THE year 1965 saw a war in which many military veterans of today fought fiercely against Pakistan to save India’s honour. Fifty years later, in 2015, most of them were compelled to fight a war against the Government of India to defend their own honour. All because of breach of trust!
The struggle for the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, that seeks equity in the payment of pensions to ex-servicemen, has been going on for years. At the fag end of its term, UPA II made a sleight of hand and granted this demand by making a token Budget allocation. The BJP, as a political party during elections, and Narendra Modi, as prime ministerial candidate and then as the Prime Minister, made voluminous promises of implementing OROP. But, when the veterans felt that Prime Minister Modi and the government he heads were reneging on this commitment, citing some difficulties in its ‘arithmetical translation’, they rose up as one man and went on the warpath with rallies and protests all over the country. Volunteers among
them sat on a chain dharna at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.
Sensing the discontent and distress, four former Service Chiefs—one from the Army and three from the Navy—came together and wrote to the President of India, stating that this development has the potential for inflicting long-term damage to India’s ‘proud and apolitical military ethos’. They pointed out that successive Pay Commissions have been used to whittle down the financial and protocol status of the military vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts. The letter expressed the suspicion that there has been a sustained effort to bring the armed forces on a par with the police and paramilitary forces and make the Indian army subservient to the bureaucracy.
They also warned: “In the daunting security scenario that prevails, our powerful military is expected to be at the peak of combat-readiness, with high morale and motivation, ready to react swiftly to orders of the political leadership to meet every national crisis. However, such a response may not be readily forthcoming from a military which suffers low self-esteem because its respected veterans are seen to be ignored and humiliated by their own sarkar.” According to the chiefs, weak politics and lack of political will is the root cause of this malaise.
Then something preposterous happened. On Independence Day Eve, Delhi Police, in its attempt to ‘evict’ the peacefully protesting veterans from Jantar Mantar on the pretext of ‘security’, manhandled them and reportedly even snatched a train of medals from the shirt of one of them. In this era of instant communication, electronic and digital photography, the images of the aging and struggling veterans being beaten and pushed around will haunt the conscience of most citizens. Even worse, the next day, in his near-90 minutes’ ‘oration to the nation’ from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Prime Minister did not even mention this sordid episode, let alone express any regret. As for OROP, he only repeated the words that have been spoken ad nauseam.
OVERNIGHT, the OROP struggle transformed from a monetary issue to one of fauji izzat (military honour). Across the veterans’ email circuit, the thought process on the future role of the armed forces was moving towards a sort of ‘non-cooperation in aid to civil authorities’.
“…..The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time. Of course it does, but you don’t have to take on other people’s work just because they are inept and corrupt. Saving people from floods and other disasters is not your job. There are over-paid officials in the civil services and police who are supposed to do it. The funds earmarked for such relief work is meticulously divided amongst themselves, while you share your meager rations with the disaster afflicted.
“…..If a child falls in a bore-well, don’t get all worked up about it. Your country doesn’t care about you one way or the other. If a few jihadis with weapons and bombs sneak in through the Line of Control, it shouldn’t agitate you. Keeping them on the other side is the job of the fattened BSF, commanded at the higher levels by corrupt cops of the IPS who have never fired in anger or been fired at.
“…..Don’t go around shooting your own countrymen just because they are insurgents. That’s not your job. Let the CRPF and the motley lot of other central and State policemen do it. They are highly paid and very well equipped and if they cannot or will not do their job, so be it. Let the netas, babus and cops, who started the alienation in the first place, sort it out between themselves. You do not come into the picture here. Don’t make enemies of your own countrymen while the babus and cops play goody-goody. When war comes, these rats will scuttle away. You will need the help of your countrymen to fight the enemy.
“…..Do only what you are supposed to do–train for war and win it when it comes. In the meantime, live it up. Everyone else is!”
Sensing the trend, 10 more former Chiefs—seven from the Army, one from the Navy and two from the Air Force—joined the fray, making it almost a confrontation between the civil and military. As the Chiefs said in the letter, for the government and people of India things appear to be going out of hand. It became worse when the younger generation entered the OROP struggle with the appeal to all children of ex-servicemen to come out and support the veterans.
The dysfunctional relationship between India’s civil and the military has reached a nadir. Now, even if the OROP issue is resolved, the wide civil-military hiatus caused by senseless procrastination for long years would continue and could even get worse if the message reaches the serving personnel. This would directly impact on the country’s security and sovereignty and needs to be addressed urgently in its proper perspective.
For doing so, we need to draw on the centuries-old wisdom of Kautilya reiterated in modern times by the General-turned-President of the US, Dwight Eisenhower: “When diplomats fail to maintain peace, the soldier is called upon to restore peace. When civil administration fails to maintain order, the soldier is called to restore order. As the nation’s final safeguard, the army cannot afford a failure in either circumstance. Failure of army can lead to national catastrophe, endangering the survival of the nation.”
This sums up the role performed by our military and the criticality of an abiding civil-military relationship, lest the nation face any catastrophe. It should be realised that in war or conflict military men do not offer the ‘supreme sacrifice’ just for money or rank. There is something far more precious called ‘patriotism and honour’ and this is embedded in the Indian Military Academy’s Chetwood Hall credo, which none of the civil servants or politicians have gone through but most military leaders have. It reads thus: “First—the Safety, Honour and Welfare of your Country come First, Always and Every Time. Second—the Honour, Welfare and Comfort of the Men You Command come Next. Third—Your Own Ease, Comfort and Safety come Last, Always and Every Time.” The Civil-military relationship should be moored on such an anchor.
DESPITE the passage of seven decades since Independence, the political leadership has failed to evolve a framework for a coherent civil-military relationship. But the military brass had attempted it. Way back in 1998, in his treatise, The Soldier and the State, former Naval Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat wrote: “The modern military profession exists as part of the government insofar as the term ‘government’ includes the executive departments of the nation-state… Modern democracies therefore pay great attention to the supremacy of the political class over the military in governance, normally referred to as ‘civilian control of the military’. This is clearly how it should be, since all ultimate power and decision making should be wielded by the elected representatives of the people.”
On the eve of his demitting office in 2012, General VK Singh fully endorsed this view with a compelling caveat: “I am a firm believer in civilian supremacy over the military in a democracy. I subscribe to the views of the former Naval Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. However, civilian supremacy must always be rooted in the fundamental principles of justice, merit and fairness. Violation of this in any form must be resisted if we are to protect the institutional integrity of our Armed Forces.”
The combined views of the former Navy and Army Chiefs set forth certain non-negotiable imperatives for the civil-military relationship: democracy as a vibrant and functioning entity with the ‘elected representatives of the people’ running the government as per established democratic norms; military profession existing as part of such government; civilian supremacy to be exercised by the ‘elected representatives of the people’; such supremacy to be rooted on the principles of justice, merit and fairness; violation of this can be resisted to protect the institutional integrity of the armed forces.
Whether governments in India are being run as per established democratic norms is a burning question! Even so, India’s professional military is meant to protect, safeguard and sustain our Democratic Republic wherein lives one-sixth of the human race. Therefore, it is imperative that a democratic civil-military relationship framework exists, is practised and sustained. But, unfortunately, this has not even been attempted and the civil-military relationship is not mandated in the governance system. It has been continuously and dangerously drifting.
In the colonial and aristocratic past, when soldiers were illiterate, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s dictum—‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die’ (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”, 1854)—prevailed. But today’s military comprises well-educated and highly skilled men, who have a mind of their own to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. Officers who command them come through a rigorous selection process based on merit. So, it is difficult to stomach the statement of a former Union Minister of State of Defence, in the ‘august’ presence of then Army Chief General Bikram Singh, that military forces have remained loyal and ‘obedient servant’ of governments!
Had it been so, India could have turned into a dynastic dictatorship following the Emergency of the mid-Seventies. Why this did not happen is aptly described in an article in Time magazine of August 11, 1975, written by Claire Sterling after visiting India. This is better reproduced verbatim:
“Indira Gandhi is perhaps more powerful than ever before, but she is also more alone. There is no one left to share with her the blame of the regime’s failings, no one of any stature to partake with her the task of running her vast benighted nation…..
“India’s standing Army of nearly a million men has been resolutely non-political since Independence. But it is also sensitive to the smallest slight to its honour, dignity and military independence, not to mention the nation’s sovereignty; and it is steeped in loyalty to constitutional principles. It was altogether her Army when she enjoyed unquestioned legitimacy of constitutional rule. It may not be, should its ranking officers conclude that she has become something else. More than ever now her fate hangs on the Army’s loyalty…..
“Depending on how fast and how far she goes in changing from a traditional Prime Minister to the one-woman ruler of a police state, the Indian Army—the one group with the power to stop the process—could intervene. If it were to do so, it would almost certainly be not to replace her with a military dictator, but to restore the institutions (of democracy) it has been drilled into defending since birth.”
Iknow this for sure since as the then District Magistrate of Chandigarh and custodian of JP, the enemy-number-one of the State, I was abreast of what has been happening in Delhi. This had also been confirmed by Lt. General SK Sinha, then Director, Military Intelligence. In a recent article, he gave credit for this to the then Army Chief, General TN Raina. Compared to these men, where does the present top brass of the Army stand?
All said, as of now, the words of Rudyard Kipling written about a century ago can be altered and applied to today’s civil-military relationship: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This can be so only at the nation’s peril. This will be so even if the OROP tangle is resolved. There is much more that needs to be done for the ‘twain’ to really meet. The sooner, the better.
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org