In 2009, the president of India, the supreme commander of its armed forces, created history by flying in an IAF Sukhoi combat aircraft. A gesture which, apart from being daring, communicated to the men and women in the armed forces her concern and empathy for the difficult tasks that they routinely perform in order to stay prepared to respond to the call of the nation. At the time, this writer had commented that this would “be perceived by every soldier, sailor, airman and veteran as a great symbol of hope for the future of the institution of the armed forces of India. A future that in recent times has looked progressively fragile.”
…military culture enjoins sharing the pride of individual heroics and sacrifices with the wider fraternity. The collective moral ethic of the armed forces has been tarnished as a result of these incidents.
As time has gone by, what was then perceived to be a fragile future for the armed forces seems to be turning into reality. One would like to believe that it was this concern that prompted the supreme commander to don combat gear again and join the military exercise, Sudarshan Shakti, in Rajasthan on India’s western border. She was reported to have witnessed the exercise from an IAF Mi 17 helicopter, before taking a ride on a T-90 tank. All this in simulated operations close to the sensitive border. Much like fitting into the cramped cockpit of a fighter aircraft, manning the cabin of a tank also requires courage and grit. That the supreme commander has again reached out to communicate directly to the soldiers she commands must continue to be a source of inspiration for the forces.
Sandwiched between these two presidential forays into the field, much has taken place both within and outside the armed forces that must cause students of national security some concern. Are the civil and service leaderships on the same wavelength, or are we closer to the abyss?
As if on cue, on the eve of the president’s visit to the exercise, came the news of a dubious first in the annals of Indian military history. A three-star lieutenant general and an erstwhile military secretary in the army headquarters were found guilty of various charges relating to the Sukhna land case. The court martial recommended that the accused be dismissed from service and stripped of rank, decorations, medals and pension. Earlier, another three-star general officer had also been found guilty in the case and punished.
At the time the armed forces were coming to terms with the unfolding Sukhna revelations, they were also hit by the Adarsh Housing Society bombshell. A subsequent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General slammed military authorities for misappropriating prime defence land and commented that the entire episode revealed “glaring examples of dereliction of duty and severe lack of probity and accountability which needed to be investigated”. That a housing society meant to benefit widows of the Kargil conflict had ended up benefiting politicians, bureaucrats and senior armed forces personnel merely added to the shame.
…dharnas by veterans at the Jantar Mantar and memorials across the country are not even news tell its own pathetic tale. The protests have not elicited a single parliamentary debate: this speaks of the priorities of the world’s largest democracy.
Whilst these remain individual aberrations, military culture enjoins sharing the pride of individual heroics and sacrifices with the wider fraternity. The collective moral ethic of the armed forces has been tarnished as a result of these incidents. The sheer lack of morality in the highest echelons of the administration and the military cannot but have left a permanent scar on the izzat and iqbal of the institution of the armed forces. For the first time in the nation’s history, there are whispers that the military is lacking in moral fibre.
In normal times, these developments would have brought about a sense of disquiet and soul searching within the ministry of defence and the armed forces. They should have also drawn instant attention from the highest political leadership, including the cabinet committee on security. But we live in times so numbed by corruption that the only reaction appeared to convey the following sentiment: ‘Acha ab sab mil gaye hain (So now all have ganged up)’. To add insult to injury, it appears that this was seen as an opportune time by some to make a tactical move in the civil-military tussle, as the following examples indicate.
While the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir was well within his rights to explore a political initiative to revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from certain areas of his state, wittingly or otherwise, his target appeared to have been the army. Activists of various shades pounced on this opportunity, and it was again the army that was being projected as the villain and left to defend itself. The silence from the South Block was both puzzling and deafening. It appeared that it wanted the army to stew in this discomfiture.
Even as the army chief was escorting the president to Sudarshan Shakti, one wondered whether she was aware that in yet another unfortunate first, the army chief himself was awaiting the defence minister’s disposal of his statutory complaint. The complaint sought a review of his earlier appeal requesting the correction of his date of birth. Whilst a statutory complaint by a serving chief to the defence minister brings no credit to the internal functioning of the ministry of defence, to keep the chief waiting for months for an administrative decision speaks poorly of not just the inter- institutional relationship between the ministry and the services, but also of the lack of appreciation at the highest political level of how such treatment undermines the authority of the chief in the eyes of the entire force.
If the leadership of a vibrant democracy like ours cannot find the strength to establish a meaningful dialogue and resolve issues with veterans who are loyal and disciplined citizens, then how can it claim to govern a diverse nation across political, ideological and many other complex divides?
If this is the nation’s attitude towards its armed forces and its leadership, one is not surprised at the fate of its veterans. That dharnas by veterans at the Jantar Mantar and memorials across the country are not even news tell its own pathetic tale. The protests have not elicited a single parliamentary debate: this speaks of the priorities of the world’s largest democracy. Since it is fashionable to talk of the largest and oldest democracies in tandem, it is interesting to see what the latter’s take is. On Veteran’s Day, the president of the United States of America had this to say: “To all those who have served America — our forces, your families, our veterans — you have done your duty. You have fulfilled your responsibilities. And now a grateful nation must fulfil ours.”
In contrast, just look at how an ungrateful India ignores its responsibilities towards its veterans. Little publicity was given to a rally held at Jantar Mantar by the Defence Veterans Against Injustice. Its press release talks of a peaceful protest that has been going on for over 40 months, of 22,000 gallantry and distinguished service medals having been surrendered in protest and of memoranda signed in blood by 150,000 veterans. If one were to pause and reflect, these numbers tell a disturbing story and can be ignored only at the nation’s peril.
Whatever the merits of their demands, two aspects are worrying. If the leadership of a vibrant democracy like ours cannot find the strength to establish a meaningful dialogue and resolve issues with veterans who are loyal and disciplined citizens, then how can it claim to govern a diverse nation across political, ideological and many other complex divides? Secondly, whilst the more hard-nosed amongst those in the babudom may consider the veterans a spent force, those still in uniform are acutely conscious that they are tomorrow’s veterans, and that a similar ungrateful fate awaits them. In Arthashastra, Kautilya has this to say to the emperor, Chandragupta Maurya: “The day the soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha for then, on that day, you will have lost all moral sanction to be King.” One would like to believe that the day is not far.
The supreme commander is striving to communicate with soldiers, sailors and airmen. Her next visit was to a ship of the Indian navy. It could have been used as an opportunity to invite cabinet ministers and service chiefs to a session in introspection. Far removed from the imperious South Block, ensconced in the bowels of a war ship where the entire crew either fights or sinks together, it may