Chinks in the armour
The military leadership's mindset has to be 'de-bureaucratized'
- Published 9.02.16
As the festivities marking the end of the nation's 67th Republic Day drew to an end, one was left not with a spirit of bounden pride as one recalled during one's younger days but with a feeling of mixed emotions. The solemn ceremony with the prime minister along with the three service chiefs paying homage at the Amar Jawan Jyoti is a moment of collective reflection and a befitting beginning to the celebrations. Befitting, because it also signifies an umbrella of unlimited liability provided by the individual soldier, sailor and airman that assures the nation security for continued progress. One does wonder, however, if in those two minutes of homage, the prime minister heard the silent plea of the martyrs reminding him of his party's grand electoral promise to give to them a permanent memorial of their own.
When this is followed, as it was this year, by a young widow, Bhavna Goswami, standing in dignified composure in front of the supreme commander of the armed forces whilst the citation for the posthumous award of Ashok Chakra to her late husband, Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami, of the Special Forces is read out, it is difficult for the very large majority to fathom what spirit and motivation drive such men to certain death in the line of duty. Yet it is this breed of military men and women and their exploits that must provide the oxygen of inspiration to our younger generation to give to the nation and not to count the cost.
Between these inspiring and emotional opening stages and the last strains of Gandhi ji's favourite hymn, "Abide with Me", played by military bands in the closing stages of the Beating Retreat followed by their march into the sunset to the tune of " Sare Jahan Se Achcha", there was much for the nation to celebrate but more importantly ponder.
That all is not well in civil-military relations within our democracy has been the subject of a fairly wide-ranging debate for many years now. That no effort has been made by successive civil dispensations to alter the status quo is also no longer a secret. What perhaps is not so well appreciated is that such an unstable relationship in an otherwise vibrant democracy is unsustainable without rupture in the long run, and to those with a keen eye, initial signs of this fatigue are beginning to show. Basking in the superficial pomp and ceremony of military pageantry, like the one just seen, and believing that all is well are a delusion that the nation may some day come to regret.
In the midst of celebrations came reports that the defence minister had asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to enquire into allegations of corruption levelled against two serving major generals by-passing the normal in-service procedures, presumably because the service itself had failed to act on the earlier allegations. These general officers were part of a select three of a panel of 33 major generals who had reportedly made the grade to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. The special promotion board that took the decision consists of the senior-most army commanders along with the chief. It speaks volumes that the defence ministry has withheld approval of even their recommendations. Clearly, there must be strong reasons for doing so.
Whether or not the allegations against the two general officers being investigated are valid is for the CBI and the defence ministry to verify. But two vital questions follow. Now that there is a shadow of impropriety on their part, where does it leave the professional judgment of the very top echelons of the army on whose shoulders rest the morale and quality of our war-fighting? Further, the fact that the defence minister has found fit to pursue this investigation and hand it over to an agency outside the armed forces sends a stark message to the rank and file that all is not well at the highest echelons of the army in particular and the armed forces in general.
Matters only get more curious when it emerges that both these general officers were awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal in the Honours and Awards list of 2015, a process like that of the service promotion board that is not only highly competitive but also must pass muster through many layers of command. Once again, it will now be for the investigative system to determine whether or not these awards are deserved, or the system vitiated. A glance at this year's Republic Day Honours and Awards list does leave one somewhat uncomfortable. Of the 187 distinguished awards to army personnel, some three-fourths go to star ranks. Of these, the three-star ranks were privileged to have received nearly one fourth. With such a distinguished performing senior leadership, one wonders why serious allegations of wrongdoing in purchases, land deals, promotions and even manipulation of lines of succession keep cropping up?
Morale and motivation in the armed forces are the bedrock on which the likes of Lance Naik Goswami are willing to sacrifice their lives, and on which our uniformed men and women strive to give their all for the country. Aptly, these qualities do not feature in training and operational manuals or in the respective armed forces Acts. They are determined solely by faith and trust between the led and those chosen to lead which is best signified by the Chetwode credo - 'The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.'
This credo engraved on the central hall of the Indian Military Academy is the guiding beacon not just for the gentlemen cadets but for all officers of the armed forces. It is this spirit that has seen the nation brave external and internal threats thus far, and it is this spirit that is now under serious assault from within. Not surprisingly, a recent editorial in this daily was constrained to comment, "The army is, or should be, one of the institutions commanding the highest respect in the country. But the behaviour of its officers - their persistent pursuit of their own interests, their lapses in discipline, and even of integrity among some of them - is reducing the army to an object of ridicule. This can only spell danger for the nation."
Military historians have recorded concerns harboured by independent India's leadership about maintaining civilian control over the armed forces. This paranoia has stymied an ideal model of political control over the military from evolving, patterned somewhat on the lines of other liberal democracies. Instead a convoluted model of bureaucratic control over the military has taken firm root. The bureaucracy now holds complete sway without being accountable for the administrative and operational consequences of this unfettered authority.
Over the years, unseen to the public eye, this has resulted in the degeneration of morality and ethics of some in the military leadership as well as the seeping of the civilian bureaucratic mindset into the military hierarchy. The bureaucracy as an institution is status quoist and malleable, and would bend to suit the occasion. The military, on the other hand, is bound by rigid norms and discipline enforceable by special service Acts, codes, ethics and honourable traditions. The bureaucratization of the military mindset, where being on the right side is more important than believing what is right and cultivating the right godfathers matter more than service to the nation and those one commands, thus comes at a great cost to the institution of the military.
Tradition and merit are the first casualties of this culture, which is manifesting itself in benign ways as well. As far as one can recollect, the Republic Day march past has always included military veterans who have traditionally received an enthusiastic and grateful applause. Their absence this year leaves one wondering if the system is now at odds with its veterans. More importantly, the veterans of tomorrow may not take kindly to this slight. Finally, Beating Retreat is a traditional military function and full of significance to the military. Introducing police bands and playing around to reduce it to entertainment is, to this writer's mind, a sacrilege to military tradition.
In a refreshing departure from tradition and on directions of the prime minister, the venue for the combined commanders' conference last year was moved away from bureaucracy-driven Delhi to the operational environs of INS Vikramaditya. Addressing the commanders, the prime minister emphasized that the nation looks to its armed forces to prepare for the future, that the forces and the government need to do more to reform their beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies, and that the need is for military commanders, who not only lead brilliantly on the field but are also looked upon as leaders, to guide our forces and security systems into the future.
These are valid security imperatives. But none of this is possible unless the military leadership's mindset is first 'de-bureaucratized'. Towards this, the nation needs to arrive at its unique model of civil-military relationship. As has often been argued in these columns, the way forward is to start on a clean slate and set up a Blue Ribbon Panel to guide the nation to this model. One wonders if the prime minister is willing to bite this bullet?
The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force