to a senior retired functionary, bureaucracy bears no animosity towards the services and the haughty conduct is a manifestation of the inferiority complex that they suffer from. A large number of bureaucrats would have unsuccessfully appeared for the NDA or other entry schemes to join the services in their youth and it affects their psyche for life, he stated. “It is only later on in life that they manage to enter IAS. Some through quotas and reservations. But while dealing with the military officers they get reminded of their own failure and inability to succeed in open competition and hence tend to hold a grudge against them,” he added. Penchant of every bureaucrat in the defence ministry for wangling a military staff car with uniformed soldier-driver is symptomatic of their unfulfilled aspirations, he declared.
Another observer had a different explanation. He was of the opinion that the services officers by their professional knowledge, smart dress, polished demeanour and impeccable manners make bureaucrats feel under-equipped and deficient. Most bureaucrats are incapable of drafting a sound and well-reasoned paper. Invariably, the services are assigned the task. Although they wield authority, their knowledge about military matters is highly shallow. By rejecting services’ proposals repeatedly on specious grounds, they try and put the services down to assert their power. Their misplaced sense of importance is the biggest impediment in their relationship with the services. Although a joint secretary is equated with a two-star service officer, he never visits a service officer’s office for consultations and demands that the service officer comes to him. Through such petty acts, bureaucrats try to overcome their sense of inadequacy and ‘keep the military in its place’.
Whatever be the underlying reasons, there is no denying the fact that bureaucracy has been responsible for continued damage to the esteem of the armed forces. It appears to be least interested in the well being of the soldiers and their morale. Putting down the services is common. Every proposal to curtail powers of the military is instantly approved. Civilian functionaries of Military Engineering Service and the Border Roads Organisation routinely approach the bureaucracy over the heads of their military superiors and obtain dispensations that dilute military’s authority and vitiate the working environment.