India: It’s Time for the Army to Get Back to Basics

Two decades ago, in my writings, I would warn against the widening gap between officers and men, especially in the fighting arms. In the last decade, there were a few cases of rough-up and arguments in units between officers and men in Jammu & Kashmir. Those mishaps at the time, though dismissed as aberrations, were certainly investigated but the tea leaves were read lightly.


by Ashok K Mehta

( January 18, 2017, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Gen Bipin Rawat’s announcement of a grievance mechanism is unlikely to be a hit. Rather, the institutionalised feedback system of units must be gingered up and greater time and energy must be spent on feeling the pulse

Last Sunday, on the 69th Army day, All India Radio invited me to two back-to-back programmes,  ‘Sandesh to Soldiers’ (S2S)  and ‘Challenges facing the Army’. I was introduced as a veteran who had fought in the wars of 1965 and 1971, participated in peace-keeping operations in Congo and Sri Lanka and served on the Line of Control (LoC) and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — this reflecting the uniqueness and versatility of the Army deployed from Siachen to Thiruvananthapuram and from Sopore to Car Nicobar.

Of the 87 martyrs in 2016, 60 belong to the Infantry and nine were officers from across the Army. These figures showcase the ground reality and that fighting forces are led from the front by officers. The S2S was an awe-inspiring inaugural launch whose centrepiece was the sacred pledge taken by a soldier  on joining. It highlights command: Obedience of orders of the President of India or to whichever superior officer he delegates the authority, even if in carrying out the orders he has to sacrifice his life. No other Government servant similarly puts his life on the line.

I placed this oath of allegiance in the context of the epic Field Marshal Chetwode motto, guiding the officers graduating from the Indian Military Academy that: ‘The safety and honour of your country comes first always and every time; the safety, honour and welfare of the men under your command come next; your own safety, honour and welfare come last always and every time’. It is this time-tested officer-soldier bonding, the hallmark of the Indian Army, which as social media has shown last week, may be fraying.

After the surrender of Pakistani forces in Dacca, a Pakistani soldier attending the Bara Khana to celebrate the victory remarked: “With your officers and our men, we would not have lost this war”. Till not long ago, whenever a company/platoon returned from an exercise or operation, the company/platoon commander would inspect the feet of all the soldiers and only go to the officer’s mess after a hot meal had been served to the men. Man management manuals were not required for the care, safety and well-being of troops under one’s command.  Somewhere down the line due to pressures of duty, operational stress, shortage of officers and rising aspirations of officers and   soldiers, this holy Grail has become a victim of oversight.

Two decades ago, in my writings, I would warn against the widening gap between officers and men, especially in the fighting arms. In the last decade, there were a few cases of rough-up and arguments in units between officers and men in Jammu & Kashmir. Those mishaps at the time, though dismissed as aberrations, were certainly investigated but the tea leaves were read lightly.

Although I became a veteran in the early 1990s, I have consciously remained in touch with military events and developments, especially within the Army. This year alone, I have visited Army units, formation headquarters, training institutions, regimental centres and Army and command headquarters. I know the thinking on Cold Start and surgical strikes, one-rank-one pension, Seventh Pay Commission, civil-military relations and so on.

One has also observed closely the spirited training of recruits and how they are chiselled into smart soldiers. Regimental ethos, unit traditions and customs, which are the bulwark of the fighting arms remain undimmed. Looking at our  men and their officers, no one can imagine that any breach in the chain of command is possible. Even if these omissions and commissions are by bad hats, it is time, the challenge is addressed squarely like it was tackled recently when nearly 100 cases of fratricide used to occur annually.

The problem has certainly got nothing to do with food as quality and quantity of rations have improved exponentially. Yet, an article in The Economic Times (January 14) titled ‘When Follies over Food Become a Force to Reckon With’… (historically leading to revolts) makes interesting reading. Although it will not trigger a mutiny, it could give a bad stomach. The joke a few years ago among the Babus in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was: Keep the services happy by giving them anda, jhanda and danda.

The real issue today is more of perception than  reality: That be it celebration, commemoration or any other event, these have become officer-centric with soldiers on the periphery. Of course, the bone of contention is the institution of the batman/orderly/buddy called Sahayak. For the Commander, he is the indispensable force multiplier in battle and field areas. An updated officer-buddy code of conduct will probably help.

The Sahayak system has been the favourite whipping boy of the MoD.  Since the Army has failed to correct the perception of misuse of the Sahayak and soldiers are complaining about it, the MoD had threatened to order a drastic re-order of the Sahayak facility, calling it a ‘systemic issue’.

Meanwhile, Gen Bipin Rawat has announced a grievance and suggestion mechanism to be instituted from Army Headquarters down to formation levels to monitor grievances and take in new ideas from soldiers. This is unlikely to be a big hit. Rather, the institutionalised feedback system of units has to be gingered up and greater time and energy spent on feeling the pulse.

The sainik sammelan or the Commanding Officer’s durbar has to become more relaxed and soldier-friendly for issues and problems to be unearthed and voiced in the unit instead of being posted on social media. The integrity of the unit’s chain of command is vital for enabling sub-unit commanders to exercise their leadership to strengthen the  layered suggestion and grievance mechanism.

No way should digital devices become the medium of communicating grievances as these could also lead to operational disclosures. Recently, an Army Commander’s video conference to his field formations was recorded presumably with inside collusion and its transcript provided to a media house.  The picture of the beheading of Naik Hemraj in Poonch in January 2013 was available with a Delhi newspaper even before it could reach the Army Commander in Udhampur.

Suitable deterrents must be put in place for bypassing command channels. TV channels must exercise restraint and sobriety before debating sensitive issues like officer-soldier relationship. Soon after last week’s serial viral videos,  Times  Now pitted a former very gentle Army chief against a disgruntled retired havildar who clumsily attempted to undermine the Indian Army’s regimentally nourished ‘great bonding’ which has built empires, won wars and proven in BBC’s reckoning to be  India’s last bastion of democracy.

Still, it is time to dust the old manuals on man management and get back to basics: Naam, namak aur nishan.


(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)


 

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