First Person | Road to the Right

Indiscipline is never restricted to one part; it spills over in all aspects of one’s life

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Horrified doesn’t describe my exact feelings. They oscillated between disbelief, disgust, rage and anxiety, but for want of a better word to sum up this range of emotions, I would go with horror.

A young colonel, merely a couple of years into voluntary retirement, was explaining the rising incidents of rape in India to two Canadian journalists. Incidentally, in the last one year, more foreigners have asked me about rapes in India than anything else about my country. The colonel’s first explanation was that more Indian women have started wearing western clothes, which goes against the traditional grain of the country. His second explanation flowed from the first: Men are like that only.

In response to my vehement protest, he gave the example of the Indian Army. He said, “Forget women, even if there is an attractive soldier or an officer with shapely legs and hairless body, he faces the danger of being pawed. This is very common. In my unit, a young officer was told not to wear shorts for the evening parade as the soldiers used to ogle at his shapely legs.”

Does it mean that a man with supposed feminine body traits can even get raped by his own brother soldiers? The colonel smiled at the naiveté of my question. The Canadians sniggered in understanding that seemed to suggest ‘what do you women know about the world of men’. “Let me put it this way,” said the colonel gently. “It is not uncommon.”

But rape is a crime, legally, socially, morally, whichever way you look at it, I spluttered. How come the soldiers do not understand this?

“It is not as black and white as you imagine. Life in an army unit is very different,” the colonel said patiently. “Such matters remain within the unit. If things turn ugly, the boy is shifted to another unit. And of course, we take disciplinary action against the offenders,” he said even as the Canadian men nodded before recounting frighteningly similar stories from the Canadian military’s experience in Afghanistan. Rape, or sexual harassment of both men and women, was just an unpleasant fact of life, was the general consensus among the three men, even as I sat wide-eyed trying to absorb what was being said.

I continued to stay in my state of disbelief till I had a chance meeting with another retired officer a few weeks later and I remembered to run this conversation through with him. “Such things happen once in a while,” he said. “But it doesn’t happen in all the units or all the time. These are exceptional cases.”

Thank God for small mercies! Are criminal charges pressed against the offenders?
“There are internal mechanisms to deal with such things. See, whatever happens in a unit, eventually reflects upon the commanding officer…,” he let the sentence hanging. So, to report or hush-up an incident is the CO’s prerogative.

This article is not about rape. It is about what such attitude says about an institution that must have a higher code of conduct than any other institution in the country, for the simple reason that the nature of its job is unlike any other in the country. At least, two recent consecutive chiefs have spoken about restoring the internal health of the Indian Army as one of their KRAs. I don’t remember any of the earlier chiefs speaking about an internal malaise afflicting the army. However, if these chiefs have spoken about this or about ‘going back to the basic value system of the army’ then clearly in the last few years there has been some erosion of those values.

The cavalier attitude towards what amounts to rape is symptomatic of that malaise. If you close your eyes to one kind of wrong-doing can you be trusted to know the right from the wrong in other instances?

Is it any wonder then cases of brawling within the units are now spilling over in the public domain? Or allegations of sexual abuse by lady officers against peers and seniors? Or interference by senior officers in the private lives of junior officers? Or wives of young officers forming an association to both complain about harassment by some officers and indifference of others? Why not stretch the point a bit more and include wilful violation of human rights for perks and promotions? What does this say about the moral fibre of an institution which holds itself as superior to the rest, where the retired community demands not just respect but gratitude from fellow countrymen?

Those who use the plea of such cases being exceptions miss the most important point. It is the exceptions that we have to worry about, because had it been the rule then clearly we would be dealing with a rogue army, and not an institution that we hold as an epitome of gallantry and chivalry.

Saying that such instances are a reflection of the society we come from is making excuses. After all, what is training for, if not to chisel the rock into a diamond? But clearly, that can only happen if you not only know the right from the wrong, but always chose the right over the wrong every time you have a choice. And, as is the tradition in the army, officers must lead in this as well.


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