12 December 2010

Valour & Honour

Armed Forces have always held a special place for me. A part of it was, of course, the honour aspect, the protocols, the traditions (I am a traditionalist in many ways as I am a non-conformist in many) and the associated prestige (It’s a different matter that my lately acquired egalitarian self often frowns upon such a lifestyle :)). A large part of the allure is associated with the unconventional lives the men in uniform lead – frequent postings, being posted at some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country to visit which the civvies have to spend considerable time and money, being able to get acquainted with an India which we have read only in textbooks, the quaint life of a cantonment or air force station away from the hustle and bustle of cities, the host of facilities, particularly sports, which come at a considerable price (by joining one of the pseudo elite clubs of the city) to the civvies. The sense of adventure does excite me, but not in the sense of adrenaline rushing, testosterone powered high which many men experience. Then, the fact that some of my best friends happen to be CKs (cantonment kids) has further reinforced my belief that armed forces definitely provide an amazing upbringing for children – holistic, cosmopolitan, broad-minded – to be achievers for life.

Till recent times, the Forces were pretty much the icons of probity, honesty and integrity for the Indian middle class in a country where almost all public institutions, from the famed fourth pillar i.e. media to judiciary, are up for sale. Add to this, the fact that soldiering is probably the only profession where you are called upon for the ‘supreme sacrifice’ in the line of duty for a higher cause and you know why joining the fauj has always been considered a noble profession (even if it never paid much). The recent and not-so-recent exposure of the rot has somehow shaken the faith of even the most ardent believers in this much revered institution.

Armed Forces have also been one of the holiest cows of Indian public life. Being probably the only non-politicized and non-sectarian institution of the country gave it a certain amount of halo bordering on unquestionable reverence. I have seen this trait of becoming unduly defensive – to the point of closing their minds to all rational arguments – among many people associated with the forces, when uncomfortable issues – from human rights violations to graft in the forces – are taken up.

However, it seems to be a classic case of shinier the veneer more rotten is the wood. I know I am treading a dangerous path. In an institution, where an ACR can screw a brilliant career and vice versa, no officer worth his olive green will swear that Armed Forces are as non-partisan and non-sectarian as they once used to be. The evaluation system itself has probably brought certain amount of sycophancy among the officer corps. These things probably became more pronounced during the mid eighties. This letter by Gen. Sundarji to his fellow officers is a case in point.

For a significant time, the rot was probably limited to pilferage of rations and fuel. Progressively, it gave way to malpractices in the way army canteens and messes were managed (Stories of subsidized liquor being sold in open market is not even an ‘open secret’). As you go up the pyramid, graft manifests itself as millions of dollars in kickbacks for multi-billion defence deals or even scandal involving coffins of martyrs.

A recent and reasonably credible blog mentions how green vegetables meant for the soldiers posted in Siachen are sold in the markets of Leh. The excuse that the Army top brass is unaware of such malpractices is again a kindergarten homily because it’s an open secret in Leh.

What irks and saddens me the most is when people cite examples of their civilian counterparts (Although not as a blanket generalization, but it may not be an exaggeration to say that most of career faujis have a healthy disrespect for most of the civilian ‘jocks’) and how they, in spite of all the rot, are still holier than their civilian counterparts. Then, there is the never-to-be-questioned patriotism. Such attempts to shield the wrongs with patriotism only lead to further self-denials. They get justifiably passionate about all the hardships they endure – living in inhospitable areas, long periods of separation from families, putting their lives on the line of fire, the stress associated with working in counter-insurgency operations – as compared to the comfortable, fattening existence of their civilian counterparts in state or central secretariats. At this juncture, let me point out that these are the precise reasons why the educated, middle class civvies still have some respect left for the men in the forces (as against the babus). Needless to say, that the rot in civilian public life (which is as much a given as sun and moon) can’t justify fall in moral values and compromises with integrity in the men in uniform.

We inherited our armed forces from the British and have retained it more or less unchanged for last six decades. As pointed out by Hendersen Brooks-Bhagat Report (The report is still classified by the Indian Government but summary of it have been published by historian Neville Maxwell), attempts to Indianize the Army in 1950s had disastrous consequences whose final culmination was India’s humiliating defeat of 1962. Traditionally, senior officers have been apolitical to the boot - right from Gen. (later Field Marshal) K.M Kariappa to some of the most recent generals. A lesser known fact, however, is that when FM (then Gen.) Kariappa, after his retirement, started giving too many media appearances for the comfort of Nehru, he was packed off as India’s Ambassador to Australia.

It’s also a well known fact in defence circles that Nehru had a dislike, bordering on contempt, for the men in uniform. The reason, his fear of a military coup (apart from armed forces being one of the most visible and tangible manifestation of erstwhile colonial power), was not totally unjustified in view of what happened in many newly independent countries of Asia and Africa in 1950s and 1960s. This fear led to a narrow interpretation of the notion of ‘civilian supremacy’ often at the cost of country’s defence preparedness which became painfully evident in 1962.

However, this is also a fact of history that pliant generals have been rewarded with governorships and ambassadorships. So, much for the politically neutral armed forces.

Many observers, much more qualified than me, have said that even if the recent happenings are an indicator of a much deeper malaise, the very foundations of the three services remain strong. I want to believe that and I sincerely hope that is the case because in the final analysis it’s the jawans and young officers (most of them in their early twenties) on the ground who bear the brunt – whether it be busting a terrorist cell without proper intelligence or MiG-21 crashes. Indian Army is justifiably proud of a high officer to soldier casualty ratio simply because the officers lead from the front. And in context of the subject of this blog, the buck stops with these young lieutenants & captains, often fresh out of academy.

As pointed out by a retired Brigadier that living up to Chetwode Credo (It’s the credo of Indian Military Academy and the credo of the officer corps of Indian Army) at higher ranks demands immense moral courage – an increasingly rare quality – as against the physical courage demanded at lower ranks.

I hope that the military leadership displays the kind of moral courage required to set their house in order and cares for the safety, honour & welfare of their country and the men they command in, as they say in citations of gallantry awards, the highest traditions of Indian Armed Forces.

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