Since Independence, the nation has grown up with the knowledge and belief that its armed forces are pillars of strength and symbolize probity and the spirit of sacrifice. This belief is reflected in polls conducted from time to time, and is strengthened when citizens see men and women in uniform risking their lives to save people during natural disasters like the one that struck Uttarakhand in June this year. From this comfort zone to be exposed to the events of the last year culminating in the present must have left them not only disoriented but also hopelessly confused.
To briefly recapitulate, the former army chief, V.K. Singh, completed his tenure at the end of May 2012 on the basis of his age in the record books. His appeal to the defence minister to have the age corrected was turned down. Had it been otherwise, not only would his tenure have been extended, but as claimed by some it would have upset an apparently well-crafted succession plan. The successor reportedly enjoyed high contacts within the civilian leadership and enjoyed its support. In a dubious first in the history of the armed forces, a serving army chief then approached the Supreme Court for relief, but was turned down.
During this unholy phase when a serving army chief and the government were at odds, a few strange happenings came to light. It transpired that Singh had been offered a bribe by a retired officer to facilitate the induction of sub-standard trucks being produced by Bharat Earth Movers Limited, a defence undertaking. In spite of bringing this to the notice of the defence minister, no action was taken. Then, in two successive months, a national daily published reports, one claiming that the chief had set up a Technical Support Division within the military intelligence that was snooping on the communications of defence ministry officials and the defence minister. The ministry of defence is reportedly investigating the matter. The next report — more damaging than the first — claimed that some army units had moved suspiciously towards Delhi on the very day the army chief had gone to court. The hint of coercive tactics without using the dreaded word, coup, was apparent. This was denied by the defence ministry.
Whatever may have been the facts, a perception had been created that here was a serving army chief who was not averse to resorting to unconventional and even unconstitutional means. In the context of civil-military relations in India, in which the polity has kept the Indian military at more than an arm’s length, preferring to deal with it through the all-powerful bureaucracy, this should have set alarm bells ringing.
So grave were these allegations and their impact on the integrity of a serving chief and, consequently, on the morale of the armed forces that it was incumbent on the government to act in haste and get to the bottom of the allegations with the help of a high-level, independent investigation to clean the Augean stables. This would have had the following salutary effects. First, the nation would have been taken into confidence on precisely what the truth was. Next, wrongdoing, wherever applicable, would have been identified and the perpetrators held accountable. Finally, a message would have been sent to the armed forces that favouritism in promotions, high-handedness, or political interference in the functioning of the army would not be tolerated. In short, a sad chapter in the annals of civil-military relations would have been nipped in the bud and the supremacy of civilian leadership over the military enhanced. If it were revealed that the former army chief was guilty, the price would have been worth the revelation. Equally, if it was established that there was no wrongdoing on his part, then he along with the institution deserved an apology.
But for reasons best known to the defence ministry, it failed to act. Instead, it heaved a sigh of relief once Singh went into retirement, hoping that all will be forgotten. Later, even the CBI case against the retired officer who allegedly offered the bribe was dropped for lack of evidence, even though irregularities in the BEML have come to light that have led to the suspension of its chairman and managing director. Clearly there is scant realization that leadership in the armed forces is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional phenomenon and insult or injury to its leadership is as damaging as that against its rank and file.
While one can understand the defence ministry’s happiness in having got its way in promoting its chosen chief (as has been done on many occasions earlier, often at the cost of merit) and the overconfidence this engendered, it is hard to understand its political naivety that led to it underestimating Singh’s post-retirement socio-political ambitions.
That is why when the same daily that had reported the earlier stories now comes out with even more astounding ones, it almost seems as if the nation and its revered democratic institutions are suffering from a death wish. The new report tells us that a secret internal Board of Officers was set up by army headquarters (clearly under the new dispensation) last year to look at the functioning of the TSD, and that the latter had allegedly funded efforts to topple the elected government of Jammu and Kashmir, fund an NGO ostensibly to stymie the succession plan in army headquarters and is responsible for vast unaccounted expenditures. This report was submitted to the defence ministry in March this year with the army recommending further investigations since the one conducted by it was not a legal inquiry.
Even a layman would agree that an internal investigation of this nature, let alone such a damaging report, has the potential to inflict untold damage on the pride and morale of the armed forces and needed to be handled with utmost diligence and sensitivity. But for reasons that remain inexplicable, the defence ministry kept silent for six long months.
The sudden media exposé that followed the defence ministry’s admission that the latest report hinges on matters of national security and that measures had been put in place to prevent any such undesirable activities in the future makes one suspect that both the timing of the media report and the subsequent proclamations by exuberant cabinet ministers are not borne out of any belief of serious wrongdoing by Singh. These seem to be political reactions to Singh’s appearance at a large political rally. For the good of democracy, one sincerely hopes that this assumption is proven wrong, but unless there is evidence to indicate otherwise, this perception will prevail amongst impartial observers.
Regrettably, it would appear that so polarized has the national political discourse become that even using the armed forces as instruments of political warfare is now fair game. This is something that had never happened earlier. Senior politicians from Jammu and Kashmir are openly casting aspersions on the army and screaming television hosts and participants have gone to town entertaining us with their take on an issue that is important enough for well-meaning citizens and the responsible media to have maintained a dignified silence till the government got its act together and took the nation into confidence.
Few have thought of the adverse impact of this self-defeating debate on the morale in the cantonments and messes around the country. Fewer still have reflected on the long-term impact this can have on civil-military relations. Cheap politics and media ratings are threatening such values as common sense and sanctity that are required to deal with the needs of national security. It truly is open season and general headquarters in Rawalpindi must be chuckling, as must the separatist forces in Kashmir.
It will be a brave person who, in the midst of such confusion, would attempt to draw a meaningful conclusion and identify where the truth lies. But one thing appears to be certain: every institution involved in this unsavoury saga looks like it belongs to a banana republic than to one of the largest democracies in the world that aspires to take its rightful place as a permanent member of the UN security council.
So here is a fervent appeal to all political parties from an aam admi and a veteran. Elections will come and go and so will governments, thus strengthening our democratic roots further. Let us resolve to help keep the armed forces out of politics. Let us also resolve that politicization of the higher echelons of the armed forces is a poison which, once injected, will spread like cancer consuming the entire institution. Finally, since there can never be any ideological differences on the need to have our national security institutions free of political interference and bias, let all the parties evolve a code of ethics that they will adopt while handling issues relating to India’s armed forces. To draw inspiration from an old army recruitment poster, do we have it in us to take this novel step?