Of late the Indian armed forces have more often than not been in the news for reasons that appear to reflect a lowering of both personal and institutional moral and ethical standards. The reasons are many, not least the rising demand from the public at large for accountability and a round-the-clock electronic media hungry for sensational news. But beyond these fairly legitimate aspects of a vibrant democracy lie the general societal expectations — that members of our armed forces are expected to be a cut above the rest and, whilst society may be somewhat tolerant of the shenanigans of our administrators and politicians, it draws the line when the decay spreads to our armed forces. In a way, members of society bind members of the armed forces to an unwritten professional contract — that of mutual trust whereby they authorize the armed forces to use their awesome military power to ensure the people’s security, but within the bounds of moral and ethical codes of conduct and behaviour. A contract neither articulated nor legal — yet that has the sanction of a moral binding force, for what is a nation’s military without the moral support of its people?
Unfortunately, an open debate on the subject has been lacking in India, thus depriving all the stakeholders, namely the armed forces, the institutions of democracy, of governance and, most crucially, society at large to understand the complexities that drive the modern-day profession of arms and the necessity of a mutually supportive relationship among all the stakeholders. All this in a changing world where individualism and the pursuit of personal advancement, wealth and pleasure have come to take on greater relevance than human values of selflessness, service and sacrifice and where human rights and other pacifist movements look upon the profession of arms with a certain degree of disdain.
It is vital that even war with all the death and destruction that it entails must be conducted ethically and within the moral value system endorsed by society. Indeed, the professionalism of the military is judged not just by the achievement of various mission objectives, but by whether these were achieved through fighting a moral and ethical battle. It is by means of articulating the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Charter that the international community has been able to differentiate conduct in what is called a ‘just war’ from the wanton killing of human beings.
Judgments about going to war fall in the political domain and the political executive must bear the moral responsibility for these actions and be able to persuade the society to which it is answerable. On the other hand, the just conduct of war covers the operational aspects that are the moral responsibility of the military, which in turn will be judged on its ethical and moral conduct, not just by the political leadership and society at large, but the international community as well.
There is always a moral dilemma that confronts military leaders. Not only do they have to cope with the stresses of professional decision making, they must do so under the benign eye of their political executives which, at the end of the day, answer to the people who elect them. This relationship can at times be problematic, considering that the working environments of the two — military and civil — systems are often poles apart. Any effort to intercept this line of communication by the bureaucracy acting as interlocutors or the media in the garb of public opinion would be contrary to the spirit of this relationship.
The State lets the profession of arms develop its own codes, ethics, professional expertise and skills provided they conform to moral values of society, whilst upholding the laws of the land. In fulfilment of this abiding trust between the society and himself, every professional military person is honour bound to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation even at the peril of one’s life. This is the oath that one takes, making the profession of arms unique. The foundations of this contract of unlimited liability on the part of the uniformed fraternity for the larger good of society are based neither on laws of the land nor rules of governance, but on mutual trust and moral and ethical conduct on the part of both parties.
And finally, whilst military professionals must aspire and strive to build for themselves a successful career, this must not be at the cost of professional integrity where careerism results in either not standing up for what is right, or for those under one’s command or, indeed, to further one’s career prospects by indulging in unethical professional or personal conduct.
The rising number of suicides in the armed forces is one of the symptoms of the prolonged use of the forces (more specifically the army) in countering insurgencies and the low-intensity conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. When the suicide of a soldier serving in Jammu and Kashmir was raised in Parliament, the prime minister urged members not to have a discussion, stating, “[T]his is a very small incident, which is being blown out of proportion. It is not good for the morale of our armed forces.” That the people’s representatives accepted this view speaks of the trust deficit between the representatives of society, the government and the armed forces, when discussions on such vital issues are considered inconsequential and are avoided under the hollow pretence of protecting the morale of the armed forces.
The response to the recent desecration of our soldiers’ bodies as also earlier ones points again to serious fault lines in the mutual trust between society, the executive and its soldiers. It is for the first time in Indian history that families of such martyrs have gone public with their angst. A society that reacts indifferently to the dishonouring of its armed forces not only risks losing the respect of its armed forces but demonstrates that the so-called spirit of mutual trust and sacred contract of unlimited liability have become one-sided to the detriment of the armed forces. In today’s connected world, the armed forces are not insensitive to this state of affairs. This augurs ill for the morale of the armed forces of India.
The moral questions that society must ask of itself are what obligations does it have to its armed forces professionals, its veterans, martyrs’ widows and those wounded and maimed for life, in return for their unlimited liability? The larger question is why is Parliament, which is the voice of the people, not doing its moral duty towards society, the government that it selects and the armed forces in enforcing moral and ethical accountability?
It is a reflection of the lack of trust that prevails today between the civil-military domains that the country has recently been witness to an ugly confrontation between a serving chief and the government in the Supreme Court. Veterans have been holding protest marches and returning their hard-earned medals to their supreme commander, who no doubt under advice of his bureaucracy, chooses not to meet them. When our soldiers’ bodies are desecrated, society and civil leaders fail to fathom the deep shame that every uniformed and veteran feels. Between the extremes of baying for blood or plain silence, the uniformed community expected to share their wounded honour and sorrow. Not one leader of consequence measured up to this moral moment whilst the electronic media whipped up sentiment to further its own interest. This is proof, if it were needed, that the sacred trust lies in tatters. Institutional actions rather than individual promises are needed to recover our moral and ethical bearings.
Wars, democracies, societies and social norms are all moving with the changing times. In this dynamic situation there remains forlorn hope that morals and ethics that formed the basis on which the armed forces live and die would remain unchanged. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. It is up to pragmatic societies and leaderships both civil and military to measure up to the changing security dynamics and to determine what will drive the new relationship between society, its representatives, the government and its armed forces so that there is both stability in the relationship and abiding faith in the moral and ethical values that they bring to both this relationship and in facing new security challenges. This writer believes that it is still not too late to set up a blue ribbon commission that will look at every facet of this fascinating and challenging relationship and come out with a blueprint for the nation and Parliament to discuss, debate and adopt. If the nation has the political vision and moral sagacity, the largest democracy in the world may also be the first to tread a new path — for strengthening the moral and ethical foundations of security institutions for itself and for other modern democracies to emulate.