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Politics and the Military

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  • August 24, 2015

    As part of the ongoing agitation by Ex Servicemen (ESM) for One Rank One Pension (OROP), a large number had gathered on the highway bisecting the Bathinda Military Station, which also has the Corps Headquarters, and had intended to enter the station to agitate and hand over a memorandum to the Corps Commander. But the gates had been closed thus preventing them from entering. A media photograph showed a very agitated and aggressive police officer confronting the veterans. The whole incident left many veterans worried: what if the police were to use force against the agitating ESMs and this in turn provoked action by serving personnel? What if the gates were opened by the men on duty? The worry is that it could very well happen with grave consequences.

    The purpose of the profession of arms has been, and will remain, the management of organised violence and is inextricably linked with the ultimate question of life and death. The shared uniqueness of the profession moulds its members into the ‘Brotherhood of Arms’ with shared values, beliefs, standards and codes of conduct. The soldier (which includes the sailor and airman) dons the uniform on oath to go by land, sea or air where ordered by his superiors and execute the task allotted even at the cost of his life, if required. Willingness to perform unquestionably, even at the cost of his life, does not come merely because he is paid to do so or simply because his superiors have ordered him to do so. It comes from mutual trust and camaraderie between the leader and the led. It also comes from the time honoured concept of Izzat. Also, wafadari, imandari, self-esteem and pride in honourable soldiering are constant bywords in the military community – things that are underappreciated outside the military environment.

    Surely a soldier will not launch himself into battle with a high probability of loss of limb or life merely on verbal words of command unless this rests on unquestioning faith and trust in his superior. By the same logic, at the highest level, the armed forces of the country also act on the basis of mutual trust between the political and military leadership. Military leadership strives to ensure mutual trust on the foundations of justice and fair play. No leader worth his salt can be seen to be acting unfairly or in a partisan manner. Over long years of service this concept of justice and fair play is deeply ingrained in a serviceman. He carries it with him on hanging his uniform. This unique culture rests on accepting the spoken word as inviolable. The soldier’s angst arises when society at large and the political leadership, in particular, is perceived to be ignoring and rescinding its own spoken commitment.

    Post-independence, the serviceman has been consistently given an unfair deal; be it the pay commissions, the higher national security policy making apparatus, status, and so on. There is a deeply ingrained sense of injustice harboured by the military – both serving and retired. The ongoing agitation for OROP is primarily driven more by the feeling of lack of fair play then merely by the seeking of monetary gains. In other words, the soldier feels cheated. This is compounded by the recent politics injected into the controversy with disastrous consequences. The announcements by the UPA and NDA governments of OROP were blatantly politically motivated with electoral gains in mind. The president of the ruling party had committed to the representatives of the ESM that OROP would be announced within 10 days. Even the Prime Minister had made this commitment on more than one occasion. Not honouring these commitments has generated cynicism and mistrust in the forces, which is likely to lead to questioning the motives of the political leadership even in operational matters.

    The Army Chief had made a public announcement on implementation of OROP. So had the former servicemen recently elected and appointed ministers of state. Obviously such commitments were made on the assurance of the political establishment. Regrettably all have lost credibility and trust both with the serving and the retired fraternity. More regrettably the Army Chief too has become a victim of politics. If this is not politicising the armed forces, one fails to see what is politicising the armed forces. In a country where everything from garbage to governance is mired in politics the one institution that was outside its purview appears to have finally been sucked into the quagmire.

    In the past, the senior leadership would discourage any discussion or comment on issues like pay commission dispensations in the interest of discipline and in keeping with the military ethos. The military continued to perform its role with a healthy disdain for political horse-trading and unethical politics. No more. It has long been a ploy to refer legitimate demands of the armed forces to the pay commissions and thereafter simply ignore the issue. The 6th Pay Commission was the last straw. It presented the military with blatant down gradation and a patently unfair dispensation. One such issue was of honorary officers being awarded more pension than regular officers holding the same rank. Approved recommendations of the pay commission were distorted during implementation. Failure to address the large number of issues generated by the 6th Pay Commission finally convinced the military that it had been short-changed and that politics had finally caught up with it.

    The rank and file does raise these issues and the leadership has no answers. In some recent gatherings and seminars one has heard ESM questioning the senior leadership as to why they do not take a tough collective stand on issues concerning the armed forces, in other words suggesting ‘collective insubordination'. The social media is rife with irresponsible voices suggesting, if not demanding, that the three Service Chiefs resign over the OROP issue. This is a very dangerous trend indeed. Compounding this dangerous trend is the motivated attempts and propaganda to drive a wedge between the officers and the men by suggesting that OROP is primarily for the benefit of the officers with men having little to gain. Such a wedge strikes at the very root of military cohesion besides damaging the vital aspect of mutual trust. We have already seen former Army Commanders joining the protesters at Jantar Mantar. It would be an ultimate shame if former service chiefs are also to do so.

    In keeping with the national political culture of horse trading and breaking the opposition through wheeling and dealing, the Central Police Organisations were also encouraged to orchestrate demands for OROP. This was never an issue till now. Promoting their coverage in the media and suppressing the ESM protests was politics at play.

    Then there is the politics of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is periodically raked up to gain political capital. The soldier does not ask to be employed in counter-insurgency operations. More often than not his employment is brought about by political mishandling and misadministration. In this environment the soldier sees his sacrifices in counter-insurgency operations as being politically driven and not in the national interest, thereby raising questions in his mind about the sincerity of the powers that be and generating ideas of being ‘used’ unfairly.

    The country and the politico–bureaucratic establishment need to remember that if there is any profession which has a generational link it is the profession of arms. Many of my generation were third or fourth generation soldiers serving not only in the same arm but in the same Regiment as their forefathers did. The Army Chief and the former servicemen who are now ministers of state are generational soldiers. Many servicemen today have at least one close relative retired from the armed forces. There is perhaps no other institution more closely linked between the serving and the retired than the armed forces. The sentiments of the ex-servicemen are not confined to them alone, these percolate down to the serving community as well. Whatever happens at Jantar Mantar or anywhere in the country is instantly conveyed through the social media both to the ESM and the serving community. Anything that humiliates the ESM also hurts the self-esteem of the soldier. Anything that concerns the ESM concerns the serviceman.

    An unspoken social contract exists between the Indian armed forces and the people of India. At one end of the bargain exists a deep sense of admiration, respect and intrinsic affection for the soldier. At the other end the people expect the armed forces to deliver when required, no matter what the demand or cost. The people believe it to be the one institution that has not been affected by the all-pervasive moral decline of society. This social contract is vital for the future of the armed forces given the indifference or ignorance of matters military by the politico-bureaucratic combine. The soldier’s end of the contract will endure as long as he perceives that he has been given a fair deal by the powers that be and by civil society at large.

    In our context and at the very basic level, the emphasis of society at large to reduced deference, if not indifference, to authority and discipline and enhanced awareness of individual rights with lack of corresponding obligation towards duty and the all-pervasive culture of corruption, are at odds with what the military emphasises. The Hon’ble Defence Minister recently expressed the view that the country had lost respect for the armed forces or the armed forces relevance had declined as there had not been any war since 1971. This perception needs to be clarified. It is not the nation at large which has lost respect for the armed forces. It is the lower level functionaries of the government at all levels and across all areas of the soldier’s interaction for his basic problems that has lost respect for the armed forces. In an all-pervasive environment of petty graft, seen and experienced before entering the service and when back in the environment on leave, how does a military man reconcile to the core value of ‘imandari’ the profession demands? It is also the highest level of the government, the politico-bureaucratic elite, which is perceived to have lost respect for the armed forces in pursuit of their agenda or narrow objectives. If there is any institution left in the country which is respected by the people at large it is the armed forces. Yet, after every war, the military was downgraded in status, pay and pension by the pay commissions. So much for the respect for or importance of the armed forces which war generates!

    A worthy politician had recently derided the death of a soldier by opining that ‘they are paid to die’. Nothing could be more callous or ill-informed. The soldier may well ask whether he could kill someone and pay his family to go scot free. Paying the soldier alone does not buy his obligation for duty and death. Respecting his dignity, promoting his self-esteem and treating him as an important member of society ensures such a commitment.

    Much as the serviceman, and by extension the ex-serviceman, abhors the idea of agitating on the streets, undertaking fasts or indulging in collective protest, today he sees these as the only options in an uncaring environment. The recent death of policemen in a terrorist incident saw their families sitting in protest demanding jobs and compensation. Giving a go bye to the laid down rules for ex gratia and other dispensations, the political leadership acquiesced. It would be a very sad day if the soldier’s families were to agitate similarly.

    Our polity by design and default has proceeded to politicise, downgrade and demoralise its own armed forces and veterans. As Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote after 1857: ‘Na Shah Iran ne na Czar Roos ne, Angres ko barbad kiya kartoos ne'. It can now be said 'Na Cheen ne na Pakistan ne, apne fauj ko barbad kiya Hindustan ne'.

    A dissatisfied military is not in the interest of any nation least of all India which has to contend with multiple internal and external security issues. The nation at large and the political leadership must be alive to the prevailing sentiments and act appropriately lest the gates of military stations are opened.

    Lt. Gen. (Retd.) N.S. Brar, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India