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.
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.
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!”