Bottomline | Unity in Uniform

Unless that happens, the bureaucrats will continue to bypass the Services

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The May 27 hunger strike by ex-servicemen (veterans) at Amar Jawan Jyoti in New Delhi seems to have irked the government. When asked by the media, minister of state for defence, M Pallam Raju said that a disciplined force should not resort to such measures, especially when the government is already reviewing recommendations of the sixth pay commission. This is happening not because the government suddenly has had a change of heart, but because the Chiefs of Staff Committee comprising the three service chiefs had met the defence minister with a forceful appeal that the morale of the services would be severely undermined if the government ignored their genuine grievances. This was told to me by a service chief who looked shocked at the government’s insensitivity. We, of course, know why this happened in the first place: the government simply did not know about the services’ expectations from the pay commission. Writing in this same issue of FORCE, Admiral Arun Prakash, who was the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee in 2006 says that his written plea that a military member should be onboard the six pay commission panel was ignored by the defence ministry. As always, the bureaucrats had their way and all that the services’ will eventually get would be half-baked measures and a promise for a better deal in the next pay commission. Having succeeded in keeping the services’ representative away from the making of the pay commission report, a few crumbs doled out after the review would appear like a huge bureaucratic generosity.

Unfortunately, this pattern is not new. Consider the ‘Group of Ministers’ report released by the government in February 2002 that emphatically recommended the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff and integration of the three services’ headquarters with the defence ministry. This became possible because Arun Singh who headed the study on restructuring of the armed forces is an apolitical and intelligent man, and the Vajpayee government emerging victorious from the 1999 Kargil crisis indeed wanted reforms for better functioning of the armed forces. But this is not what the bureaucrats wanted and they skilfully reversed what was a fait accompli. The CDS was diluted to become the headless Integrated Defence Headquarters, which is nothing more than a think-tank of the COSC. The integration of the services’ headquarters with the defence ministry remains only on paper; nothing has changed. A joint secretary remains more powerful than a service chief, and a defence secretary who is supposed to be the administrative head of the ministry is the de facto CDS. While all this is common knowledge, more worrying is what is not commonly known.

Take the issue of a credible nuclear deterrence. After talking with many senior serving and retired military officers, I get the uneasy sense that they consider this to be someone else’s responsibility, and remain content with preparing for a conventional war below the nuclear threshold level. For this, the interaction between the three defence services have increased manifold at all levels of war. But, should not all general rank officers know unambiguously what constitutes credible deterrence and in case it fails who is responsible for the delivery of strategic weapons? The feeling I get is that few drills exist for this purpose and little practice has been done to know the time it would take from giving of orders to the actual delivery of nuclear weapons. Unlike the recommendations of the pay commission, as senior officers are unconcerned about this issue, the COSC has never been pressed too hard to meet the defence minister on this critical matter.

This is a sad reflection of two shortcomings in the armed forces: unless pushed on welfare issues that concern all ex-servicemen, the three service chiefs are completely absorbed by their service matters. The bureaucrats take advantage of this by pitting one service against the other. Consequently, the joint procurement plans get superseded by individual services’ requirements. Once a service gets what it wants, its chief remains lukewarm to the urgent needs of the other two services, let alone tri-service requirements. This cannot be good for the armed forces that are gearing themselves for a role outside the geographic limits of the country.

The other unbecoming aspect of the military is the lack of unity amongst services officers. If any proof was needed for this, it was available at the recent veterans rally in the capital. What was touted to be a grand collection of veterans turned out to be a rather tame affair; there were no veterans from the air force and the navy. Even from the army, not a single retired service chief turned up at the venue. The conclusion from this is obvious: most senior officers, even after retirement, are unwilling to displease the government even on legitimate matters concerning their own fraternity. Why this is so, everyone who has worn uniform is well aware of. Over time, the sound advice learnt at the beginning of the services’ career that one’s own welfare comes only after the welfare of the men and the country gets reversed. And this is the root cause why bureaucrats roughshod over the defence services.


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