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Salute to Memsaab

- Army hears grouses of wives

New Delhi, Dec. 26: No longer content being “married to the uniform”, newly or recently married wives of Indian Army officers have forced the army chief to direct a cultural reformation over conjugal relations in the hierarchy-bound force.

In quiet instructions issued to all commanders this week, the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Bikram Singh, has directed that “spouses of all ranks should be groomed so that they can fulfil their role in the organisation”.

But the chief has also asked unit commanders to be mindful of the working wife. He has told them that while “grooming” was important, the commanders should understand the compulsions of working wives and adjust programmes to suit their schedules.

The chief has not made a specific reference to why such instructions have been issued. But in the past three years, complaints from newly married or recently married wives of junior officers have threatened to upset hitherto accepted norms in the force.

Part of the reason for the directive is also explained by complaints from a handful of officers and their wives who were forced to be on duty as unofficial personal staff of a politically ambitious former head of the Army Wives’ Welfare Association (AWWA), who is the spouse of a recently retired army chief.

“Married to the uniform” as they are, a few of the wives have complained that they have had to give up careers or have had to satisfy the whims of senior officers’ wives so that their husbands may get promotions to higher ranks of brigadier and general.

Soldiers and officers are transferred to new postings every three years or less and the spouses find it difficult to maintain careers as a result. Moreover, families are not permitted beyond short periods in field (operational) postings.

The wives of at least two majors alleged on two Internet sites that they were treated wrongly by the AWWA.

The association is technically a non-government organisation set up to help war widows. But it is traditionally headed by the wife of the chief of army staff. It functions out of army headquarters at the integrated headquarters of the defence ministry in New Delhi’s South Block.

Its unwritten code dictates that all wives follow the rank structure. So, a lieutenant general’s wife takes precedence over a major general’s or a colonel’s wife and so on at social events that the spouses have to compulsorily participate in.

Although the chief’s directives talk about “spouses” and not necessarily “wives”, the Indian Army is so overwhelmingly male dominated that there is little doubt in the officers’ cadre or among other ranks who Bikram Singh is referring to.

The chief has also directed against the wives being used as decorative pieces at song-and-dance and cultural programmes in the units and regiments.

In the directives, the army chief has also asked commanders to discourage the use of officers’ messes as “five-star hotels”. The commanders have been asked to do away with the practice of ostentatious illumination and decorations during festivals or ceremonies that involve the families of soldiers.

Bikram Singh has also conveyed his disappointment with the beating the army’s image has taken after reports of soldier dissent. In May 2012, soldiers of the 226 Field Regiment in Ladakh had rebelled against officers during firing practice. They chased and beat up two officers, one of whom was alleged to have claimed that a soldier embarrassed his wife by being present in his room when she was changing.

The chief said he was “concerned for the reputation” of the army because of “reports of dissatisfaction in units”.

The army chief has repeatedly emphasised the importance of “cohesion” in the force. He does not refer to his predecessor V.K. Singh’s tenure. V.K. Singh had challenged the Centre in the Supreme Court over a row concerning his date of birth before being asked by the judges to withdraw his petition. The retired army chief is now a vocal critic of the Manmohan Singh government.

The current dispensation at army headquarters believes that the tenure of V.K. Singh was divisive and lowered the image of the army because of the court case.

Bikram Singh has also decreed that “Jai Hind” should be the standard form of salutation in the army. All army programmes should also end with the slogan “Bharat Mata ki jai”. Earlier, Bikram Singh had revived the practice of “Friday combat dressing” in the army.

A former army chief, J.J. Singh, who was later the governor of Arunachal Pradesh, had ordered that all soldiers and officers at headquarters should wear combat (disruptive pattern) uniforms on Fridays to empathise with their colleagues in operational areas. The practice was discontinued by V.K. Singh, Bikram Singh’s immediate predecessor.