There still remains a great deal of consternation amongst members of civil society and the military, including in veteran circles, regarding allegations that in end June, troops from a Rashtriya Rifles battalion, led by anofficer, barged into two mosques in Kashmir Valley and forced locals to chant “Jai Shree Ram” slogans. This comes on the heels of the Army’s even- handedness in dealing with violent elements in Manipur being questioned, by the majority community.
However, in complete contrasta week later,the elite 50th Independent Parachute Brigade organised a simple, but moving, wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the 75thDeath Anniversary of Brig Mohammed Usman, MVC (Posthumous), the Lion of Naushera, at the Jamia Islamia University cemetery. It was under his brilliant and inspiring leadership that the Parachute Brigade liberated Jhangar and Naushera from Pakistani occupation, thereby relieving our embattled troops in Poonch, during the 1947-48 War. Incidentally, he did more for India’s unity in the three and a half decades that he lived, than all our present-day politicians put together.
It begs the question, should the army hierarchy’s continuing silence over the Pulwama issue be read as a tacit approval of that officer’s actions and a change in direction within? On the other hand, statements emerging from the army hierarchy in Manipur and the dignified manner in which the Brig Usman event was conducted suggest that nothing has changed and the Army continues to be the guiding light for religious tolerance. After all, it was the army that came up with the brilliant idea of establishing “Sarva Dharma Sthals” in its units where events of all religious denominations could be conducted at one place.
Can this ambivalence and lack of clarity within the army be attributed to sheer incompetence in handling of the media or has social media become the main source of news? Is it possible that the military leadership avoids taking a definitive stance and remains low-key when it comes to ideological issues? For example, the military still continues to sing praises of the Agnipath scheme, despite being fully aware ofwhat the repercussions will bewhen militias, like those engaged in violence in Manipur, induct Agniveers, unable to find gainful employment after their term of engagement ends in the army. Similarly, this scheme has wreaked havoc on the regimental system, presently in vogue, which is of colonial origin from the days of the British Indian Army.
This has been motivation enough for the rising cacophony of voices, especially amongst those lacking any military background, let alone combat experience, wishing for it to be discarded. They are obviously unaware of what the regimental system signifies. Winston Churchill, at the turn of the 20th Century, wrote “Regiments are not like houses. they cannot be pulled down and altered structurally to suit the convenience of the occupier or the caprice of the owner. They are more like plants; they grow slowly if they are to grow strong…and if they are blighted or transplanted, they are apt to wither.”
It is for this very reason that the Indian Army, at the time of Independence, made a conscious decision to retain it, given its inherent strengths and advantages for a vast and diverse country, such as ours. Even Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage, in their seminal study on the failure of the US Army in Vietnam, “Crisis in Command: Management in the Army”, attributed it to the lack of cohesion of troops at the tactical level and considered the Indian regimental system as an ideal example of cohesion. For us, it is a policy that has paid immense dividends over the years, and there can be no two opinions that our combat arms, the Infantry and the Mechanised Forces, continue to lay the greatest of emphasis on regimental affiliations, dresses, customs and traditions.
This is because it helps instil a sense of belonging, brotherhood and continuity amongst the officers, JCOs and men in their battalions and regiments. It also helps to inculcate pride in a shared history and achievements of those who have fought before them in past campaigns. This in turn, helps nurture the two most essential battle winning factors, espirit-de-corps and morale, because bereft of them there can be no victory.
Unfortunately, unlike our combat elements, combat support elements do not give this factor the same kind of importance, probably because of the technical nature of their job profile. The present Army Chief, belongs to one of the combat support arms, the Corps of Engineers, being the first Chief since Independence from that corps. What is even more unfortunate isthat despite being aware of its benefits he has gone along with the powers that be, who have the Prime Minister’s ear, and are on record disparaging the regimental system and wanting it changed, in order not to displease them.
Be that as it may, what however is extremely difficult to fathom is why the Army Chief has felt it necessary to issue a dictat on uniformity of dresses for the ranks of Brigadiers and above, that allows for no display of their Regimental/Corps accoutrements which reflect regimental affiliations. These orders are an admission that regimental affiliations, more than reflecting pride and belonging in one’s regiment or corps, are instead adversely influencing promotions. While that would certainly be true in some cases, human nature being what it is, his hypothesis does great disservice to the selection process in place that has stood the test of time. Would it not have been better to take corrective action to make the selection system more responsive, rather than indulging in changing the dress code put in place in the early Seventies, precisely to enhance bonds between senior officers and the rank and file? In any case not displaying Regimental affiliations does not make an individual anonymous or his background a mystery!
However, even if we were to give this decision the benefit of the doubt, the orders that deny officers who have served with the elite airborne forces the right to wear the maroon beret appears to be illogical, poorly reasoned and utterly condemnable. Maroon berets are the accepted headgear of all airborne forces universally. Our forces have been wearing this from 1941, when the Parachute Brigade was first raised. Incidentally 50th Independent Parachute Brigade has the record of being the oldest formation worldwide that has continuously remained in the airborne role till date. This is a source of great pride for all its members, and is reflected in the high standards of professionalism, elan and espirit de corps that is on display. More importantly, the maroon beret does not reflect any particular arm or service, as volunteers from any arm, corps or service are eligible to serve in one our Special Operations Forces units, provided he or she has successfully undergone the extremely tough selection process that is in place.
In effect the maroon beret is a clear indication of an individual’s abilities and strength of character, and considered a source of immense pride. Thus, to be deprived of the right to wear the maroon beret after having earned it is unjust, unreasonable and smacks of bias and even jealousy. After all, what impression does the Commander of the Parachute Brigade convey to his troops, if only he among them, is barred from wearing the maroon beret which he has also earned and worn till he was promoted? Indeed, it seems a bigoted and bizarre order, and its adverse impact on morale and espirit-de-corps can be easily appreciated. The army hierarchy would do well to reconsider these orders at the earliest.