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Saturday, March 5, 2016
OPINION - Soldier’s silence : By Bhopinder Singh
Representational image (Photo: Getty Images)
Institutionally and almost instinctively, defence forces in India emerge out of their bunkers, barracks, or cantonments, only on the orders of the civilian administration. A unique code of operational conduct and law mandates a certain silence on expressing either an individual’s or the organization’s point of view pertaining to issues of defence or any other national matter. This deliberate insulation has protected the defence forces from political and societal interference and degradation. This has ensured combat sharpness for its core operational role and the status of ‘ultimate-call’ in the event of a natural calamity or during civil disturbances, most recently the Jat agitation in Haryana. The increased urgency of requisitioning the defence forces during any crisis is symptomatic of the shortcomings of the police and general administration to do what is ideally, not the responsibility of the military, which ought to be the last resort as there are other mandated government entities for such intervention.
However, since Independence the potent combination of the high operational efficacy of the armed forces and the mandated organizational silence has been consistently abused. The result is the unabated slide of the head of the armed forces from the Number Two position before independence (Commander-in-Chief) to Number 12 (Chief of the respective services) in the official warrant of precedence. Brief standoffs like the dispute between one of the finest Generals of the Indian Army, KS Thimayya, and the irrepressible Defence Minister, VK Menon, in 1959 was hurriedly hushed up. Even the unprecedented glory of the 1971 war was ironically the setting for the present OROP issue with the downward revision from 70 per cent of the basic pay to 50 per cent in 1973 for the defence forces. The forces stayed the course and faced the wrath of political decisions and indecisions in such places as Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Punjab, Kashmir to external commitments like the IPKF in Sri Lanka, Maldives and the targeted areas like Siachen, Kargil and the other perennial fires on the Indo-Chinese and Indo-Pakistani borders. This laundry-list does not include the natural disasters or civil disturbances that fetched the blood and sweat of the military. While, perception and prestige rose for the uniformed fraternity to uphold the nation’s honour by paying the ultimate price, a steady stranglehold of the civilian bureaucracy aided by a disinterested political class ensured the consistent decline of real clout and voice, even on matters military or concerning the welfare of military personnel.
In 1992, the Army Chief General Rodrigues was made to apologise in writing for calling some foreign countries ‘bandicoots’. In 1998 the Naval Chief, Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked after his run-ins with the Defence Secretary and the Defence Minister. In 2014 a truly cavalier and honourable move of owning moral responsibility led to the resignation of the Naval Chief DK Joshi. Despite such developments, the soldiers discharged their duties without a question on their lips, as trained and morally mandated. Unnoticed to most was the unique spirit of the fighting forces as evident from the unprecedented level of ‘officer’ casualties, alluding to the ethos of ‘leading from the front’, one that differentiates this band of brothers from the rest. If Colonel Rai and Colonel Mahadik were martyred as Commanding Officers in J&K last year, young Captains Pawan Kumar and Tushar Mahajan laid down their lives in the Pampore operations this year. Unknown to most is the fact that the armed forces deliberately chose not to carpet-blast and flatten the building where the militants were holed up so as to minimize the collateral damage and civilian destruction. The forces silently heard out the lazy questions on the abilities of the defence forces to flush out the militants at Pampore. Banal public platitudes on the working conditions of the soldiers in Siachen -- where ten military personnel perished recently -- should be contextualized against the brazen demands to ‘maintain the supremacy’ of the IAS in the 7th Pay Commission and the fact that IAS officers are entitled to a much higher ‘hardship’ allowance in Guwahati in comparison to the Army officer operating in minus 50 degrees in the Siachen Glacier.
The most disturbing misuse of the silence is the political appropriation of the Indian soldier in the debates concerning nationalism, identity and so on. This is political opportunism and chicanery at its most convenient. The soldier fights and defends the flag of the nation and its unit. He fights under no political flag and should remain perceptibly apolitical and beyond the political ambit. All political dispensations have paid lip-service and resorted to emotional platitudes about the soldier’s ‘honour’ ... conveniently forgetting the disciplined OROP protest in Jantar Mantar by its veterans. If it took exactly one week for the government to fully comply with the violent Haryana protests and ‘accept all demands’ by the protesters, the finance minister (erstwhile Defence Minister) Arun Jaitley offered more sagacious advice to the protesting defence veterans -- “I have my own formula on what OROP means. Somebody else may have their own formula on OROP but it has to be within reasonable and rational criteria”. Apparently, reasonableness and rationality are the operative words visa-vis defence veterans. Even the ‘principle of precedence’ for clearing Haryana protests was conveniently missing in the context of OROP. “We accept the principle (of OROP). We will implement the principle but then let us not create a situation which will set other segments of society to also start demanding the same. “
That said, the defence forces must maintain their dignity by not lending themselves to political shenanigans, tactical usage and divides. Veterans must not come under the umbrella of any political colour or hues for causes that are essentially defence-related. Of course, they can and must get politically active and articulate points of view on any matter, but take care to steer clear of giving ‘organizational sanction or blessings’ of the composite defence fraternity for political causes. This is an absolute no-no. Individual representation ought to be differentiated from representing the composite body of the forces on civil/public issues as they have a tendency to divide the veterans into political groups. The serving soldiers must retain the glint in their bayonets and focus on their duties.
However, the top brass must clearly and formally apprise the political classes of the larger organizational concerns and sentiments, in the best traditions of officer-like behaviour and fearlessness. Basically, the defence forces have been taken for a ride and ‘done-in’ by all political dispensations. It is now imperative that the veterans hold the various political dispensations to their words and form a meaningful and electorally relevant pressure group to ensure that the political dispensations take note beyond empty platitudes. They must also ensure that the professionalism, spirit and concerns of the serving soldiers are honoured and the apolitical nature of the forces maintained. The self-mandated silence needs to be respected and honoured; historically, it has been abused, and now increasingly misused to serve narrow political ends.