Thursday, February 21, 2013

Defence Forces at the Cross Roads - ?

During the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, the focus of attention, of both the media and the government, on Defence related matters was mostly limited to combat news, promotions and transfers, awards and such like. Very rarely did one come across news related to corruption, internal strife, differences with bureaucracy and the government. In the last ten years or so, the Defence Forces have come under public scrutiny on many counts, often for the wrong reasons. Veterans, as a community, have been quick to notice this development. Some of the important and often debated issues in the media and especially in the veterans circle are the increasing levels of corruption in the Armed Forces – ‘when will we get Chiefs with guts’, ‘senior officers are corrupt’, ‘the Government has no value for us’,  ‘bureaucracy is against us’, ‘ the media is also against us’, ‘why is the judiciary interfering with defense matters’, ‘fellow countrymen do not appreciate our work’, ‘we have come down in the order of precedence’, ‘there’s no respect for the Veterans; look at America’ etc. People express different viewpoints without any hesitation and the arguments continue. There has been no single solution or answer to these vexing issues.

Today, we are being examined as a community, more closely than hitherto – both internally and by external agencies. There are a number of reasons, as to why we are being subjected to this kind of examination. As a result, this exercise of ‘soul searching’ is shaking the community, leading to self doubt, lack of confidence in one’s profession, one’s commitment  etc. This is an extremely serious matter.

Sometimes I wonder – in this day and age, has our role diminished, does the country require us, have we become a key which can no longer open locks, has the ‘firewall’ which once kept us insulated from the outside temptations broken down, are we losing our ‘holy cow’ status, is a new global security apparatus emerging etc.

We have to see each issue in the present day context. The edifice of Indian society has changed very rapidly in the last two decades –our lifestyle, values, morals and aspirations have dramatically influenced the public mind and the direction of their thought. In this process no one is spared. We have to probably reinvent ourselves and change with the times – you cannot continue to play football when others are playing cricket. The game plan has changed.

Nations go to war for many reasons; primarily to expand one’s territory, for territorial disputes, to acquire natural resources such as petroleum, for ideological reasons based on religion and faith, for humanitarian reasons to prevent large scale pogroms or for ethnic differences such as in Africa etc. Human kind has been waging wars since time immemorial – it is nothing new. Over a period of time, weapons have changed, but the rest has remained more or less unchanged. When compared to, let us say the period from 1000 AD to 2000 AD and now, the number of wars has decreased. Flash points do remain, but the actual full scale wars are on the decline. Since World War II and after the end of Cold War there have been fewer wars when compared with the earlier times. The number of intrastate wars peaked in the year 1991 to about 50 and has gradually reduced to around 32 in 2006(1). North America, Europe, Australia, England are conflict free zones. However, some sparks do fly now and then in the Middle East and Asia. Africa has been registering the maximum number of conflicts.

With the passage of time, territorial disputes have been resolved in many places and economies of nations have improved. Globally, the proportion of youth to adults has been decreasing since the late 1970s – resulting in lesser people in the younger age group to fight. Democracy and stable governments have been replacing dictatorship and despotic leaders. There has been an end to the proxy wars after the demise of Cold War. Interdependence between nations, and international pressures, have also contributed in a very large measure to reduce the reasons for conflict.

India has been no exception to this trend. If one takes 1947 as the first post independence conflict with Pakistan – the next came in 1962 with China after a break of 15 years. Within 3 years, came the next conflict with Pakistan in 1965. Six years later we met again for the third time in 1971. There was a long gap of 16 years till IPKF operations in 1987 and finally Kargil took place in 1999 after a lapse of 12 years. Our record stands at 6 conflicts in 65 years of Independence.

The Kargil war was the first time when war entered the drawing rooms of fellow countrymen, courtesy the electronic media, showcasing the armed forces in the order of Army, Air Force and lastly the Navy. The rest of the time, the nation government and media is hardly aware of our presence. We have the largest number of soldiers deployed in the battle field during peace time; more than any other army in the world but this does not matter – no body other than you and I know that. 

I wish to point out that the adage,“Out of sight – out of mind”, deserves a more serious consideration. Ordinary people, bureaucracy, politicians and the government are occupied with other events which they think affects the nation severely and on a regular basis. Votes matter. Be it solving onion prices, controlling sugar supply, petroleum prices, boycotting MF Husain, Taslima Nasrin, 2G, 3G, security for Bal Thackeray’s funeral and so on - the government gets pro active and finds a solution. The fact of the matter is that we do not pose any serious threat to anybody around us. The government will not fall in peace time on account of us. Only during war will they listen to you – period.

The role of the armed forces is diminishing as conflict situations and flash points globally decrease. Also, other measures such as nuclear deterrence, economic persuasions and international intervention are on the increase.  "The Utility of Force in a World of Scarcity, International Security, Vol. 22, no. 3 (Winter 1997) notes, ‘In the past five decades, however, the great powers have shown increasing reluctance to employ force overtly against one another or even against weaker states. Their apparent hesitation has led several sophisticated observers of international affairs to conclude that the once-central role of the armed forces is rapidly diminishing, perhaps soon to the point of irrelevance.’(2).

The role of the Armed forces is certainly diminishing and there is an urgent need to juxtapose ourselves in this new world order. Perhaps we need to find new peace time roles, expand our areas of activity and eventually appear to be more useful in the eyes of the ordinary countrymen who do not understand exalted and lofty expressions such as - major component of national power, Net Security Providers, state craft, projection of sea and air power, command and control of sea and air space etc. What Admiral Sushil Kumar said in TOI on 10 Dec 2012 is a case in point – “Joshi's reassuring message on our Navy's 400th anniversary was essentially meant for the people of India. That such a message was misconstrued as a diplomatic faux pas clearly shows that we have a scant understanding of what sea power is all about.”

The Army, Navy and Air Force, as we see it today, is the outcome of many changes that have taken place over a period of time. We have changed uniforms, allowed mustaches in the navy, brought changes in staff work, computers have entered every facet of work, weapons have changed, tactics and strategy has been rewritten, women have joined the forces, educational background, concept of security, brotherhood of nations and so on and the list is endless. Change is very essential for the healthy growth of any organization. When, every aspect of our organization changes, it is inevitable that the individual also changes. The very same society from where we recruit our officers and men is undergoing constant change. These factors have certainly impinged on the most important element of the armed forces – the ‘Soldier’. Ethos of service has undergone a change. How an individual behaved in a situation fifty years back, may not find many takers in today’s military. As a community, we need to embrace these evolutionary changes with open arms, instead of stone walling them.

Imagine ourselves as a body of highly trained professional soldiers – ready for action, trained to kill, seeking victory,waiting to draw first blood in the battle field, instead finding ourselves (for the most part)kept in a locked room and chained to the dictates of peace time. The body cries to be released to justify its existence and seek professional glory, satisfaction and above all recognition. Unfortunately none of these attributes can be found during peace time. In turn, the soldier adapts to the new environment unwillingly and develops traits which are in conflict with his natural war time behavior. Within the service it becomes difficult to correctly rate an officer during peace time; what is the unit of measurement? We may unwittingly end up with square pegs in round holes. Number of peace time syndromes attach themselves as barnacles – believe me it is difficult to scrape it off. Making up fake encounters to garner ACR points, seeking cushy appointments, avoiding high risk jobs, having the ’yes sir’ syndrome, toeing the line, not rocking the boat and so on, are some of the ‘peace time‘ manifestations.

I see corruption as a human flaw. I may be wrong; corruption always existed in the forces in some form or the other. What has made the difference is the instant exposure due to rapid progress made in communication, cell phones, e mails, hundreds of television channels vying for TRP. Over a period of time services have acquired considerable fiscal independence, they now operate with huge sums of money, which was not there earlier. Proximity to money is fraught with temptation, unless each individual exercises the highest levels of probity. The public, for whatever reason, see the services as the last bastion of fair play, integrity and discipline – if these break down, the public becomes disappointed. Every service individual needs to be aware of this particular responsibility that we owe to the society at large.

Take the instance of officers and men going to court. It is a new phenomenon wherein personnel are seeking justice outside our own campus. What does an ordinary citizen do? He seeks justice at every level and up to the Supreme Court. As the invisible cantonment barrier breaks over time, the insulated military also starts behaving like civilians. Unlike earlier days, today’s soldier is better educated and is socially more aware of the issues around him.TV has invaded the ships and messes – one simply cannot ignore its presence and effect. The service as a body is not spending quality time to examine why there is a trend amongst officers to seek redressal outside. Archaic laws, injustice in promotions and transfers, lack of transparency in day to day matters, are some of the areas which require closer examination. We need to take a relook at all the rules and regulations and correlate them to today’s context. I did not go to court and therefore you will not go and wash dirty linen in public does not carry much conviction any longer.  One should read what the Karnataka High Court had to say about a Major who wished to marry a Sri Lankan. The division bench headed by Chief Justice Vikramajit Sen dismissed the two writ appeals filed by the Army. The bench observed in its verdict, “...the world has become a global village; distrust and discrimination against a foreign citizen remains the order of the day. There are several instances where citizens betray their own country. There is no empirical data that a foreign spouse will invariably constitute a weak link in the matter of national security.”

We also need to realize that in India, strangely enough, the public do not have a high regard for any institution - be it politics, bureaucracy, police, sports, judiciary, artists, god men and others. There is hardly any institution which is continuously revered – I do not know whether this phenomenon is good or bad. We are indifferent to all that is happening around us as long as it does not directly impinge on us. We also have no yardstick for measuring public morality. The former Chief Justice of India, MN Venkatachaliah, recently observed, “The old order has out lived itself and the new order is yet to take shape --- in the interim there are no values or standards for the public to follow”. He went on to attribute the cause of today’s low level of ethics, morality and public conduct in India to a lack of any new set of values. The Indian armed forces are operating in these difficult times.

So in the mean time what are we supposed to do? My take on the subject is to look inward – introspect. Be pragmatic and establish where the military stands in today’s society. Like any other profession we are also ruled by the market forces of demand and supply. Realign ourselves to ground realities. In the first instance we should stop wanting others to recognize and value us. As a community we need to step down from the pre world war pedestal and behave in a normal fashion.

There are a number of areas within the services which can be improved to enhance our own image, do our jobs with integrity and a sense of pride and increase the satisfaction quotient. Concentrate on the improvement of messes, accommodation, promotion rules, transfer procedures, better preparedness for retirement, medical benefits, education for children, employment avenues for the spouse, education of the spouse, dignity to veterans, and other such initiatives which do not require more than routine bureaucratic and government approvals. We also need to shrug off our ‘Atlas’ complex. We are not alone in carrying the entire burden of the ‘Defence of India’ on our shoulders – for heaven’s sake do not flap – the bureaucracy, politicians and the public are equally responsible. Cultivate the highest respect for your profession, but at the same time, be prepared to quit if you feel stifled for any reason. Staying in the job at all costs may be sending a wrong signal to the others outside – let no one take us for granted. We will serve the nation – “on our terms.”



  1. Very well written thoughts. If you really weigh, Naval Chiefs like Mehta ( responsible for better perks via 6th Pay Commission to Cdrs and equivalents and rightly so) and now Joshi and in recent past Bhagwat and Dawson have proved their worth. Some may differ with my opinion. But have other two services produced such like leaders? Answer lies in our hearts.

  2. Very well written article! Yes, today, the spotlight is on everyone which includes us too. Blind faith of the public in whatever we do is a thing of the past. We are under intense scrutiny . We need to do serious introspection and project an image of being worthy of the respect and goodwill of our fellow countrymen. However, I do not agree to the Naval Chief resigning. At the level of service chiefs, we need to be more strong and astute in dealing with pressures from the politicians and in handling the media.

  3. Pubs,
    Great articulation and factual too.

  4. Wg Cdr(Retd) KG ShankarMarch 2, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    I do not understand, why there is a need to be anonymous in our comments.The author of comments should not fear, when readers like me base our acceptance of the view expressed of the article in knowing the quality of the individual's morality. I am in total agreement with the first commentator. Unfortunately, the persons in the Army do not wish to forego the perks they enjoy while in service, which today is getting questioned. The Air Force people are restricted only to the throttle and stick and are not aware of what happens outside the cockpit, Gen VK Singh has sent a signal for those who have shed their uniform to get bold, if they are morally upright. I admire Admiral Joshi for the decision he has taken on behalf of the Sailors, he had commanded.
    This article is well written as a whole.

  5. Well written Pubs. The military has to move with the times, and the profession of arms become a profession instead of a calling. All nations expect higher standards of probity from their military, while concurrently doing whatever they can to reduce the visibility of the military in national affairs.

    The Aussie navy is getting a lot of flak in the press for its seaworthiness and combat capability. Even the US is reconsidering its role of global policemen. The perks and visible trappings of military office are being cut back as there are other more pressing requirements of internal social justice. Note that the US has abolished ‘retirement’ in every other area of public office, except the military! The CinC’s have lost their ‘seals of office’. Russia and China still focus on military aspects but those countries are yet to fully embrace democracy. As the shape of global society changes, the politico military establishment needs to reflect on many aspects of role, budgeting, make / buy perspective, people matters, how many do we need and of what caliber, is the professional soldier required to have character and morality or only intellect and capability? The list is long and it will take many years to reach consensus. Hope I have given you some more to research and write about.

    All in all, thanks for sharing your blog


  6. Asheet Malik

    Pubs, a very intelligently and well researched opinion. But it as an opinion at the end of the day. Do opinion matter, no I should think. What matters is the votes as you have hinted. We are no vote bank. Aware and disciplined people in a country of illiterate jacks. Get out of this country even to Congo. This is no place or convert yourself in an OBC . Sincerely - Monks