Since Independence, politicians and bureaucrats have systematically worked to undermine, even humiliate, our armed forces.
All of us remember 29 September, when Lt. General Ranbir Singh, the Indian Army’s Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), announced that the armed forces had carried out a carefully planned and meticulously executed strike against terrorist launching pads across the Line of Control (LOC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), earlier in the morning. General Singh was restrained and professional in his brief presentation, carefully avoiding hyperboles and table thumping. Indeed, his conduct was perfectly in consonance with the image of the professional and dedicated soldier that every Indian (well, almost every Indian) has about the nation’s armed forces.
There was widespread jubilation that India had finally come out from its stupor and punished Pakistan and its proxy terrorists for the atrocious attack on the Uri military camp 10 days earlier, and indeed, for the innumerable attacks on India by Pakistani terror modules for more than 30 years. During the few days following the Uri outrage, the country clamoured for a decisive Indian riposte that would send the appropriate message to our perpetually sabre-rattling western neighbour.
Our earlier rulers in Raisina Hill had displayed pathetic pusillanimity vis-à-vis Pakistan, despite extreme provocations like 26/11 and decapitations of Indian soldiers. The Narendra Modi government was expected to behave differently and, ultimately, it did. A new benchmark was set in Indo-Pakistani relations and the proverbial line in the sand was drawn.
For this of course, the Indian republic had to utilise its sword-arm that has served it so faithfully and conscientiously ever since we became a free country. Yet, the armed forces, even while they were protecting the nation, were constantly subjected to grossly perverse treatment that was humiliating. The debate and discourse on this extremely serious subject have become very controversial and contentious in the last few years. In many instances, vested interests have deliberately twisted and distorted facts and data in order to push their own agenda. Therefore, it is necessary to spend some time, at the outset, to clarify the basic issues that are being discussed here.
For thousands of years, India has existed as a culture, civilisation, idea, principle and a thought process. A clearly defined and demarcated political entity that was called or referred to as “Bharat” or “India” may not have existed. But neither did most other countries that constitute today’s world. Germany, for example, came into being as a distinct political structure only in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war, thanks to the old bandicoot Otto von Bismarck. Before that, it was a motley collection of German-speaking kingdoms, each with its own ruler or sovereign. Similarly, the United Kingdom is also a relatively new entrant in the club, having been constituted as late as in 1801, after the earlier union between Scotland and England was completed in 1707. Italy was an even later entrant into the comity of nations, with the initial reunification being completed in 1861, although the full process of integration was not completed until many years later.
Yet, scholars and researchers worldwide do not question the existence of Germany, Britain and Italy in the cultural or sociological sense before they became recognised political entities. Certainly, British, German and Italian scholars and intellectuals do not venture to offer denialist explanations about the history of their own countries. Only in India do we witness this disagreeable phenomenon.
There is an entire legion of historians, intellectuals and scholars who revel in propagating the obscene drivel that India never existed until Pax Britannica created the structure. The contemptuous comment of the Austrian politician, von Metternich, that Italy was nothing more than a “geographical expression”, is well known. On our shores, we have had the Romila Thapars, Bipan Chandras and Irfan Habibs paraphrasing Metternich and harrumphing for decades that ancient India is merely a figment in the minds of Indian nationalists, who were cavalierly dismissed as “right wingers”.
Thousands of years of glorious culture, philosophy, art, literature and science were swept under the carpet and brushed aside in public debates and discourses. Our military achievements and feats suffered the same ignominy. The Indian soldier, who had earned respect from adversaries and admirers throughout the world, was denied basic recognition in the Lutyens salon circles and in Indian schools and universities for the seven decades since independence. This was a parallel process to the one that was ingrained in our political and social life, i.e. that our freedom struggle was a non-violent satyagraha spearheaded by Gandhi and the Congress Party.
After 1947, this ersatz and doctored history became institutionalised in all academic centres in the country, from primary school to university. The glorious contribution of freedom fighters who took up arms against the British Empire was completely marginalised. The Azad Hind Fauj, Subhas Chandra Bose, the Naval Mutiny and the revolts in other military installations in 1945-46 were erased from our collective memories or, at best, consigned to footnotes in our books and documents. This process was as ruthless as any that was carried out by Joseph Stalin in the USSR or his Nazi counterpart, Joseph Goebbels.
The disdain of independent India’s political establishment for the country’s armed forces started immediately after independence. The ordinary Indian soldier had earned respect from his allies and adversaries in many parts of the globe, both during the First World War as well as in the Second World War. It would be apposite here to reproduce the immortal words of Marshal Foch when he paid his tribute to the Indian soldiers who had fought in France and Flanders during 1914-18. This is what the great soldier (Marshal of France and Poland, and Field-Marshal of Britain) had to say at the inauguration, in 1927, of the memorial to Indian soldiers in Neuve Chapelle:
“Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East, and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern lands...how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all of India that we shall watch their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We will cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way—they took the first steps towards final victory.”
The Imperial Japanese Army, too, had a healthy respect for the Azad Hind Fauj and its soldiers and officers. Their courage and valour were exemplary, although their actual success in terms of battleground victories was limited. A mere glance at the casualty rates they suffered (nearly 50 per cent of combat strength) will demolish the biased and concocted assessments of British “scholars”, parroted for years by the old “koi hai” desi lot in the Indian armed forces and their Gunga Din civilian counterparts, the vast majority of whom were in the Gandhi-Nehru group.
We now come to the crux of this essay, which is the interface between India’s military and its political establishment, in particular, the role played by the self-appointed icons of the nation, led by the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. JLN’s attitude towards the armed forces can, at best, be described as one of pathological suspicion and dislike. His run-ins with General (as he then was) Cariappa were legendary. One of the first symbolic acts of JLN was to requisition the official residence of the erstwhile British Commanders-in-Chief of the Army and make it his home. Consequently, General Cariappa was relegated to another house that ranked distinctly lower in the pecking order. This was clearly a harbinger of things to come for India’s armed forces in the years and decades that followed.
It can safely be said that JLN’s track record in nation building was distinctly chequered and flawed. When he combined forces with his Sancho Panza, Krishna Menon (his Defence Minister), his interaction with, and treatment of, the country’s armed forces was a copybook disaster.
In any society, building national institutions and nurturing them are extremely difficult jobs. They require the utmost dedication and commitment, particularly when an institution’s principal duty is to protect the country’s sovereignty and freedom. Post-1947, the Indian armed forces were immediately called upon to safeguard the country from foreign invaders. They carried out their task splendidly and with distinction, only to have JLN and his English imperialist mentor, Lord Mountbatten, undermine all their work and valour by a distinctly colourable decision, which converted their battlefield victory into disaster for India for all times to come.
The move to halt military operations when the Pakistani invaders were about to be driven out completely from Kashmir and to take the matter to the United Nations was worse than a blunder—it was a crime.
Throughout the post-Independence period from 1947, the Indian armed forces continued to stay in their barracks or cantonments, separated from the rest of the citizens both physically and mentally. The colonial structure continued unchanged. Civilian-military interaction was minimal, except during the four major conflicts India was involved in. During these critical periods, the armed forces, particularly the Army, came into close contact with their civilian fellow citizens, as units travelled from one part of the country to another.
The other occasions when there was close military-civilian interaction were in times of natural calamities, when the armed forces came to the rescue of ordinary people, particularly after the civilian governance framework invariably collapsed under stress. Because of their role as guardian angels, the soldier came to acquire an exalted status in the eyes of the ordinary Indian. Any dispassionate survey (except in Kashmir and parts of the North-East) will clearly demonstrate this phenomenon.
If anything, this exacerbated and continues to exacerbate, the jaundiced view that the civilian babu and daroga have about the Services, since both the babus and the police force enjoy a dismal reputation among the public.
One negative outcome of the separate existence of the armed forces is the extremely poor knowledge that average Indians, even the educated ones, have about their brothers and sisters in arms. Here again, there was little effort in telling the civilian population about the exemplary standards set by the men and women in olive-green, blue and white. School textbooks, too, have little information on the subject and neither did AIR and Doordarshan do much to popularise the armed forces. Admittedly, Bollywood did make some successful films with vignettes about the armed forces and their battles, but this is no substitute for including information about the forces in the school curricula.
In the last few years, some private television channels have indeed come up with imaginative programmes about the military and their achievements, especially some of the heroic battles they have fought. This is a welcome trend, but much more needs to be done to bridge the information gap.
The armed forces, too, must carry a share of the blame in this area; unlike the United States and Russia (including the former Soviet Union), our military does little to reach out to young minds in schools and colleges. The NCC (both the junior wing in school and the senior wing in colleges and universities) has had a limited impact in attracting the best of our youngsters into the forces. The senior most officer in the armed forces, who is in charge of the NCC, is a Lieutenant General or its equivalent, but the appointment is universally considered to be a dead end for an officer.
This is the appropriate moment to take the proverbial bull by the horns, by discussing the status of India’s armed forces and how this glorious sword-arm of the nation has been steadily downgraded, marginalised and indeed humiliated by the neta-babu nexus. This is a most sensitive issue and has been discussed at length and in depth by many analysts and experts from both sides of the divide. The undisputed facts are:
•Independent India’s government has, from the mid-1950s, steadily, continuously, and often surreptitiously, downgraded the pay, emoluments and status of the country’s military. The nation’s citizens are usually unaware of this. Any number of excuses, most of them blatantly frivolous and fraudulent, have been proffered for this sleight of hand.
•Commitments made to the armed forces, even though resolutions of Parliament, have been flagrantly withheld, sidelined, delayed and even forgotten.
•As the soldiers have been steadily marginalised and sidelined, the civilian bureaucracy has continued to fatten itself and has extracted enormous (and undeserved) benefits from the treasury. A particularly shameful blow to the faujis was delivered by the Indira Gandhi government when, just after the landmark military victory in the 1971 war, the pensions of the warriors was reduced in one fell swoop from 70 per cent to 50 per cent, and in many cases to 30 per cent, of the last salary drawn. The warriors took this blow on their chin and carried on with their job of protecting the country.
Thereafter, at regular intervals, the netas, babus, judges, and the police have all given themselves extraordinary doses of largesse from the taxpayers’ money. Promotion opportunities for the babus and the darogas have been liberalised to such an extent that every IAS/ IFS officer reaches the rank of Secretary automatically, and every IPS officer attains the DG rank. In several states, the police have the rank of DG (Libraries) or something equally Orwellian. The remuneration package of the babus and darogas has elements that are absolutely bizarre and unjustified (like an exorbitant “hardship” allowance in a comfortable peacetime posting) while the poor soldier in Siachen gets only a fraction of this bounty.
The single most outlandish concession that the IAS/IFS lot have managed to extract for themselves is something called the Non-Functional Upgradation (NFU). It works as follows: even if a single member of a particular batch gets promoted, all the others in that batch automatically receive the same higher salaries and benefits that the promoted officer does. If this is not daylight robbery of the citizens’ money, I don’t know what is.
In sharp contrast, the career mobility structure in the armed forces is pyramidical and promotion beyond the rank of Lt. Colonel is extremely tough and selective.
The way the cards are stacked against the military is obvious from the fact that the successive Pay Commissions appointed for Union government employees have never had a military person as a member, whereas the babus always have their man (or woman) in the Commissions. The Government of India has steadfastly refused the demand of the armed forces to have one of their own in this body.
The status of the armed forces has also been systematically and ruthlessly downgraded. The decision of JLN to earmark the Commander-in-Chief’s house for himself was just the beginning of the exercise to bring down our military by many pegs over the last few years. The Commander-in-Chief of India ranked only next to the Viceroy in 1947. Over a period of 68-odd years, the Chiefs of Staff of the three forces have now been pushed down to the 12th position, lower than worthies like Election Commissioners, Chief Information Commissioner, and, if you please, the Chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Wait, matters are even more grotesque. For many years, the Services chiefs were subject to frisking and security checks at our airports, whereas a certain person named Robert Vadra was officially exempted from this procedure. Enough to make the heavens weep.
Under the guise of civilian control over the armed forces, which is a perfectly acceptable feature in a democracy, what the bureaucracy has done is to bring about the control of the civil services over the military.
This is not the situation that prevails in any other democracy comparable to ours and is a specifically desi aberration. The Ministry of Defence, as the controlling authority of the military, has arrogated to itself the position of an über chief, and the Defence Secretary, invariably an IAS babu, has become the point man between the armed forces and the Union Cabinet. He or she has continuous interaction with the government on all matters military. The three Service chiefs are junior functionaries in this structure; there is no political-armed forces interaction on an official basis.
The Service chiefs can only attend the meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security if they have been invited to do so. The business rules of the Union government categorically specify that it is the Defence Secretary who is responsible for the security and protection of our ancient land. This is a Kafkaesque state of affairs that must have taken an impossibly devious mind to conceive and attain.
The saddest example of the humiliation meted out to our fighters is the steadfast refusal of the Union government to honestly and diligently implement the One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) that was promised to the former soldiers of the country many years ago by a Committee of Parliament. The Koshyari Committee submitted its report to Parliament on 16 December 2011, which by sheer coincidence was also Victory Day, which was entirely the achievement of the Indian armed forces. There was also a clear judgement of the Supreme Court as early as in 2008 that categorically endorsed OROP (Union of India v. SPS Vains, (2008) 9 SCC 125).
This writer does not wish to venture into Indian party politics but it must be pointed out in all fairness that all previous governments sat on the decision for many years. The present government must be partially complimented for granting OROP, albeit in a modified form. It must be remembered that the Prime Minister and his party had unequivocally promised OROP to the veterans and had incorporated it in the BJP’s election manifesto in 2014. However, it took the new dispensation in Raisina Hill many months of obfuscation and dragging of feet before the actual decision was taken.
For the record, the ex-servicemen had to rally and undertake fasts for more than a year in the capital’s designated protest site at Jantar Mantar before they partially won their demand. And during this period of protests and fasts, the government ordered the police to lathi charge the peaceful protesters—one of the lowest points in Indian public life ever.
In the meantime, the government, after announcing the award of OROP, has constituted a one-person Judicial Committee to listen to the feedback of the Services fraternity and try and iron out the glitches in the policy. These judicial committees or commissions are, in the vast majority of cases, sinecures for retired judges to continue enjoying their good lives at the taxpayers’ expense. I can only hope that this is not the case with the present committee.
There was also the Alice-in-Wonderland posture of successive Union governments on the issue of constructing a befitting war memorial in Delhi dedicated to independent India’s armed forces personnel who have sacrificed their lives in all the wars that India has been forced to fight since 1947. India Gate, for all its splendour, is a colonial structure and not a national war memorial. Here too, there has been stonewalling and disingenuousness. A former chief minister of Delhi even had the gumption to say that the area around India Gate, which has been earmarked for the National War Memorial, should not be used since it is a convenient picnic spot, or some such drivel.
There were some signs that the current government had finally decided on the site of the memorial and that it would remain the one near India Gate. However, I wouldn’t bet a large sum on this. The babus and the darogas are clever enough to derail this on some pretext or the other. After all, there would be nothing as galling to their egos as the sight of countless Indians paying their homage to India’s fallen warriors.
The key issue of providing the right arsenal and equipment to our warriors must be mentioned, as a tailpiece, since it requires a separate substantive and detailed effort to do justice to it. Suffice to say, the previous regimes in Raisina Hill for the last two decades have been grossly delinquent in this matter.
The country’s self-sufficiency in armaments and weapons has been woeful. The dependence on arms imports has been disastrous. The whole process of defence imports has been so tainted for the last few decades that it should make us all ashamed and allow our western neighbour to gloat. The Modi government’s recent decisions on the acquisition of the Rafale for the IAF and the latest purchase of a formidable air defence system from the Russians during President Putin’s visit to India in mid-October are indeed very welcome steps. They should substantially bolster India’s military capabilities.
However, one can always depend on the babus to provide gloom and despondency whenever there are some positive developments for the country. Just after the remarkable retaliatory strike in end-September, the Defence Ministry mandarins announced a bizarre move to substantially slash the disability benefits of armed forces personnel. It is as if the Modi government, the PM and the Raksha Mantri are doomed to face sabotage by the clerks and factotums in Lutyens Delhi and Raisina Hill. Even with the best of technology and equipment, a soldier whose morale is destroyed will never be able to perform.
The enemy within can be a significant force multiplier for the enemy across the border. The Germans almost destroyed the French Army through the Dreyfus case conspiracy at the beginning of the 20th century. They went on to replicate it in the 1930s against the Soviet Union, by preying on Stalin’s paranoia about his own generals and officers. The ISI reads the same history books as we do.
Over to Pericles whose words are still relevant, even after a few thousand years: “The greatness of Athens has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonour always present in them, who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow these virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feet”.
Since the Indian army’s surgical strikes, there have been dozens of ceasefire violations by the Pakistanis. Soldiers have died on both sides. But two of our martyrs’ bodies have been mutilated by the Pakistanis. The Indian army has promised “great retribution”. We certainly should do that. Our great sage Sri Aurobindo had also recommended the resurrection of our country’s “kshatriya spirit”. One can only hope that this government will fulfil its bounden duty, and its electoral promises, to re-position the Indian armed forces in their legitimate space at the core of our national life.