As we brace ourselves for the forthcoming general elections, there is countrywide apprehension that difficult times lie ahead in terms of political volatility, economic instability and social unrest. The recent grim events in UP could presage worse to come. Externally, the display of belligerence by the Chinese and Pakistani armies, while catching us on the wrong foot, has conveyed the ominous warning that we need to prepare for collusive action by them. To exacerbate our security predicament, the Pak army-ISI combine is waiting for the last GI to depart Afghanistan before unleashing its ‘strategic reserve’ of Taliban on India. In such a daunting scenario, Indians would wish their powerful military to be at the peak of combat-readiness, morale and motivation, ready to react swiftly to orders of the political leadership to meet every national crisis; whether internal disorder or external threats.
Let us pause to consider if such a response can be expected from a military which suffers low self-esteem because its leadership is publicly excoriated and humiliated with regularity and snidely accused of disloyalty, by proxy, through the media. Let us also pay heed to the words of Winston Churchill, an experienced soldier as well as astute politician: “The army is not…an inanimate thing, like a house, to be pulled down or structurally altered at the caprice of the tenant or owner; it is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy, it pines; if it is harried, it gets feverish.”If there is unanimity amongst the citizenry and the politicians regarding the armed forces, it is that everyone wants them to be completely ‘apolitical’. We are extremely fortunate that in a region full of praetorian militaries, the Indian armed forces have remained completely untainted by political stain or ambition; and it is in the nation’s interest that they continue to be so.
Regrettably, the same is no longer true of the military veterans, and since the 25-30 lakh former soldiers retain a close umbilical link with the serving personnel there is real danger of the armed forces, too, becoming politicised by osmosis. A pertinent question that arises at this juncture is how and when did the veterans become politicised? The short answer is they have actually been driven to politics over the past five to six years by the indifference of politicians and the hostile manner in which the MoD bureaucracy has handled problems relating to pensions and allowances of aging veterans, war widows and battle casualties. Forced to go to courts, they were stunned to find a litigious MoD fighting them at every step through appeals to higher courts. In a bizarre development, the MoD has perversely refused to implement even Supreme Court judgments favourable to the veterans. In April 2008, the frustrated veterans decided to resort to public demonstrations, in Delhi and elsewhere, to press their demands, and ever since their protest movement has gathered mass, momentum and political flavour. Cautionary advice rendered by senior veterans, including retired chiefs, has been consistently disregarded at the highest levels of the government and MoD. The ‘Rewari moment’ was, therefore, waiting to happen.
If forcing the veterans to take to the streets was a grave mistake, it has been compounded by serial mishandling, driving a patriotic, disciplined and politically-neutral segment of society into the maw of party politics. Retrieval may be possible even at this late stage if the government initiates urgent action to assuage disquiet among veterans and send a message of reassurance to troops in the field. First, alleged misdemeanours by the senior military leadership must be investigated under the vast powers available to the government and due process of law followed thereafter. Interests of national security demand the utmost discretion and confidentiality in such cases. Media leaks of military matters and trial-by-TV bring comfort only to our enemies. Secondly, the so-called department of ex-servicemen’s welfare must be recast (as in other democracies) with a retired service officer as its head and with adequate veterans on its staff. The bureaucracy should be made to desist from initiating mindless litigation against the nation’s veterans. The defence minister has adequate powers to decide most issues.
Finally, military headquarters, worldwide, are part of government; only in India are they seen as ‘submitting’ reports/matters for the government’s consideration. It is time to eliminate such bureaucratic subterfuge, by amending the government business rules to subsume the three service HQs within its edifice.