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Monday, January 4, 2016
An important question of morale - Military Service is a 24/7 and 365-day activity; and status in society and government, of which fair remuneration is an important factor, must merit serious attention of those in authority, both civil and military.
If the three service chiefs have been concerned enough about the Seventh Pay Commission to address their political superior, it is for good reason.
Recent media reports suggest that the three service chiefs have together written a letter to the defence minister protesting the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, and seeking its review insofar as the armed forces are concerned, by a suitable committee with representation from the military. At the same time, while addressing the annual Commanders Conference of the three services on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said everything would be done to ensure that the fighting efficiency of the armed forces remained high.
There is some mismatch in these two seemingly separate but related developments. While many of the issues of concern to the armed forces will, hopefully, be set right, what is disconcerting is the underlying theme which, through pay structures, downgrades the stature of the military institution. This is a potentially damaging scenario which needs discussion, as the morale of fighting men and the equipment they fight with are not different things, but two sides of the same coin.
The real problem is not the recommendations of any Pay Commission or the ongoing agitation by armed forces veterans, but the approach that is increasingly being adopted by the country towards the one institution which stands by the homeland in weather both fair and foul. In terms of recognition of the armed forces as an institution, governments of all hues, past and present, have had an approach which borders on schizophrenia.
There is high rhetoric on the regard in which the military is held by everyone; yet, no effort is spared to denigrate its leadership or to downgrade its stature. In the early 1960s, when the Army Chief protested and then resigned over the promotion of a clearly unsuitable senior officer, Prime Minister Nehru first assured General Thimayya that he would get the issue resolved and, on the very next day, castigated the chief in quite derogatory language in the Lok Sabha. The person in question was elevated and a year later, led his troops to a demoralised retreat from the battlefield which was even more traumatic than the defeat itself.
In 1973, despite the armed forces having provided the nation with a spectacular victory just two years earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government, following the Third Pay Commission report, had no hesitation in reducing the pensions of retiring military men just as it increased those of their civilian counterparts. In the middle 1980s, when then army chief made a perfectly valid comment that the armed forces were as interested in good governance as others, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got Defence Minister Sharad Pawar to humiliate the general by remarking in the Lok Sabha that military officers were trained to fight wars but were not well equipped to make such comments, which need not be taken seriously.
In 1998, the government of Prime Minister Vajpayee summarily dismissed then Naval Chief Vishnu Bhagwat without any notice, going so far as to fly in his successor into New Delhi quite stealthily in an aircraft belonging to the Research and Analysis Wing. Two years after the Kargil War, a visibly disinterested Prime Minister Vajpayee was present on July 26 at a ceremony to commemorate the victory gained at considerable sacrifice of young lives even as, on the same day, three prime ministers, past and present, along with several MPs, stood at a crematorium to pay respect to an assassinated MP who had been a dacoit and had cruelly murdered 22 of her own innocent countrymen; both houses of Parliament were adjourned for a day. These are just a few episodes better known publicly; many more can be cited. If this is not reflective of a split persona, nothing is.
In other major democracies, there are instances of military leaders having been asked to resign or even dismissed - the most infamous one being the sacking of US General Douglas Macarthur, a World War II hero, by President Truman during the Korean War. But there the former was clearly acting in defiance of the political directive. There have been cases where senior military men have been asked to resign on moral grounds, but never have efforts been made to downgrade the stature of the armed forces as an institution. In the same country, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sits as a full member of the National Security Council alongside his superior, the Secretary of Defence (the equal of our defence minister).
This is where India stands almost alone. The approach of the Seventh Pay Commission falls in this latter category. For it to argue, as it has, that in the pay matrix, senior officers of the armed forces stand on the same footing as their civilian counterparts, actually better, is more devious than naïve, as its members were well aware that only a miniscule percentage of the former reach those positions and at a later age, when large numbers of the latter do so at a much younger age. Another pointer to the discrimination is that while representations made by various civilian bodies are analysed in the report, those made by the armed forces are ignored entirely. There are many glaring instances of such insensitivity in the recommendations made by this body.
The argument that in any democracy, the civilian leadership must have primacy over the military is valid only so long as the meaning of that relationship is understood. If by this 'superiority' is implied that the civil bureaucracy must merit higher status and remuneration than its military counterpart then the thesis deserves to be challenged and refuted.
For those who have served in the armed forces, and this writer is one, the morale of the men in uniform is the first prerequisite to fighting efficiency. Demoralisation, for any reason, is both debilitating and defeating; it was poor morale, not outdated equipment (the Chinese did not have any better), that sent us running back in 1962. Various measures, some tangible - discipline is one of them - and others more indirect, are needed to sustain and foster high morale. This is a 24/7 and 365-day activity; and status in society and government, of which fair remuneration is an important factor, must merit serious attention of those in authority, both civil and military.
Sadly, the Seventh Pay Commission report falls well short of the standard expected of it. Therefore, if the three Service Chiefs have been concerned enough to address their political superior, it is for good reason. Grievances of retired veterans can be brushed aside easily as responses of an ungrateful government, but to cause demoralisation among those still in the fight is to cause grave damage to the nation which can have potentially serious impact on its core interests. No country ever became a great power by putting down its own military.
Vice Admiral P.S. Das (retd) is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command. He has also served on the National Security Advisory Board