It’s time the army accepted the need for transparency and restored human dignity in its ranks
There are media reports that another general has approached the Armed Forces Tribunal seeking redress over promotion and intends going to courts. While the chief of army staff, General Bikram Singh cannot be blamed for this, we haven’t heard anything substantive on how he intends to assuage the growing unrest — the increasing divide between officers and other ranks — within the army? Or, more to the point, have we heard anything from him since he assumed command five months ago?
Lt General Ravi Dastane should not have gone to the tribunal or even complained to the defence ministry. He does not have a case but vaulting ambition. While approved for the army commander rank, he is junior most of the three Lt Generals who were to fill two positions that fell vacant on 31 May 2012. His case that the senior most officer, Lt General Dalbir Singh, who was placed under vigilance inquiry by the discredited former COAS, General V.K. Singh and given the army command only on June 15 with anti-date seniority of June 1, would have become his junior if he had got his command on 31 May 2012 when the third officer, Lt General Sanjiv Chachra got his, is absurd and unlikely to be accepted by the defence ministry. Dastane should know that the defence ministry never believed the charges levelled against Dalbir Singh, which is why the first task that the COAS, General Bikram Singh did was to exonerate Dalbir Singh, clearing decks for him to become the eastern army commander. All that the MS branch needs to do now with concurrence of the defence ministry is to revise Dalbir Singh’s seniority to May 31 instead of June 1. What will Dastane do then?
By following in General V.K. Singh’s footsteps, Dastane has merely tarnished his reputation; the army is not touched as he does not command troops. What has been exposed once again is the ever widening distrust amongst senior army officers, growing cronyism, favouritism, parochialism, and self-aggrandisement. Over the years, I have heard numerous young officers tell me how they have been disillusioned and would like to leave the service. These idealistic youngsters are disenchanted with seniors who are supposed to be the epitome of integrity and honour. Is it then surprising that there is brewing unrest in army units, which have witnessed numerous brawls and even fistfights between other ranks and officers in the recent past.
Dismissing them as aberrations, as the army chief, General Bikram Singh does, cannot be the answer. His exhortation of ‘know your command better’ to commanding officers does not amount to much. The army command requires realistic tasking, a balanced life implying requisite rest and relief during peace time, human dignity, and transparency (in the electronic media age) for all ranks to know their chief and senior officers’ views on command.
The starting point should be the 80,000 Rashtriya Rifles troops doing counter-insurgency operations (CI ops) in Jammu and Kashmir. The army and the state government have locked horns over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Why can’t there be a middle path where both sides achieve results without losing face? Without repealing the AFSPA, the army could progressively give up its CI ops role and move to its primary task on the borders. There is a need for adequate reserves for 14 corps in Leh, and for the border with China. Under AFSPA cover, the army could train paramilitary and state police forces for internal stability at its counter-terrorism training establishments and on ground, all the while maintaining its intelligence grids. Over time, the army could give its CI infrastructure to the state government, by when it may be time to lift the AFSPA. This way the army would get rest and relief, and other security forces would also train to guard the internal lines of communication in case of a war with Pakistan.
The other issue is transparency. The army chief, unlike defence minister Antony, does not have the luxury to avoid or duck the media. Being the senior most operational commander, he is responsible for the well-being of 1.3 million men; their morale and war preparedness. He needs to explain to the defence ministry that gagging him or his senior commanders would be detrimental to the army’s cause especially when it is involved in CI ops. The mammoth directorate of public information under a two-star general at the Army headquarters was created in 1993 with the explicit purpose of timely, accurate and detailed information flow.
And last, not least, human dignity has deteriorated in the army. It is not uncommon to find other ranks and junior commissioned officers being sent on personal errands of senior officers without thought to how they would travel. Leave is usually given not when an individual requires it, but when a unit thinks he can be spared. What frustrates soldiers further is that instead of training and maintenance of equipment, high priority is given to appeasing senior officers; maintaining their bungalows, kitchen gardens, and golf courses. Without guilt, this is referred to as senior officers’ privileges. Is all this not well known? So why does the army senior command takes the easy way out of cosmetic changes? It is time for some hard decisions.