Bottomline | Officer-Like-Qualities

The Indian Army is its own worst enemy

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The former army chief, General V.K. Singh in his new avatar of ‘Mr Clean’ recently told a rally in Patna that ‘politicians are weakening the defence forces.’ Really? I always thought it was the other way around. It is the defence forces, and unfortunately the army in the lead, which have weakened, devalued and flogged themselves so much that external debasement has been rendered unnecessary. While the history of the army after Independence is replete with examples of how majority of its senior brass has dutifully pandered to politicians and bureaucrats, I wish to draw from my own association with the service, both in uniform and outside.

The first instance that comes to mind was in 1978 when as a young captain I participated in the ‘mini-operational alert’ exercise of my artillery unit at Se la (over 16,000 feet above sea level) in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). Those days, in army’s wisdom, Se la (mountain pass) was the first line of defence to be held in strength against China. The annual exercise during summer months was meant to repair the unit’s defences which were to be occupied in case of a war with China. As was the norm, bachelor officers were chosen to lead the refurbishment work as senior married officers preferred to stay with their families in better climes. As the team leader, I faced numerous challenges: stores for defence repairs were inadequate, so we lived in leaky bunkers in sub-zero temperature, the unrelenting rains adding to our woes; daylight hours were scarce, and those too were truncated by low hanging thick clouds; and life was precariously dependent on kerosene oil, needed for warming and light. It was under such stressful conditions that I was to receive a visiting Parliamentary delegation from Delhi. Their task was to assess troops’ living conditions and suggest how these could be improved to the government. Instead of speaking about things as they were, I got instructions from my commanding officer (ensconced in far-away officer’s complex) to say that all was well. “As soldiers we should never complain. Tell them our morale is high and we are ready to fight a war,” he told me on the telephone line which was painstakingly fixed over hazardous terrain by signal branch soldiers to make this small-talk possible. I said as ordered to the incredulous visitors, who smiled and left.

I had learnt the first Officer-Like-Quality (OLQ): Do not complain, even when it is for the general or professional betterment. During my 13 years’ service, I did not meet any successful army officer violating this OLQ, so much so that troops are encouraged to adopt this so-called positive outlook. Take the case of General Singh: he did not dig his heels about his age discrepancy until he had attained the highest rank. Four days before he approached the Supreme Court on 16 January 2012 seeking personal redress, General Singh told the Army Day media-meet that the army was fully prepared for war. To recall, his predecessor during the 1999 Kargil conflict, General V.P. Malik told the unbelieving nation that ‘the army would fight with whatever it has’ only when he was pushed to the wall. I have come to believe that officers who lack this OLQ usually do not make it to higher ranks. While I am not suggesting that officers should burden superiors with problems without doable solutions, but pretending that all is hunky-dory is how the army weakens itself.

My second OLQ was also learnt during my maiden Se la stint. A team of BBC journalists after clearance from the defence ministry was to stop at Se la on way to Tawang. This time, the brigade commander spoke with me on the erratic telephone line. I was not to mention any shortcomings, stick to the preferred answer of ‘I don’t know’, and if cornered was to say that I was not competent to answer the question; it could best be replied by higher headquarters. The question asked of me was where and how did I and the men do our daily ablutions. Being a trick question which did not fit the memorised answers, I mumbled something, only to look extremely stupid. My seniors of course were pleased with my conduct and thus the second OLQ: consider media, at best an adversary, at worst an enemy.

This has been the army’s mantra, which only the daring and determined army chiefs have violated. The late General B.C. Joshi was one such aberration. Many years before General Rupert Smith coined the phrase ‘fighting amongst the people’ in his exceptional 2007 book ‘The Utility of Force’ to expound what counter-insurgency is all about; General Joshi in 1993 understood the need to interact with the media. Besides massive raisings of Rashtriya Rifle units from within own resources, General Joshi is credited with the formation of the Army Liaison Cell (precursor to the Directorate of Public Relations) at the Army Headquarters and media-cells at various lower formations; the sole purpose being to provide a smooth professional interface (which public relations officers under defence ministry are ill-equipped to do) between the army and media in the information age. Unfortunately, these offices function at the whims of the existing army chief; facilitating the media if the boss feels secure, otherwise obstructing the media most of the times. Given this vacillating profile, the directorate staffed with senior officers has delivered sub-optimally, usually providing a field day to propaganda and rumours. This is anathema to successful psychological-operations (psy-ops) and weakens the army from within.

I grasped the third, and probably the most significant OLQ, during my pre-commissioning training. An outstanding Gentleman-Cadet (as we were called prior to becoming officers) must always and every time volunteer to do additional tasks, even if it is someone else’s responsibility, or there are few resources to accomplish it. All GCs who would volunteer quicker than others were grudgingly called ‘Keen-Kumar’ by peers. Officers endowed with this sterling OLQ get decorated with PVSM and the like for ‘peace-time duties of exceptional order’ in later years, never mind the problems they leave for their successors to clear. Case in point are anti-Naxal operations, which the army vehemently denies of desiring to do, and yet is bracing itself to accept. Two recently retired central army commanders told me by way of their achievement that they had constituted study teams on their own initiative to hammer out details of what it would take for the army to do anti-Naxal operations. Now, why the heck will the army be asked to do them, unless of course it volunteers for it? In reality, the army has done sufficient spade-work, much more than the paramilitary forces fighting the menace, and is ready for spectacular presentations at the highest government level. The anti-terrorist ops in Jammu and Kashmir, which the army is unwilling to relinquish has given it enormous clout to veto the state chief minister in New Delhi. Think about the added prestige of senior army officers visiting the Prime Minister Office on anti-Naxal operations, and maybe lecturing the states on how to restore order. What is forgotten by the army in this short-sightedness is its primary job on two disputed borders with formidable adversaries armed with nuclear weapons. Hasn’t the army weakened itself by prolonged anti-terrorist operations, and wouldn’t it wreck itself further by more internal stability tasks?

What the army (and the other two defence services) need is not pomp and show, but a formal legalised role in the government of India. This entails two issues: need to amend the 1961 government of India allocation of business rules (AoB) and 1961 government of India transaction of business rules (ToB), and thereafter to bring all three defence services’ chiefs (instead of the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee alone) in the nuclear weapons’ execution loop. On both these subject, retired Admiral Arun Prakash has done commendable work. I recommend that all three services’ chiefs read his article ‘Three Invisible Men’ (FORCE, December 2011) to appreciate the truth that they count for little in the running of the government. The politician who goes by the legal status listens to the bureaucrat over the service chiefs because the former are mentioned in the GOI AoB/ToB and the latter are not: referred to as mere attached offices (even after their new designation of Integrated Headquarters of the ministry of defence). The chiefs of staff committee comprising the three chiefs should together approach the Prime Minister on this vital matter and seek their inclusion in the GOI AoB/ToB. Only then will the services become legally qualified for inclusion in the defence ministry with the bureaucrats. This formalised interaction will both oblige the politician to listen to the service chiefs, and bring the military at par with civilian bureaucrats in the defence ministry decision-making. This will be the first definitive step towards the much needed higher defence management reforms. Thereafter, the services’ headquarters will not need to humour bureaucrats for their acquisitions and other operational requirements. Until this happens, the three service chiefs will remain operational level (like their commander-in-chiefs) players, with the powerful bureaucrat operating at the strategic level.

The other anomaly concerns nuclear weapons. At present, the Nuclear Command Authority comprising senior cabinet ministers and headed by the Prime Minister has been empowered to decide nuclear weapons employment, after which the national executive authority would take over. The latter headed by the National Security Advisor have two military personnel in it: the chairman, Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) and the commander-in-chief, Strategic Forces Command. As the chairman, COSC is a twin hatter in addition to being a service chief and usually has a short tenure; he never garners enough time and expertise to meaningfully contribute to the nuclear domain. Considering that both our adversaries are nuclear weapon powers with militaries as important component of their employment policies, excluding the services’ chiefs in the Indian dispensation is a strategic disadvantage which ought to be corrected. This is another critical issue that the chiefs of staff committee should take up with the government at the highest level. In short, the services, and not politicians, are themselves to be blamed for having weakened themselves. General V. K. Singh should have known this.


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