Homeland Security

Public standing of the Indian military
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Issue Vol 23.3 Jul-Sep 2008 | Date : 18 Sep , 2015

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 Bureaucracy

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.

In the wake of the controversy raised by the Sixth Central Pay Commission, a retired senior service officer wondered if the bureaucracy was aware that by slighting the military it was demoralising soldiers, thereby gladdening the hearts of India’s enemies. Most service officers lament the fact that the bureaucrats do not empathise with them due to their ignorance of trials and tribulations of military life, as they hardly have any close relative or progeny in the services.

The Media

Both print and electronic media have seen unprecedented growth and proliferation over the last few years. The pace of propagation has been too fast for comfort, especially for the coverage of security matters. There are very few writers, reporters, anchors and correspondents who know much about military affairs. Due to their incapability to carry out any worthwhile coverage of serious issues, they resort to sensationalism of the poorest genre. For them, military matters mean problems faced by a few women officers, some enquiries about rations and some sound bytes about shortage of officers.

An observor 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.

Media must remain objective and provide balanced coverage. Criticising the military for sensationalism is highly unfair. It lowers military’s public image unwarrantedly.

For example, the media is quick to highlight that 15 officers or so have been court-martialled and punished for various acts of misdemeanour. Tone and tenor of the report faults the military for the falling standards and paints a negative picture. The media fails to recognise the fact that in a 1.3 million strong organisation, there are bound to be minuscule aberrations. It should, in fact, praise the military for being the only institution to take prompt disciplinary action against defaulters, whereas all others carry on regardless.

A woman officer committed suicide in Jammu last year. A major TV channel organised a discussion the same evening on ‘working conditions in the Army that force women to commit suicide’. It went on to flay the Army brass for gender-bias and ill-treatment of women officers. Apparently, the said channel did not ascertain facts and wanted to be the first to highlight the allegedly sorry plight of women in the services. Had it waited for the police investigations to be over, it would have realised that the suicide was due to matrimonial dissentions and the husband has since been arrested for abetting it. The working environment had nothing to do with it, yet the Army was subjected to public condemnation.

Despite having a plethora of TV news channels, not a single in-depth programme either on security concerns or on the tribulations of a soldier’s life has ever been telecast. For them, coverage of a film star’s visit to a military unit and dancing with the troops is adequate. Incongruity of media’s priorities can be gauged from the fact that twenty fifth anniversary of India’s world cup win was played up as an unprecedented achievement whereas victories in 1971 and the Kargil War are remembered in a perfunctory manner. But then cricket crazy India has little time for national security concerns. See box.


Despite repeated representations, India still does not have a war memorial in the capital to honour independent India’s dead soldiers. India wants to ape the West in all sundry aspects but not in matters that affect the well-being and morale of the armed forces. The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington in Washington, Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Cenotaph in London are admired by all Indian visitors. Yet, the absence of a suitable war memorial in New Delhi does not appear odd to them.

For most in the media military matters mean problms faced by a few women officers, some enquiries about rations and some sound bytes about shortage of officers.

All countries honour their war heroes by erecting their statues at prominent places like Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. No statues of political leaders are seen in the developed countries. On the contrary, millions are spent every year in India on erecting statues of politicians as they are an essential part of vote-bank agenda of most political parties. It is not considered necessary to honour war heroes, martyrs and gallantry award winners as they do not fetch votes. One is reminded of those poignant lines of A Lawrence Vaincourt’s classic poem:-

“When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,

While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.

Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,

But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.

Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land,

A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?

Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,

Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?”

As seen above, the falling stature of the military is due to both historical and cultural factors. To a considerable extent military commanders are responsible for the same. Their conduct has certainly raised questions regarding the quality of leadership that the military is throwing up. It is a cause for concern. Additionally, the political leadership and the bureaucracy must realise the irretrievable damage they are doing to the morale and the fighting potential of the military. India survives today because, as General Sir John Hackett said, “A soldier places his body between those of the citizens of his country and those who are attempting to destroy them.” The media must also realise that most soldiers are posted at remote border posts or are battling insurgency against heavy odds and at great personal risk. Denigrating and lowering the image of the military can prove extremely dear to the country in the long run.

Finally, India will do well to remember the advice offered by Kautilya to Chandragupta on the treatment of soldiers. He said, “Pataliputra reposes each night in peaceful comfort secure in the belief that the distant borders of Magadha are inviolate and the interiors are safe and secure, thanks only to the Mauryan Army standing vigil with naked swords and eyes peeled for action, day and night, in weather fair and foul, all eight praharas (round the clock), quite unmindful of personal discomfort and hardship, all through the year, year after year. While the citizenry of the State contributes to see that the State prospers and flourishes, the soldier guarantees it continues to exist as a State! The day when the soldier has to demand his dues or, worse, plead for them, will also bode ill for the State. For then, on that day, you, My Lord, will have lost all moral sanction to be the King! It will also be the beginning of the end of the Mauryan Empire!”

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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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3 thoughts on “Public standing of the Indian military

  1. As the current OROP protests by veterans have amply demonstrated, you have to fight tooth and nail to get your just dues in India. The British were superb in the understanding the military psyche, both of their own soldiers as well as those of other countries, whom they conquered and ruled. This was primarily achieved by keeping a proper balance between the Civil services and the Military. The Military was essential to guard the physical boundaries of their territories which essentially meant that the soldier had to be ready to die in the line of duty. Therefore, the Military was kept well insulated from the bureaucracy and there was zero intrusion from them in the affairs of the military. They were only responsible to the Government, which meant the Viceroys or any other specified functionary.

    The Indian system of governance is a hotch potch of confusion and muddled thinking. Firstly our Politicians are generally inept, unprofessional and ignorant. They sublet their essential functions of governance to the bureaucracy. This has resulted in the Bureaucracy getting the atrociously wrong idea that they are the Government. The second problem is to mix the military and the bureaucracy. All modern states require close working relationship between bureaucrats and the military leaders but it is at a level of equals and not superior and inferior. The bureaucracy’s idea of being an over bearing boss is not only against the spirit of governance but also poor management practices. Unfortunately, the political leadership, which is expected to monitor and do course correction if this situation develops, is itself most ignorant of the issues involved. Their inherent fear of Military which is an off shoot of early days Nehruvian thinking is without any basis or reason.

    Today the Civil-Military relations are at its lowest since Independence and unless the situation is corrected at the earliest, may lead to some most unfortunate consequences.

    • Yogi Nayar.
      Except in 1962 Indian Govt. has not neglected the defence force. Army officers are trying to give a wrong impression to the public. If the Govt, had neglected the defense forces, we could not have become a military power. Our position is 4th in the world. Europeans were able to defeat majority of Indian Kings because they used guns and ammunition. Indian army officers are trying to do the same mistakes. Our Army officers are still thinking about assault rifles, field guns and foot soldiers instead of missiles, laser guns and Armoured personnel carriers
      Marthanda Varma was the only Indian King to beat the European armed force at the 1741 Battle of Colachel against the Dutch.[1] Dutch commander Eustachius de Lannoy surrenders to Marthanda Varma after the Battle of Colachel.. Later on Marthanda Varma used the Dutch commander to develop guns and ammunitions in his kingdom. That may be the reason British did not attack Travancore. ” If the British were superb in the understanding the military psyche, both of their own soldiers as well as those of other countries” If so how was INDIAN NAVAL MUTINY OF 1946 AGAINST BRITAIN took place. So without knowing the history do not try to glorify British. Civilians have better knowledge than the army.

  2. Let us not compare India with other countries. Except India all the countries are thinking that joining the military service is a supreme sacrifice. Indians believe in Nishkam Karma (sanskrit IAST : niṣkāmakarma), self-less or desireless action, is an action performed without any expectation of fruits or results, and the central tenet of Karma Yoga path to Liberation. For us the freedom fighters and the the soldiers in Indian National Army (INA), had done the self-less action. Indians are altogether a different level than the westerners. Superiority complex and ego is maximum among the Army officers. They only know to control the soldiers. There is no hesitation for the Army officers to use slang words particularly when they become angry. They are weak in general administration. The ” Sound Of Music” film is a good example. In any administration the finance departmental officers are seldom visit to other officers chamber. The users departmental officers have to go and discuss for getting financial concurrence. After the death of Smt Indira Gandhi Indian Army could not procure any major weapons. But Navy could procure whatever they want starting from Air craft carrier to submarines. If the bureaucrats are bad how they managed. Navy had some difficult only during Antony’s time. Navy kept could relation with DRDO and PSU’s. Indian Army officer did not give any importance to indigenous development . The other day I read a news “Now Arjun Mark II is weight is more. ”
    Weight is not a valid reason to reject the main Battle tank. This an excuse to put pressure on Govt. to purchase foreign . Battle tank. Some of the Indian Railway wagons can carry up to 88 tons. If the weight is more they may have to impose some speed restriction. Moreover Israeli’s Main Battle tank weighs 65 tons. If they can mange why is Indian Army refusing to accept. Arjun Mark II. Weight of the tanks are going to increase in future if we want better fire power and Anti mines devices. If some of the bridges and culverts are not able to carry this load they should strengthen by giving extra support. The extra money going to spend on imported Tanks should be used for modifying the bridges and culverts in Punjab. This will create employment.
    Another person wrote a comment
    Any engineer knows that it is ground pressure which matters in operating a tank than its weight. Ground pressure of Arjun is 0.86 kg per sq. cm and that of T90 is .90 kg per sq. cm. This have been proven in desert trials where Arjun ran as Ferrai and T90 like Maruti 800.
    3. Any informed person knows that designing Tank takes 10 years or more. But going by the contents of RFI, Army wants a design which can serve as BMW and Tata Nano based. Without the help and support of users departments no equipment can be developed locally..

    We are fortunate that DRDO have developed various types missiles for the Army. and we are a super power in the missile technology and its avionic.All the super powers are switching over to missiles. Why is Army tying to make specification But Indian army is still hankering for field guns. Why are you not asking DRDO to develop laser guns to replace assault rifles? You may read the following articles.

    “Pentagon should rethink how it develops laser guns, study says”
    “Police Eager to Begin Using “Eye Blinding” Gun Against American Citizens”

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