A Matter of Honour

Political, military leadership must ensure that no unlawful or ambiguous orders are given

Ravi PalsokarBrig Ravi Palsokar (retd)

I will obey. This is the creed of the soldier. His entire existence, dependability and self-respect depends on this maxim. The nation expects a soldier to do his duty loyally, even at the cost of his life. His is not to reason why. It is a noble thought which the people of the country take for granted and in return give him love, respect and implicit trust.

If this is an indisputable fact, then the question arises as to why does it need to be discussed at all. The reasons are many, but we need to look at the past if there have been occasions when the soldier’s loyalty was tested and found wanting. Loyalty to the nation is not confined to soldiers alone but implies an obedience to authority. It particularly applies to the civil services, who too are expected to serve the nation under the supervision of the political leadership.

This quality was tested at the time of the country’s Independence and at its heart was the conduct and future of the senior bureaucrats serving under the British Raj, the Indian Civil Service. As the country’s independence was round the corner, the most senior civil servant Sir V.P. Menon approached his political master, the home minister-to-be, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and offered to resign, saying that the Congress party and others fighting for the freedom of the country had always viewed the ICS as disloyal to the Indian cause and as such it would be better if he retired with honour. The redoubtable Sardar’s reply was classic. He would hear no such talk from Menon or any other Indian civil servant. They would continue to serve independent India with equal loyalty and diligence. But what of the British civil servants? The Sardar was clear and replied that they would want to return to their own country and the government would be glad to see their backs. This ended the matter and the members of the ICS continued to serve their country, now independent with distinction. The above was narrated to the author in a private conversation many years ago by PVR Rao, formerly of the ICS and later the defence secretary. Such stories can be told about all central services, but our interest is restricted to the defence forces.

The Indianisation of the army’s officer corps had commenced in 1919 and by the end of the Second World War, there were some 2,500 officers in the army and a much smaller number in the navy and the air force. Obviously, they were nationalistic in their outlook and looked forward to the country’s independence, but they were not sure what their role would be and what changes were in the offing. Stories abound that some officers approached Mahatma Gandhi individually and asked what they should do. Apparently, Gandhi told them to carry on because the country would need trained officers once it became independent. This story cannot be vouched for but when a section of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in 1946, their leaders met Sardar Patel to seek his advice. His response was that it was the politicians’ prerogative to agitate and strike and that the mutineers should follow their soldiers’ duty. The mutiny fizzled out and not many are aware of the Sardar’s role in this affair.

A Matter of Honour 

Conscience vs Orders

These are examples from the past. Have any incidents taken place more recently? Unfortunately, the answer is in the affirmative. The most recent example is of the mutiny among Sikh units after Operation Blue Star in 1984. The army hierarchy was caught unaware, and the senior leadership must take the blame. It redounds to the army’s credit that the response to the mutiny was mature and far sighted and these units continue to serve the country with distinction.

Mutinies take place in all armies and studies show that three factors are common to all: a genuine military grievance, lack of or breakdown of communication between the officers and the men and outside interference. All three factors existed in the mutinies after Operation Blue Star because many other Sikh units had been steadfast in their loyalty. But what does stand out is that while a soldier’s loyalty is solid, it cannot be abused or taken for granted. It must be ensured that the soldier is not required to question or prove his allegiance. His creed remains, I will obey.

History abounds with examples when soldiers have been asked to make choices. An oft-quoted example comes from the Second World War. When France capitulated, General Charles de Gaulle withdrew to England and called upon the French Army to join him and not serve their German conquerors. Many Frenchmen and women answered General de Gaulle’s call and fought as Free French on the side of the Allies. This had an unexpected fallout during the Algerian Revolution, which ended in March 1962. When General de Gaulle as the President negotiated Algeria’s independence, a section of French officers revolted. Among the mutineers there were officers who had fought with distinction in the Indochina war from 1945 to 1954, including at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. When these officers were tried in a court of law, their defence was that it was the President himself who had asked his army to choose between orders and their conscience. If now they were questioning General de Gaulle’s orders, they could not be treated as mutineers. This often-cited example highlights why soldiers should never be asked to choose between loyalty to one authority or another, even if it is in their own country.

The most recent example in the United States has been highlighted in an article by Risa Brooks published in Foreign Affairs magazine. Titled The Right Wing’s Loyalty Test for the US Military, the author has called out attempts by politicians to criticise the military to further partisan interests. To quote: ‘Right wing politicians and members of the media allied with former President Donald Trump are actively undermining the military’s standing in society while paradoxically claiming its popularity as their own. If Trump and his allies had their wish, the military’s non-partisan ethics would be replaced by a loyalty test to one faction in US politics.’

The author then goes on to describe how politics can debase a soldier’s loyalty. The details about how this was being done are not relevant to our country, but we need to be aware of the dangers of such an approach.


A Matter of HonourCivil Supremacy

Civil-military relations in India have always followed the time-honoured democratic concept of supremacy of the civil government. This has been so right from independence and has served the country well. The political leadership decides defence policies and the military executes it. There is inter-action between the two before a policy is adopted.

Outside of this, internal administrative matters are decided by the services themselves and are subject to the laws of the country. In practice there is always some friction between the political executive, often represented by the bureaucracy (who tend to arrogate military power to themselves) and the military leadership and between the services themselves. So long as this remains balanced, a modicum of disagreement is useful. Over-subservience of the military to the political executive or unnecessary interference by the latter in purely service matters causes dysfunction, as it happened in 1962. The events leading to that catastrophic defeat have seared themselves into the country’s military psyche ever since.

The call on a soldier’s loyalty must be lawful, singular, unambiguous and must only be called upon by the legally-constituted authority of the nation. There must be no compromise on this. The discipline of the soldier, his commitment even at the cost of his life, is the armour that protects him in the line of duty and this cannot be interfered with for partisan ends. Even as this is said, it must be noted that there are three entities that assist the soldier to do his utmost. The legally-constituted authority which includes the political executive including the bureaucracy, the services themselves and most important of all in a democracy, the public. Look at each separately.

The responsibility of the political leadership is important and it is incumbent that the soldier is never given an illegal task or an order that forces him to make a choice. The political leadership of the country has done this admirably in all armed conflicts the nation has had to face, barring 1962. Whether it was in 1948, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was sought to be wrested by force, or in 1971, when it became imperative for the country to intercede when the Pakistan army launched a genocide against the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), or even in Kargil, when a Pakistani military dictator thought he had the measure of the nation’s political leadership and the armed forces, the political response has not been found wanting. Nehru was ably assisted by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1948, Mrs Indira Gandhi orchestrated India’s response in 1971 with a firm leadership resulting in the birth of Bangladesh, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to not violate the line of control in the face of grave provocation was a master stroke during Kargil. It ensured that the country maintained the high moral ground in international opinion even as the armed forces were ready to launch a riposte across the international border into Pakistan. The one time the political leadership failed was in 1962 and the country has been paying a heavy price ever since. A defeat may be military, but its repercussions are geopolitical. The Sri Lankan misadventure was more out of an over-confident army chief assuring the Prime Minister that his army would “sort out” the LTTE in 10 days. We returned after almost three years having achieved nothing except having battle-hardened troops, but at a cost.


Services Responsibility

The services have their own responsibility within their sphere. All command within the services is hierarchical and orders are required to be followed in letter and spirit. This imposes a duty on the commander to not give an unlawful order or that which is ambiguous and open to interpretation. This implies that a commander acknowledges that he is prepared to be held responsible for the consequences of his order. This military truism cannot be trifled with. Very senior officers are often presented with a fait accompli when something goes wrong. In corrective action they need to remember that it is their task to provide leadership. Too often supervisory action is mistaken for leadership. Military command is leadership and not supervision.

The apolitical ethos of the Indian armed forces has stemmed from the traditions and the responsibilities of the erstwhile British Indian armed forces. An outsider may often feel that the services are anglicised, sticking to outdated customs and traditions and so on. These have a military purpose. Ask a soldier what he fights for and the answer will be that he fights for his colleagues, his regiment or unit and its izzat. The concept of a larger duty to the nation is not forgotten but in the heat of battle, his focus is limited to the local situation. The services have changed considerably since independence, become more Indian but ever so slowly.

A Matter of Honour

Two examples should suffice. Sometime in 1964, all units and regiments were directed to stop celebrating battle honours which were repugnant to Indian sensibilities. Many of the older units had to change and this was done without the slightest disagreement. Take also the example of the intake of officers. The entry is purely on merit with no relation to their social or economic background. The new cohort of officers comes from either a rural background or smaller towns and this has resulted in the officers becoming more egalitarian and less anglicised. The services actively support this. The lingua franca within the services is now more Hindi than English and evolving all the time. The greeting ‘Jai Hind’ within the services rather than the old anglicised one is a positive example.

The public acknowledges the role, sacrifice and impartiality of the services without any reservations. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the services are one pan-Indian organisation whose credibility remains as high as ever. In popular films one can see the police and politicians shown in a bad light but never a soldier. There is a reason for this. Recruiting through the length and breadth of the country, the services are visible as the son, brother, husband or father or a neighbour of every family of this country. This relationship is sacred. To give a personal example, I retired from the army almost 30 years ago and have now joined the ranks of old men. Yet when I walk in the morning towards my village on the outskirts of a big city, many young and old persons (and even occasionally women) greet me. Actually, they are not greeting me but the institution I represent, that is the Indian Army. There can be no greater certificate of trust in an institution than this.

So where do we go from here? The services do not need lessons on nationalism. They embody it. In the recent past, over-enthusiastic leaders, including in the military, hoping to curry favour, have been advocating inculcating nationalism among the services. One can only say, “Don’t fix what is not broken.” Jai Hind!

A Matter of Honour


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