No Excuses:  Chinks in the Army’s Armour

Lt.Gen. Eric A. Vas. pvsm.[retd]

All professions have their ethical codes.  The Army is no exception.  Regiments proudly proclaim their standards: integrity, loyalty, discipline, courage and honour.  The Military Academy urges the cadets to keep the interests of their men and the country before their self interest.    We can summarise the army’s ethical code as Honour, Discipline, Country.  These values are ingrained into every jawan and officer cadet from the moment he is inducted into service.  Thus they develop a pride not only in their uniforms and units but also in the values that these represent.  This pride is reflected in a serviceman’s bearing and the way he acts; this extends beyond the call of duty- and even beyond his service tenure.  Talk to any ex-serviceman and you get the same feeling: a pride in the values, which his service represents.

Last year a series of incidents threw a shadow over the army’s record.  There were reports that jawans pushed out five people to their death from a train; a major cooked up enemy encounters in Siachen in order to win a citation for his unit; a colonel used tomato ketchup to fake killings in Assam in order to win a gallantry award.  Serving soldiers and ex-servicemen were dismayed, and civilians shocked by these reports.  Many began asking, ‘Whither the pride?  Are these just aberrations or is there a deeper malaise that afflicts the army?’

Some say that faking, cheating, stealing, swindling and corruption have become a common feature of the Indian scene. The disease has even spread to the militants. Last year a large body of fake terrorists made a ceremonial surrender before a Corps Commander and the state Director General of Police in J&K; they were lured into this fraudulent act on the promise of government jobs. Since the military draws its manpower form the same society, to expect it to he vastly different from their roots would be unrealistic. But no thinking military person accepts this excuse.  The army’s professional code demands discipline and honour.  An army that forsakes these values will become a rabble and would become a threat to national security rather than its shield.  This is not acceptable under any circumstances.

It is claimed that the army’s greater involvement in counter-insurgency operations alongside the police has led to some of the practices of the police catching up with the military.  Fake encounters have been a routine affair with the police; a sort of short cut to the long and cumbersome Kafkaesque-like legal process of this country. During the Eighties in the Punjab, the police pinned the label of militant on anyone shot dead.  This eliminated the possibilities of having to face awkward questions. Mercifully, no complaints of the deliberate killing of innocents by the army have been reported.  However, during search operations in the Punjab, there were allegations that some military personnel were following the police example and helping themselves to valuables of those being searched.

Another bad practice had gradually found its way into the military in the form of the recovery of militants’ weapons.   It started a decade ago somewhere in the North-East where a competitive environment prevailed within the military.  This along with the ever-mounting pressure from above for results, replaced better judgement with fraud.  It became a practice with a few units to declare only a part of the caches of weapons recovered.  It declared the remaining in dribs and drabs along with fake clashes at regular intervals to suit the occasion or more precisely to time this with the initiation of annual confidential reports.

Retired generals and senior army officers proclaim that Jammu & Kashmir is the root cause of all that ails the army.  They say that peacetime is extracting a bigger toll than a full-fledged war.  Former Army Chief General Shanker Roy Chowdhuri says, “The Army’s under tremendous strain because of its continuing involvement in internal operational duties and counter-insurgency in Kashmir and the North-East.  It would have broken any other army in the world.”  At any one time, almost half the army is involved in J&K Operations.  Under such conditions, a very real threat from terrorists combined with lack of rest and relief, it is not surprising that the officers and jawans are ready to blow a fuse.

Others see something more serious in these “stray” incidents: a shaken confidence in the Chain of Command, which is unique to the military.  Unlike civilians, army personnel wear their ranks on their shoulders.  There is no ambiguity about who is junior and who is senior.  A jawan has to have confidence in his commanding officer who in turn has to have confidence in his superior.  Critics ask, “Is what is happening now a sign that the chain of confidence has being shaken?”

Those who adopt this line, claim that the Chain of Command is being weakened because officers in their quest for gallantry awards and promotion have less interaction with their commanding officers, who in turn are busy sucking up to the top brass. Everybody is too careful about maintaining their own record instead of looking after their juniors.  It is not surprising that, as a career option, the Army has taken a considerable beating.  A large number of promising and bright officers opt for premature retirement, to take up alternate careers.  A lot of jawans also refuse promotion so that they can retire after 16 years.  The Army has been losing a sizeable portion of its manpower trained at great cost, causing a lot of concern.  It is not surprising that there is a continuing shortage of 12,000 officers. Those who defend the system say that it is unprofessional to over-react and treat shortages of manpower and disciplinary episodes as system failures.  Indiscipline and low morale on the front line are the true indicators of a failure of command and control at the middle level.  Fortunately there have not been many cases of this nature.

Some argue that there is a difference between fighting against terrorist and fighting against the Pakistan army.  They claim that involvement in counter insurgency operations shifts the army’s focus and consequently its proficiency from its primary function.  Experts dispute this argument. All are agreed that supporting the civil administration during natural disasters and communal riots are secondary tasks and should only be undertaken by the military in an emergency when civil agencies break down. However, the primary tactical role of the army is to safeguard India’s borders from external aggression.  This could take many forms: overt aggression across the international border or a prolonged low intensity insurgency such as presently prevails in J&K.  There should be no doubt in any professional’s mind that securing the line of control against Pakistani sponsored infiltration by terrorists and militants is one of the army’s primary roles.  Admittedly this three-decade-long period of low intensity warfare has imposed a strain on the army, but there is no escaping this task till the infiltration stops. However proper relief can reduce the strain.

The question of ensuring adequate relief to units engaged in such tasks is very important but this is not a tactical problem.  This is primarily a matter of sound administration.  Considering the current size of the army, and the predicted assessment that our neighbours are unlikely to launch a sudden attack across the border, it is not difficult to organise a comfortable cycle of relief for units.  This must ensure that no unit operates for more than one year in very inhospitable areas, two years in low intensity areas and then enjoy at least three years in a peaceful cantonment where it will train to acquire proficiency in all its other likely roles. With such a cycle in force, there is no question of troops losing their professional focus or being subjected to undue stress. 

The limited scope for career advancement due to constraints of few vacancies at the higher level remains a problem, and has always been a problem in democratic armies.  Officer shortages have been prevalent ever since India attained independence.   Both these issues have nothing to do with counter insurgency operations or failures in the command system as such and these administrative problems must be examined and solved separately.

It is unrealistic to expect a “zero error state” from the Army.  This is just not possible.  . Military men are not saints. The military honour system by it self is not enough to curb human frailties.  Army officers must never treat a misdemeanor casually and must continuously keep an eye on discipline. There must be swift justice for those that break the code.  Man management has to be a constant effort.  . Faking, cheating and corruption have become a common feature of the Indian scene essentially because no one really gets caught and if caught, there are seldom punished, as there are sufficient legal loopholes for escape. One thing that every soldier must be made to realise is that once misconduct comes to light, there is no getting away from prompt and appropriate retribution in the Army.  Those involved in the Tehelka episode, even those who were merely entertained to a meal in some hotel, have all been swiftly dealt with.  For some is has been an end to promotion, for others a dismissal from service and for a few a court martial.

Every small military misdemeanor is given wide publicity in the media. Unfortunately, nothing is said about many criminal politicians and bureaucrats who are never brought to book. Very little publicity has been given to the additional secretary in the Ministry of Defence who was seen accepting a gold coin from the Tehelka Team and was later promoted.  Some military men compare this disparity with the punishments given to servicemen and complain that this is unfair. But we must draw a distinction between unfair and unjustified. Admittedly it is unfortunate that the country does not have a uniform approach to indiscipline and that many prominent crooks never face any legal consequences of their misdeeds. But the Army cannot adopt that attitude.  Higher command must continue to do its duty, tighten discipline and deal swiftly with those who break the law, irrespective of rank or status.  It is gratifying to learn that recently, two major generals were reduced to the rank of brigadier; one for selling canteen liquor and the other for embezzling money.  It is reported that further punishment is contemplated in both cases.  

Lastly, all are agreed that the process of gallantry awards must be reviewed to ensure that only the deserving [and there are many of them] are recognised.   Given the fact that there will always be competition for a very limited number of promotions, and that capabilities at the brigadier and colonel levels seldom match ambition and that unthinking commanders will demand performance, the temptations to cheat are very real. What is disappointing is that some higher echelons of command turn a blind eye to this and what is more disturbing some even seek credit for such violations of the honour system in order to promote their own interests.  Perhaps the greatest single task facing the Chief of the Army Staff and his army commanders today is to watch this tendency and deal ruthlessly with those who display a lack of probity and sound judgement in the chain of command.