Daily News and Analysis (DNA) had published a thought provoking OPed by former Vice Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi titled ‘Take turbulence in the ranks seriously’.
Col Karan Kharab (Retd) responds and follows it up through his guest post ‘Suicides in the Army, diagnosis and remedy’.
The views expressed are not of this blogger.
The views expressed are not of this blogger.
Take turbulence in the ranks seriously
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd)
Three incidents of collective indiscipline by jawans in the last few months, reflecting a breakdown in the traditionally close officer-man relationship, are a cause for concern, especially as all three of them are related to combat units, where a stable and healthy officer-man relationship is an article of faith.
The Indian Army, with a justifiably proud record of service to the nation, has always placed officers-men bonding at the highest level.
In the past, the army has handled such incidents with compassion and firmness. Such incidents will no doubt happen again. However, there is need for comprehensive remedial actions. We must not succumb to a tendency of being simplistic, like attributing such incidents to recent cases of corruption amongst a few senior officers. Such attributions are obviously absurd, as these are two vastly different issues. The need is actually to focus on command and control, discipline and officer-man relationships.
In combat units, a thorough knowledge of jawans by their officers is a must. Included in this are the jawans’ capabilities and limitations; what enthuses or dampens their spirits; their backgrounds as well as of their families; and whether they are team persons or loners. Earlier, senior unit officers acted as guides and mentors in this respect. Unfortunately, on account of the huge shortage of officers in combat units today, as well as the large number of tasks assigned to the few available officers, it is virtually impossible for them to spare time to do so now.
The main reason for this state of affairs is the prolonged employment in fighting insurgents and terrorists over decades now, which have taken stress and fatigue to extremely high levels. These operations are extremely difficult and full of tension, especially on account of scrupulously adhering to human rights norms.
A major caveat of the army’s secondary role of assisting the civil administration is that it must be released as soon as the task is over, but in counter-insurgency operations there appears to be no end state! There has been no insurgency in the north eastern states for many years now, but neither the states concerned nor the central government want to release the army. In J&K, the situation has improved vastly, but the police forces are not in a position to assume control. The army’s reasoning that the situation will deteriorate rapidly if the army is de-inducted is sound, but why are the police forces not being made capable?
While the government must squarely take the blame for this state of affairs, the army hierarchy also needs to be blamed for not pursuing it relentlessly.
There are also three other issues that need to be tackled by the government. The first is deliberately downgrading the esteem and importance of the military by successive governments. This has resulted in our soldiers becoming greatly disillusioned not only with the government officials but, what is worse, also with their own officers, who are being viewed as devoid of any power, as civil and police officials studiously ignore requests from commanding officers relating to various problems of soldiers projected by them. This is in stark contrast to earlier times when the civil officials responded with alacrity when a commanding officer wrote to them about the personal or collective problems of his jawans. This aspect needs immediate improvement by good governance and by educating the officials.
Soldiers’ lay their lives on the line, not because of the pay or allowances that they get (which in any case are less than what the equivalent civil officials receive) but because of their self-esteem and military élan. These need to be nurtured by the civil administration.
The second and related issue is the military intake. Although recruitment rallies draw large numbers, the reason is no longer pride in joining the military but massive unemployment, resulting in inferior manpower joining the military. In the case of officers, young men from traditional military families are no longer enthused with the forces. The main reason is the decline of respect for the military.
The last point is the treatment of the veterans. The government needs to understand that the policy of ignoring those who have served the nation sacrificing their all will be a disaster in the long run. Future generations will not heed the call of the bugle when they see neither respect nor adequate financial benefits being given to the veterans. The present indifference and callousness must end.
Will Delhi wake up?
Suicides in the Army – Diagnosis and Remedy
Col Karan Kharb (Retd)
Something very sinister is around. Operational stress and official neglect are taking their toll in soldiers committing suicides and protesting in a mutinous manner. Whereas step-motherly treatment meted out by the Sixth Pay Commission to the Armed Forces is one of the reasons for the falling morale, persistent indifference shown by the Government has also added to the discontent. Even more saddening is the fact that the Military authorities too have been brushing aside the malaise within. Recently, Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, former Vice Chief of Army Staff presented his diagnosis of the problem in an article. Here are some additional inputs.
Downgrading Esteem and Importance of Military
Halos are extinct and larger-than-life images have shrunk to real-life size everywhere in modern times. The so-called all-powerful bureaucrats are being shunted around from one post to another like shuttlecocks at the whims and fancies of political bosses. Their careers alternate between witch-hunt and reward depending upon what kind of political boss they get to serve under. Sunk in depravity, our politicians have suffered their loss of image and credibility too. Nobody now buys pictures of these leaders to display in homes or offices until official rules compel to do so. Within themselves too, the same chair brightens or dims differently under different occupants. World’s most qualified Prime Minister Manmohan Singh compares atrociously with under-matriculate Indira Gandhi. Time was when magnitudes of humanity poured to have glimpse of Nehru but not any longer.
What has survived, however, is people’s abiding love and respect for the sincere, able, honest and courageous leaders. They become icons of popular hope and respect. Oddly, some of them come from the same rotten environment that media and people – we included – hate and abuse for all our problems today – the bureaucracy. Agreed, those who choose to defy the Establishment and follow the dictates of their conscience are not many. Yet, we can see that those who did stood up and changed the course of things drew public applause like TN Sheshan, E Sreedharan, Vinod Rai, Kiran Bedi to name a few. In an even more degenerative field of politics too, we do have a crop, however miniscule, of off-beat progressive leaders like Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar.
Military in India has been somehow shy of public exposure – a mistake that held it back from joining, leave alone leading, the mainstream freedom struggle despite Netaji’s call for the INA. Such a stance of aloofness emboldened Nehru and Krishna Menon to treat the Military nothing more than a workforce that could be employed for constructing roads and canals even as they doubted its loyalty and feared coups. Field Marshal Manekshaw is perhaps the only Indian General who did make a difference in exalting the military reputation. Lately, Gen VK Singh did stand up boldly enough but the issue he took up first (date of birth) was unfortunately too small and personal for the position he held. Later of course, he did write boldly to the Prime Minister and did not hesitate to apprise the people about essentials of national security.
Unfortunately, the inter-Services and intra-service feuds are doing the Military more damage than any politico-bureaucratic dispensation. The day the three Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces stand up jointly as custodians of national security to express their concern and advice, no Government will dare to brush it aside. Also, taxpayers are entitled to know the state of their Armed Forces and, therefore, the Chiefs of the Armed Forces (sorry, I don’t call them ‘Services’) should be required to formally address the Parliament and inform the people on matters of national security and the state of defence preparedness. There can be debates and disagreements on the opinions they express but who, if not they, would be better qualified to speak about matters of national defence and security? Sadly though, it may be recalled how an Army Chief was ticked off by a former defence minister for his remark about the un-demarcated border in Arunachal Pradesh. Likewise, a Vice Chief of the Army Staff was snubbed by Shushma Swaraj so angrily that just the next day an apologetic general withdrew his fully justified and well informed opinion about the handicap of women joining the Army. Had they both reasserted their stand as professionals without giving in to the bully in the lobby, military’s image would have been fairly vindicated and credibility enhanced. Alas, that did not happen.
To sum up, I would reiterate the comment I made on an earlier occasion: The truth is that abstract decorations like esteem, image, honour and izzet abhor pleading, and are not available on request anywhere in the world. Being embellishments of power, these gems of credit can be only earned by merit or seized by force. Repeated pleadings will surely get us more sympathy, pity and merciful reportage though.
‘Inferior Manpower Joining the Military’
Undoubtedly, the quality of officer intake has gone down. The quality of jawans, on the other hand should have only improved with more graduates and technically qualified youth joining the ranks. Perhaps the crux of the problem lies at the centre of this matrix where a subordinate views himself academically equal or better qualified than his boss. Don’t we see a shade of this attitude in the outbursts of our Olympian celebrity Sub Vijay Kumar? With an increasing number of officers now hailing from the same socio-economic milieu as their NCOs/OR, the tradition of officers being ‘friendly but not familiar’ with men stands diluted while the British legacy of ‘Koi haiy’ sahibs and servile, obsequious followers has continued despite noticeable resistance. It is good that the Army has decided to hire civilian sahayaks and other menials in place of combatants.
I think time has come when officer-man relationship needs to be redefined so as to weave them into an integrated whole. Simplistic solutions based on traditional thinking will not do. A paradigm shift is warranted to enable higher commanders to view the whole spectrum from a different angle and discover invisible challenges and opportunities.
The Irony of ‘Shortage of Officers’
In the present scenario of military operations, maximum load comes on the unit where out of an average of 22 officers authorised, only 8-10 are posted. Considering those away on leave and courses out of these, it is 4-5 officers who share the load of 22. Obviously, these officers, already stressed, have neither time nor energy to inter-act with their men in sports, training, welfare and leisure time where they could detect and diffuse discontent, if any.
Oddly enough, above the unit level there is no deficiency of officers at any headquarters even though all field formations largely remain static and un-engaged in operations that are almost always limited to unit/sub-unit level actions. Higher the headquarters, more the unauthorised attachments! Why? Because the higher boss needs luxury and the attached finds his haven to the arduous unit tenure, and also earns a better ACR through influence.
Despite deficiency of officers, which is alarming by any count, all the pressure of VIP visits (a euphemism for pleasure trips) comes to rest on the concerned units where officers and men frantically work round the clock only to earn a ‘shabash’ from the bara sahib. And imagine the height of hypocrisy displayed by a ‘punctilious’ GOC who, on his insistence, was presented a mess bill of Rs 45/- for three days of royal revelry organised by a unit for him and his entourage of personal guests. Clearing it for prompt payment, he said, “I have never left a guest room without paying the mess bill”. Higher commanders need to introspect earnestly and seek answers to some straight but pricky questions: Am I using more man-power and resources than authorised, like Flag Guard, sahayaks, drivers, vehicles etc? Then follow your conscience, not necessarily the rulebook.
Also, the higher commanders need to restrain themselves from meddling in unit affairs. Too much of curiosity and eagerness to address Durbars, meet individual officers and JCOs and listen to their problems is an intrusion into the CO’s domain which must be strengthened and never weakened at any cost. Remove and sack a CO, if required, but let the next one function with freedom and authority. Likewise, within the unit, COs too have diluted the trust and bondage sub-unit commanders traditionally had with their JCOs and men. Build the sub-unit commanders into effective leaders.
Lastly, a question: The Prime Minister warned the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15th August this year that the economic slowdown posed threats to national security. Should the custodians of National Security remain silent an inactive when such crisis is impending? There is risk involved in seeking answer to such grave questions. But should such risks deter them?
May they find right answers to mighty questions concerning National Security and move boldly and diligently in unison. I wish the Indian Armed Forces and the country glorious times ahead.
Col Karan Kharab was commissioned in the Bihar Regiment and commanded 21 BIHAR. He was also an instructor in the IMA and had a stint with the NSG. He can be reached at karankharab [at] gmail.com