An apathetic State is robbing the soldier of his dignity
Adm. Arun Prakash (retd)
The country-wide demonstrations by ex-Servicemen (ESM) on April 26 and 7 May 2008 to protest against the 6th Pay Commission report, were, by all accounts, conducted in a dignified and orderly manner; and that is exactly how it should have been. Now one hears some talk of a ‘hunger strike’ by ESM, but it is my fervent hope that this will not come to pass.
I have a nagging feeling that by these uncharacteristic and extraordinary gestures we, the ESM, have diminished ourselves in the eyes of our countrymen. One can just visualise people who have never had the privilege of wearing uniform or of serving the nation’s tricolour, smugly saying to themselves: “We always knew that their attitude of soldierly discipline and fortitude was only a facade. Deep down they are just like any of us.”
I am aware that these remark are likely to upset many of our Veterans who, despite advancing years, are going to great lengths to make a dramatic gesture on behalf of their comrades-in-arms. To them, let me just say that my criticism is directed, not so much at their actions, as at the insensitive and callous system which has driven them, in extremis, to such an unfortunate step.
An Ungrateful Nation?
In civilised nations the world over, the soldier, sailor and airman — and more so the Veteran — is an object of spontaneous respect, affection, admiration and the highest public esteem. These sentiments are made manifest by the people and the government of a grateful nation, in countless ways, in thought word and deed. There are monuments celebrating victories, statues of military heroes, war memorials for those who fell on the field of battle, avenues and squares named after soldiers and concessions for Servicemen in every sphere. Above all, Servicemen receive warm respect, affection and consideration from the general public as well as the media. None of this exists in India today.
I have no doubt whatsoever that in cities like London, Paris, Washington or Moscow the dismal spectacle of Veterans reduced to ‘demonstrating’ in public to ask for their dues, would have wrought agony in their countrymen. The citizens of New Delhi, God bless them, chose to ignore this ‘cry from the heart’ of old warriors. The media — otherwise so intrusive and inquisitive, and so proud of their ‘independence’ — almost completely blacked out this significant gesture by the Veterans. The one TV channel which planned to air a related programme chickened out at the last minute. We can only speculate about the reasons for the media’s sudden coyness.
From Major Som Nath Sharma who died fighting the Pakistani tribals in Badgam in 1947, to Captain Vikram Batra who laid down his life in the icy wastes of Kargil in 1999 there is a long Roll of Honour which lists the heroes and battle-casualties of the Indian Armed Forces. Just reading about their exploits of valour and self-sacrifice is enough to give one goose pimples. It is the inspiration provided by such brave men which motivates our Armed Forces to great heights of dedication and commitment to the motherland. But does anyone else in the country remember their sacrifice? Or care?
Not even a decade has passed since Tiger Hill and Tololing were won back by our soldiers in the face of intense enemy opposition at a horrific cost in lives. But our citizens do not have the time to even light a candle in memory of those who fell in Kargil, or a hundred other battles, because their adulation seems to be reserved exclusively for cricketers, cine stars and politicians. One often wonders if patriotic young soldiers should be shedding blood for the safety and well being of a society as ungrateful as ours?
Let us not be fooled by the razzmatazz that economists are feeding us about India’s nine per cent GDP growth, or get carried away by the fabulous salaries offered by MNCs to young IIT and IIM graduates. As Indians, let us instead firmly bear in mind that 400-500 million of our brothers and sisters still survive on less than 40 rupees a day. I personally think that within the means available to the nation, the Armed Forces, and most of the ESM are paid enough. I say this without prejudice to the perfectly justified protest of the Armed Forces against the insidious manner in which the IAS has been steadily propelling itself upward to their detriment.
Really, it is not the money that bothers us. What the Serviceman and the Veteran find inexplicable and galling is something altogether different. They wonder why there has been a steady and continuing erosion in the soldier’s position and status in society while the responsibilities, hardships and hazards of soldiering have grown over the years.
Apart from their crucial role in defending the nation against every threat and calamity, the Armed Forces are making a vital contribution to the country’s social fabric. It is they who have promoted the ideals of integrity, discipline, professionalism and excellence, sadly lacking in every other walk of life. In the midst of prevailing chaos, the Armed Forces have remained an embodiment of order and discipline, and have faithfully upheld India’s secular and democratic traditions. There just isn’t any group, organization or set of individuals which has sustained the integrity, security and stability of the Indian state, with the steadfastness and loyalty demonstrated by the Indian Armed Forces.
Is it then surprising if the Soldier agonizes over the fact that in spite of his huge contribution to the nation, his Izzat has been deliberately denuded by vested interests, and Iqbal denied to him by his countrymen?
I do not claim to have answers to the Soldier’s dilemma, but I think that the issues involved have assumed such importance that they need to be examined in some depth. Let me place before the reader, four factors which I think have contributed to the steady and ongoing erosion of the soldier’s image, and the degradation of his status in Indian society, with consequential effects.
Mahatma Gandhi’s firm adherence to the noble principle of non-violence throughout India’s independence struggle has no parallel in history. He was a great man with profound values, but misinterpretation of his unique vision led to the emergence of two surreal perceptions amongst India’s political leadership.
For one they were convinced that since a non-violent India would have no enemies, the armed forces would become redundant after independence. Their second conviction was that the Indian Army was in any case a mercenary force which had been used as a tool by the British to suppress the freedom movement, and deserved to be shown its place. They were utterly wrong on both counts, and such myths need to be demolished, because a man in uniform can today sense the cognitive lack of empathy, if not antipathy, to his cause in the in the political establishment of all shades.
Major General KM Cariappa (later the first Indian Commander-in-chief) called on Gandhiji in December 1947 and sought his advice on how he should put across the concept of ahimsa to his soldiers whose dharma was to fight for the nation. The Mahatma pondered over the question and replied: “I am still groping in the dark for the answer. I will find it and give it to you one day.” A month later he fell to an assassin’s bullet, and Cariappa never received an answer. But by then the first of our illusions had already been shattered in October 1947, when Pakistani hordes came pouring into Baramulla and it was only the Indian Army’s gallantry which saved the Valley.
The politicians were right that the British Indian Army, true to its salt, had served the King-Emperor loyally in both World Wars. But after the string of early British defeats in WW II, Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) in Singapore, Germany and Italy were confronted with the most awesome moral dilemma that a soldier can ever face; a choice between the oath they had given to the King and the chance to fight for freedom of the motherland, being offered by Netaji Subhash Bose.
After agonising over this veritable dharma sankat and fully recognising the terrible consequences of either option, many Indian officers and jawans decided for their motherland, with the result that:
3000 Indian PoWs were formed into the Legion Freies Indien or Free Indian Legion as a unit of the German Wehrmacht.
A unit named the Battaglione Azad Hindoustan was formed out of Indian PoWs in Italy.
40,000 out of 45,000 PoWs in Singapore joined the Azad Hind Fauj or INA as it was commonly known.
The story of these expatriate Indian warriors is a romantic but forgotten chapter in India’s freedom struggle. Suffice it to say that the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (Provisional Government of Free India) formed in Singapore by Bose in 1943 declared war on the British Empire, and the INA units fought a bitter campaign against them in Burma with ‘Dilli Chalo’ as their inspiring slogan.
In early 1946, ratings of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied, and the insurrection spread right across the country, with units of the RIAF, Army Signal Corps and EME joining their naval comrades in revolt. These events not only inspired and galvanized the freedom movement in India, but also struck fear into British hearts. General Wavell, the C-in-C admitted in a secret report: “It is no use shutting one’s eye to the fact that any Indian soldier worth his salt is a Nationalist…”
Disciplined Services never dwell on mutinies, regardless of the cause, and that is why these events rarely find mention in our Armed Forces, but the powerful impact on the British Sarkar of these acts of great moral courage, must not be disparaged, belittled or forgotten. So anyone who says that the Indian soldier did not contribute to India’s freedom movement is either ignorant or deliberately suppressing the truth.
The phase immediately post-Independence too, was extremely difficult for our fledgling nation. To forget the sterling role played by the Armed Forces during the violence and turbulence of Partition, and in integrating the recalcitrant princely states would be an act of rank ingratitude. Over the years, as our glaring strategic naiveté repeatedly led to adventurism by our neighbours in 1947, 1962, 1965 and 1999, it was invariably the gallantry and patriotism of the Armed Forces which saved the nation from disintegration and dishonour.
The Bureaucracy Strikes
From many post-Independence historical accounts it appears that the politician possibly felt not only ill at ease with the soldier, but also disdained the ‘military intellect’. This was an ideal situation for the civil servants to exploit to the hilt.
Although the British had devised a workable interim organisational structure for the divided Indian armed forces, it fell to the bureaucracy to work out the nuts and bolts, and to implement it. Showing the Armed Forces ‘their place’ was simple for the mandarins of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). Possibly holding out the spectre of a military coup to the gullible politician, and deliberately misinterpreting the principle of ‘civilian control’, they created a structure which suited them ideally, and brought the Armed Forces under bureaucratic control.
In the UK, the navy, army and air force were then run respectively by the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry. Each of these were ministries, headed by a minister of Cabinet rank designated by convention as the ‘Secretary of State for…’ and often referred to as just ‘Secretary’. In India the ICS created a unique structure with a ‘ministry of defence’ composed of a number of departments, manned exclusively by itinerant civilian generalists, and headed by a bureaucrat of secretary rank. External to the MoD and subordinate to the department of defence they created three ‘Attached Offices’ one each for the army, navy and air force HQs.
So at one fell swoop, the bureaucracy had:
Placed the Service HQs well outside the government of India, whom they could only approach through the MoD.
Effectively subordinated the Service Chiefs to decision-making at the lowest rungs of the MoD, since every file ‘submitted’ by the Service HQ had to be routed bottom-upwards in the MoD, starting at under-secretary level.
Kept the Service Chiefs and the Defence Minister safely distanced from each other.
The political establishment of the day was probably informed that the affairs of the Services were being run by a secretary, ‘just like in the UK’ and they must have been relieved to have the bureaucracy manage complex defence matters for them. The military leadership of the time was probably too naïve and inexperienced to even realise the iniquity of the system imposed on them. The feeble noises that we have made thereafter, have naturally fallen on the deaf ears of the IAS bureaucracy; successor service to the ‘heaven born’ ICS.
No one seems to have pointed out the fact that in the best and oldest democracies of the world, ‘civilian control’ over the Armed Forces is best exercised by the simple expedient of having the head of the Armed Forces (be it a CDS, Chairman Joint Chiefs or Chef d’Etat Majeur) as the right hand of the President or the Prime Minister, and charged with rendering advice on strategic/military matters.
The Damage Inflicted by Media
Possibly the greatest damage to the public image of the Armed Forces as well as to their self-esteem has been inflicted by the Indian media. This predatory beast finds, in the Armed Forces, instant gratification and tremendous payback for very little effort. They see an institution, and a set of people who set for themselves, extraordinarily high standards of conduct, and when accused of misdemeanour, react with pain and anguish. What can be more satisfying for the slavering media hounds?
That their uniformed victim is bound and gagged, and unable to respond, is even better for them because he can then be maligned with impunity for the sake of mindless sensationalism. Regrettably, many of the young media-persons are neither well informed about the Armed Forces, nor do they undertake serious study of the subject.
It is for this reason that one rarely sees serious, well-researched and thought provoking articles on defence matters. On the other hand, it appears that every trivial issue relating to the Armed Forces has to be either, a sensational ‘scam’, ‘cover-up’ or ‘serious embarrassment’, otherwise it is perhaps not considered news-worthy by the editors. The hostile attitude of the media towards the only institution in the country which undertakes quick investigation and fixation of accountability, and metes out swift justice is inexplicable.
Today, any disgruntled person, vested interest or even agent of a foreign power can entice the India media with the promise of a ‘defence scandal’, and they will happily proceed to malign the Armed Forces. Neither the good name and reputation of its leadership, nor morale of the rank and file of the Armed Forces, nor indeed any concern for the truth are matters of slightest concern for the irresponsible journalists or their arrogant editors.
Having done their best to denigrate the nation’s Armed Forces in the public eye, the media will then report with great glee, the number of unfilled vacancies in NDA and IMA. Need the Armed Forces look any further? The enemy is within.
The Inner Discord
Such is the power of Jointmanship, that whenever the Chairman COSC has occasion to use the phrase, ‘the three Chiefs are of the view…’ whether in writing or verbally, all obstacles in the MoD and elsewhere tended to melt away. Unfortunately, there are not too many instances when this phrase can actually be used.
Disagreements between the Chiefs on professional issues will take place, and can be resolved in the COSC room, but it is discord among the three Services more than any other factor that is exploited to the fullest by the political establishment and the bureaucracy, and which has led to the devaluation which we lament today. On any difficult issue taken up by the Armed Forces the attempt by the MoD will be to strike separate bargains with the Services and defuse the issue.
So if the Services keep sliding down the Warrant of Precedence, or one rank one pay is denied to ESM, or the War Memorial is kept in limbo, the Services have only their own disunity to blame.
This is a subject on which volumes could be written to the delight of our detractors, and therefore need not be discussed here. In the context under discussion, suffice it to say that a sea change can come about, if the Service Chiefs, placing the larger interests of the Armed Forces above all other considerations, jointly request the government to take forward the process of integration to implement the following at the earliest:
A full time Chairman COSC who can devote 100 per cent of his time to common issues affecting the three Services, and then spend as much time as required in pursuing them with the Government.
Actual integration of the Service HQ with the MoD (the current term ‘Integrated HQ of MoD’ is a complete charade), so that civilian and uniformed functionaries can be deployed interchangeably in the Ministry.
These are by no means magic mantras and will neither end discord nor bring harmony into the Services overnight. But they are the first steps to ensure that the Armed Forces speak with one voice and thus protect themselves against exploitation.
The 6th Pay Commission
I come finally to the burning issue of the day, the 6th Pay Commission, because the Internet is rife with disinformation today.
Setting out at great length, the historical and contemporary reasons for his request, on 12 April 2006 the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) wrote a letter to the Raksha Mantri (RM), seeking his “…personal intervention for the appointment of a Service Officer as a constituted member of the Sixth Central Pay Commission, likely to be announced shortly.” The letter went on to remind the RM that, “…while the first two Pay Commissions were dedicated exclusively to the Armed Forces, from the third CPC onwards, the emoluments of the Armed Forces became just one more issue to be examine, but a lack of Service representation was perhaps one of the main reasons for the dissatisfaction expressed by the Services post 5th CPC award.”
Four weeks later, on 16 June 2006, the Chairman followed up this letter with a reminder, forwarding the names of three serving and two retired officers as possible candidates, with the request that, “‘the RM may like to have the panel vetted by the MoD in order to select the best qualified candidate” to serve on the 6th Pay Commission.
During frequent discussions that took place in the three months that remained to him as RM, the minister did convey to the Chiefs that he was experiencing difficulties in convincing his cabinet colleagues regarding this issue, but expressed optimism that he would find a way for the CPC to receive a direct input from the Services.
It is a tradition in the MoD not to respond to any communication from the Service Chiefs in writing, and therefore the Service HQs will have no record of what transpired within the MoD. However, a letter from the Chairman COSC has to be placed on file and discussed at length by the bureaucracy before a recommendation is made to the Minister. At this juncture, only a request to the MoD under the RTI can bring out the record on file, as to what the MoD recommended and why this request was denied.
The fact however, remains that for the sixth time in succession, the Armed Forces remained unrepresented on a Pay Commission. The resulting unhappiness amongst the Services and the ESM was a foregone conclusion.
Bitterly recounting poetic verse about soldiers ‘slighted’ or ‘ignored’ by an ungrateful nation is not going to stir many consciences in India. Also one cannot help having serious reservations about public protests through the medium of marches, dharnas or hunger-strikes by ESM. Whether they have the desired impact or not (many states imposed Section 144 in affected towns) such displays of ‘trade unionism’ will erase the last distinction between the proud ethos of the Armed Forces/ESM and the rest; both in our own minds as well as in the minds of our countrymen.
It is rightly said that there is nothing easier than for Veterans, free of any responsibility, to render advice to their serving comrades from the safety and security of retirement. Therefore, having drawn attention to the factors which need to be tackled by the Services with resolve and unity, I shall refrain from adding anything further.
Except to quote a few lines from the autobiography of General Lord Ismay, in the hope that they will be read by those at the helm of the nation: ‘A country may have powerful armed forces, led by brilliant commanders; it may have statesmen of great competence; it may have immense wealth; it may have industries which are most efficiently run; but unless the statesmen and soldiers at the summit work together in a spirit of mutual esteem, the essential coordination will be lacking, and there is bound to be deadly waste of blood and treasure.’
General Ismay should know; he was Churchill’s Chief of Staff, confidante and alter ego right through World War II.
(Adm. Arun Prakash is a former Chief of the Naval Staff. He was Chairman COSC from February 2005 to October 2006)
*Sarvatra Izzat-O-Iqbal is the hybrid Sanskrit-Persian post-Independence motto of the Regiment of Artillery, which means: Honour and Esteem Everywhere