Monday, 30th October 2017

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Storm clouds gathering

The Orop agitation and an uncaring democracy

  • Published 17.08.15
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In his treatise, The Art of War, the philosopher and military strategist, Sun Tzu, states, "The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected." When, in an eventful week, members of both the highest institution of the State - namely, our Parliament - and those who have been the practitioners of the art of war choose to sport black arm bands, one is compelled to fall back on the wisdom of some two thousand years and enquire whether these are symptoms of a State on a road to safety or ruin.

A day before this daily published a disturbing front-page report under the heading, "Indian Army's Prisoners of a War Within", this writer was invited to attend a meeting of the Uttarakhand Indian Ex Servicemen's League, in his capacity as one of the patrons. This was with a view to the elders being briefed on the concerns and aspirations of veteran members regarding the ongoing One Rank One Pension agitation across India.

The meeting was humbling and left one deeply disturbed. Here were many battle-hardened veterans spanning ranks and ages sharing among them not just battle honours and gallantry awards, but also stirring stories of comradeship in adversity, selflessness, sacrifice and endurance - gathered in a modest room, seated in military orderliness, each donning a black ribbon precisely positioned on their mufti sleeves much like any military patch in their uniformed days.

As one listened to their sentiments, an interesting aside that emerged was that many had sons and close family members serving in uniform, some holding senior positions, and all had close friends and acquaintances serving. Hence, an invisible, but strong, link between the serving and veterans was evident with its associated emotional attachments, the existence of which those guiding our democracy and government possibly tend to overlook among their other priorities.

To a man, there was a feeling of being badly let down by the political leadership and the bureaucracy not only of the present, but ones that have steered the nation for decades. It was as if all the pent-up humiliation and frustration of close to seven decades of serving free India, whilst being progressively downgraded in the warrant of precedence, upped by the civil services through means more foul than fair, to have been humiliated in a multitude of administrative manoeuvrings and to have been taken for granted as mere gun fodder by the society at large, had at last reached a breaking point.

Gullible as they were to the ways of Indian politics, they had swallowed many a promise as being an honourable word and were now smelling the coffee of politics and in a way its debilitating affect on Indian democracy. One could feel with considerable eeriness that while being bitter, there was a sense of calm, as though truth had now dawned. For those who have had the privilege of leading military forces in adversity, it is this sense of quiet calm that often signals a lull before the storm of battle.

The report earlier mentioned relates to a major disciplinary breach in 2012 by soldiers of a field artillery regiment in a field area, whilst on a range-firing exercise at Nyoma in Ladakh, and the subsequent disciplinary proceedings, some of which are still at various stages of completion. The disturbing aspect of the news was that the families, speaking for the soldiers, are now alleging that through a conspiracy, a section of the officer cadre had closed ranks to protect their own at the cost of the men they were supposed to lead. Army sources on the other hand claim that proceedings were in line with the law. A subsequent media report mentions that the families now propose to carry their movement to Jantar Mantar, where the Orop movement is entrenched for the second month.

To these unfortunate events was added another when a different body of ex-servicemen was forcibly stopped by police from marching to Parliament. Reportedly they were complaining of disparity of pay between officers and other ranks and wanted this redressed even before the question of Orop was considered.

What must deeply concern the institutions of the State is the incipient mix of issues, from service discipline and officer-men relationship extending to dishonouring of, and division among, veterans on officer-men lines. Each of these has the potential to hurt the health and morale of both the armed forces and, by extension, the veterans. But these are not cracks of recent origin and have been deepening for decades. With time and indifference of the society and institutions of governance, they are now taking more complex forms with no surety of where this will ultimately lead our armed forces and, by extension, our valued democracy. Quite apart from this self-inflicted damage, there are today many unconventional ways of waging war on the nation, and there are elements both within and without waiting to exploit every such crack in our system. We cannot let our indifference assist them in their evil designs.

The Orop agitation, for one, is an unfortunate one forced on the veterans by an uncaring democracy. It is hard to think of any such parallel instance amongst modern democracies to name just two, the United Kingdom and the United States of America; the former, from whom we have not only modelled our parliamentary system, but also inherited many military traditions, and the latter for being billed as the oldest democracy in comparison to our being the largest.

In the UK the armed forces covenant is official policy and sets out the relationship between the nation, the government and the armed forces. It recognizes that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and it establishes how they should expect to be treated. The covenant exists to redress the disadvantages that the armed forces community may face in comparison to other citizens, and to recognize sacrifices made and it is supported by respective community and corporate covenants.

In the US, the department of veterans affairs is a government-run military veteran benefit system with cabinet-level status and its own budget, which for 2016 is $168.8 billion. Poignantly, on Veterans Day in 2013, the US president issued a proclamation, which included among others a preamble that stated, "On Veterans Day, America pauses to honour every service member who has ever worn one of our Nation's uniforms." The proclamation then stated, "With respect for and in recognition of the contributions our service members have made to the cause of peace and freedom around the world, the Congress has provided that November 11 of each year shall be set aside as a legal public holiday to honour our Nation's veterans."

These democracies value the sage advice of Sun Tzu and practice it in real governance instead of paying lip service. We prefer the latter as the following shows. Although we proudly claim to have set up a department of ex-servicemen's welfare within the ministry of defence, the moral commitment with which it views its mission is reflected on its website, which says "a decision was taken in 1986 to create an independent department to look after the welfare, resettlement and rehabilitation of ex-servicemen and war widows. Accordingly, the department was set up in September 2004." The irony that it took 18 long years to implement a decision taken in 1986 and that the department is not shy of advertising it, best sums up its moral indifference to the welfare of ex-servicemen. And if proof of this is needed, the secretary of this department in her deposition in 2011 to the parliamentary panel that examined the grant of Orop to the armed forces opposed the grant and implementation of Orop for the Armed Forces.

Even as these disturbing events were unfolding, a political battle, this time within the temple of our democracy, the Parliament, was taking place. Here again, some were seen sporting black armbands, although the reasons were far removed from those of veterans. The matter reached an unfortunate climax with the Speaker suspending 25 members for five days and some political leaders dubbing this a "black day in Indian democracy".

Had our Parliament found the time to reflect, even fleetingly, on the weekly happenings on the civil- military relations front and responded with a healing sentiment, this one gesture would have conveyed a message to the nation that "the art of war" and by extension, those who practice it, are considered by the temple of our democracy of vital importance to the state. By failing to do so the State has orphaned the one institution that must remain the bulwark against any ultimate threat to our nation state, namely our armed forces and by extension to the veterans, since the former are tomorrow's veterans.

In the present times, the rhetoric of a "black day in Indian democracy" changes with the colour of the political lens and is mercifully far from reality. But a State that fails to see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon of institutions practising the art of war, is blindly moving on a road to ruin and it will not be long before this political rhetoric turns into reality.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force