The latest case of collective indiscipline and the consequent face-off between officers and jawans of 16 Cavalry based in the Samba area prompted Lieutenant General Oberoi, an erstwhile vice-chief to write: “Three incidents of collective indiscipline by jawans in the last few months, reflecting a breakdown in the traditionally close officer-man relationship, are a cause for concern, especially as all three of them are related to combat units, where a stable and healthy officer-man relationship is an article of faith.”
If the problem were indeed limited to a breakdown in the officer-man relationship, then perhaps the search for solutions may have been somewhat less complex. There are, however, other dimensions to the challenges being faced by the army. For some years now, charges of corruption have been levelled against senior and star rank officers. Beginning with the Tehelka case, every succeeding exposure achieves greater heights in terms of rank and the audacity of default. So numbed had the nation become to bad news tumbling out of South Block that the unfortunate drama that accompanied the closing stages of the last army chief’s tenure was worthy of no more than a few screaming television debates, when it should have been treated as a deeper systemic malaise and a wake-up call.
Now comes another national headline regarding an army court inquiring into allegations that a major of an army aviation unit is uploading explicit pictures and videos of his superior officer, a lieutenant colonel, and his wife, on pornographic websites. So the last bastion of being a gentleman and an officer also stands breached.
Such incidents can no more be wished away as isolated ones, coming as they do with yet another worrying phenomenon, that of high rates of fratricide and suicide. The defence minister informed the Rajya Sabha of 1028 suicide cases and 80 of fratricide since 2003. The staid response of the prime minister in Parliament to the Samba incident demonstrates how everyone has gotten used to bad news from the army. He reportedly said, “I request the House not to have a discussion on the subject. This is a small incident, which is being blown out of proportion. It is not good for the morale of our armed forces.”
But to the people at large, it is clear that there is something wrong with our army, a complex institution that strives to weave together individual qualities of discipline, selflessness and sacrifice with dedicated teamwork and achievement of high goals inspired by the dictum of duty, honour and country. An institution on whose integrity and professionalism depends the very survival of India as a nation state.
The defence minister was concerned enough to call for a special brainstorming session with the service top brass and the head of the Defence Institute of Psychological Research. While the reactions of both the prime minister and the defence minister may be well- intentioned, they point to the very core of all that is wrong with the management of defence and the armed forces in general and the army in particular. They show that our civil leadership is today completely out of tune with ground realities, having traditionally outsourced civilian control of the armed forces to the civil services.
Fortunately, a far greater concern has been articulated by strategic and defence experts. Nitin Gokhale, a security and strategic affairs editor for a national television channel and himself a product of an army family, identifies in an article the problems to “be an outcome of a combination of factors: erosion in the soldiers’ status in the society, prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs, crippling shortage of officers in combat units and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers”.
Major General Mrinal Suman, a strategic and defence commentator, shows that the shortage of officers resulting in poor officer-man communication in turn leads to acts of desperation by over stressed and distressed soldiers. He quotes this loss of confidence in the system as having resulted in nearly a lakh of service cases pending in various courts.
Praveen Swami, a commentator writing in a national daily, pointed to the “military’s colonial era culture that left the officers ill equipped to understand the changed values and aspirations of the soldiers serving under their command.” In response, Manvendra Singh, an erstwhile 14th Lok Sabha member of the standing committee on defence and himself a territorial army officer, said that because of the sharply pyramidal structure across the institution of the army, competition was severe and resulted in a ‘zero error syndrome’. This in turn would lead to lapses being routinely covered up and command failures either unreported or, at best, under-reported.
Taken together, these and many other views suggest multi-dimensional factors cutting across traditional, military, societal, family, cultural and financial divides. The armed forces of the United States of America have also been grappling with stress and other related problems resulting in a large number of suicides. Research among the medical and strategic communities has produced some general findings that make for useful insights even though the US and Indian armies are so different.
In a paper titled “Losing the battle — the challenge of military suicide” by Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass, the authors conclude with a quote by George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war... shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
How we have treated our veterans is best exemplified by an ongoing agitation with regard to the last pay commission anomalies. A few thousand veterans have returned their medals to their supreme commander. Only last month, an association of veterans won their case in the Supreme Court for pension arrears due to them from the fourth pay commission. To add insult to injury and to utter national shame, it was their own ministry of defence that was at the losing end. If today, shortage of officers is resulting in harming the institutional ethos of the army, we have ourselves to blame.
In another US paper titled “Reframing suicide in the military”, George R. Mastroianni and Wilbur J. Scott make the point that civilian control of the military means that each member of society is ultimately responsible for what happens to its military members. They conclude, “Examining military suicides through a social and cultural frame demands that we ask questions about ourselves, our military institutions and service members and our policies that may yield uncomfortable answers. To shrink from that duty would indeed be to break faith with those who have sacrificed incomparably more in our name.”
We have failed our armed forces by not asking questions about our unequal contract with them when our Parliament has failed to do its part. We have been bystanders as our governments have broken faith with those fallen by ignoring repeated requests for a befitting war memorial on the Raj Path. Only by facing uncomfortable answers can we secure the future destiny not just of our armed forces but the Indian State as well. The writer can only repeat a plea made in the past to set up a Blue Ribbon Commission that will represent the wisest of minds from different walks and who will seek answers to many a vexed question. We have faith and confidence on our side — only time is fast running out.