Worn out at the edge
Information given to the Rajya Sabha last year revealed that since 2014, there had been 425 suicides in the armed forces - 335 in the army, 18 in the navy and 72 in the IAF - and that there was a deficit of 9,259 officers and 50,363 other ranks in the armed forces. In the new year, all signs point towards the nation continuing its downward journey into unchartered terrain in respect to civil-military relations.
Figures released on Army Day this year in the line of duty perished while standing in queues during dayscompassion.
As for the temple of our democracy, its attitude is best exemplified by an incident that took place in 2012. When the issue of the suicide of a soldier serving in Jammu and Kashmir was raised in Parliament, the then prime minister had urged members not to have a discussion saying, "This is a very small incident, which is being blown out of proportion. It is not good for the morale of our armed forces." Recently, in a public function in Mumbai, a senior cabinet minister had vented his anger at the navy in the presence of the FOC-in-C, Western Naval Command, stating, "I have come to know that the proposal for a floating jetty at Malabar Hill was stayed by the high court due to the navy's objections. Where is the navy at Malabar Hill? A mindset has developed to create roadblocks in projects." For good measure, he added that the navy should secure the borders instead of raising objections to projects and added that he would not give an inch of land for the navy's housing projects in South Mumbai. Not since the infamous days of Krishna Menon's stewardship of the ministry of defence has one heard of such insensitive remarks by a cabinet minister. History should remind us that the period ended with humiliation on the battlefield. Whether or not the honourable minister realized that his diatribe would inflict damage on the officers and sailors of the Indian navy or did not care about it is difficult to guess. What is clear is that this action by a cabinet minister has added one more nail to the coffin of the fraying civil-military relations in the country.
The FOC-in-C, Western Naval Command, who was clearly at the receiving end of this uncalled for admonishment, displayed maturity by choosing not to leave the function. This shows that the services still hold the political executive in our democratic set-up in esteem. Taking this for granted, however, would not be in the larger interest of Indian democracy. That no effort has been made publicly to soothe the ruffled feathers indicates that the wound inflicted on the officers and sailors of the Western Naval Command and, by extension, on every uniformed person has not really been felt.
This does not appear to be an isolated incident and should exercise the minds of all those who cherish our democratic institutions. The OROP issue had been allowed to linger for decades before the government finally took a decisive step to resolve it. That a small segment is unhappy with the final outcome and has chosen a path that is not in keeping with military ethos is widely known. What is perhaps less known is that political parties and political ambitions of some veteran leaders are sullying reputations of the entire community of veterans. On the eve of Army Day, during a Veterans Day open house function organized by the ministry of defence at the Manekshaw Centre where S. Bhamre was the chief guest, a group of veterans created a ruckus by surrounding the minister and raising slogans in support of their demands. Whilst this action by a fringe group was roundly criticized by the majority of veterans in attendance, one wonders why a pillar of our democracy - the Fourth Estate - has chosen to remain mum.
Each service organizes an annual service day to salute the comrades who have sacrificed their lives to protect the country. These occasions are marked by traditional parades and functions in which a customary 'at home' is hosted by the chief concerned where the prime minister and the defence minister are invited along with other dignitaries. Their presence as senior representatives of the people signifies the latter's gratitude for the difficult task that the armed forces perform in the line of duty. It has been reported that contrary to tradition, in the past year, the prime minister has not been able to attend any of these 'at homes'. The defence minister was conspicuous by her absence during the recent Army Day function. For the tradition-bound armed forces, this is a slight to their hospitality and izzat. No exigency, save for a national emergency, should have occasioned this slight to the rank and file of the services. This is a matter of profound regret.
Addressing a gathering at the Raisina Dialogue, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasized the lesson learnt from his nation's journey in the following words: "The weak don't survive. The strong survive". Explaining further, he made known that amongst the sources of national strength, he considered defence, security and intelligence as the primary pillars of power. Faced as we are with multiple national security threats and challenges, we can only ignore this subtle message at our peril.
India's prime minister has articulated his vision for a New India and is respected for his passion for innovation towards achieving objectives. One can only hope that within this grand vision he finds it worthy of setting up a Blue Ribbon Panel to look at the entire issue of civil-military relations, organizational models, coordination amongst agencies of the government concerned with national security and also come up with a blueprint for a potential National Defence Act for the nation and Parliament to debate and adopt. The Blue Ribbon label signifies that the panel consists of the best and the brightest for the task, thereby bringing in a fresh approach to not just the management of national security but also the restoration of the pride of the armed forces.