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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 8, February 7, 2009

India At Crossroads: Instrumentality of the Military

Wednesday 11 February 2009, by S G Vombatkere

India Today

It is a common observation that the levels of discontent and disaffection among most sections of society all over the country are on the increase. There is a feeling of injustice among the people not only at the social level but also at the economic level. This is evidenced by the rising groundswell of social unrest and anger that shows as verbal and physical militancy among unempowered people, rural and tribal people, and people working in the unorganised sector like hawkers and roadside vendors, construction workers, and domestic workers, who constitute over 75 per cent of India’s population. The daily protests at various places across India against government policy measures like SEZs, and large dam, infrastructural, industrial and mining projects are being termed as the “million revolutions”, only some of which continue to be fought on the basis of non-violence. Common people are losing faith in the constitutional executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Governments giving tax breaks to industries and increasing expenditures on governance while pleading insufficient money for education, public health or poverty alleviation only heighten the feeling of injustice and of being neglected. In this situation, in 2006, the Planning Commission of India ordered a study on the connection between poverty and militancy. The Report of the Expert Group on “Development Issues to Deal with Causes of Discontent, Unrest and Extremism”, published in April 2008, shows a close correlation between poverty and militancy or extremism.

In the situation obtaining today, which includes long-standing and ongoing insurgencies and latterly, “terror attacks”, the Prime Minister has very recently made a statement to the effect that he will “not allow terrorism to destabilise the country”. It might appear that the statement is an outcome of the unexpressed fear and anguish that the possibility of destabilisation does exist. It would not be wrong to say that the apprehension of destabilisation is also shared by many thinking people. Most of India’s immediate neighbours are unstable, failing or failed states and India is the sheet-anchor of South Asia as of now. At this critical juncture, instability in the Union of India may result in unpredictable and irreversible internal changes in neglect of the Constitution of India, and day-to-day unpre-dictability as in some Middle East and African countries. As it is, political actors in several States within India are behaving as if there is no Centre. While one says that North Indians are not wanted, another does not want the Railways to recruit applicants from a neighbouring State, yet another refuses to share the river water with a neighbour (while grandiose plans are afoot to interlink all national rivers!), and a fourth demands that only his language must be seen on vehicle licence plates and in public places. Governments are apparently unable to impose the constitutional obligations on them while, in response to Raj Thackeray’s attack on North Indians in Mumbai, a Union Minister is reported to have threatened to stop trains to and from Mumbai.

Notwithstanding “comfortable” economic growth figures nearing 10 per cent, in its current weakened internal situation India also faces a quasi-military threat from Pakistan and economic and military threat from China, besides political machinations from other powers. The global financial crisis will affect India sooner rather than later and the overall situation is likely to deteriorate considerably before it begins to get better. The concurrent, ongoing effects that climate change will inevitably have on the Indian subcontinent can only exacerbate the socio-economic-environmental situation, with consequent internal and external political repercussions. Thus, put bluntly, India is at a crossroads, and it is small consolation that this country is not alone.

Decline in Governance

SOME would have it that the problems that India faces internally are due to adopting an inappro-priate and non-inclusive pattern of development that is the price of globalisation through liberalisation and privatisation. Whether that contention is right or not, and whether or not there is an intent to change it, there is no option for any political party or coalition in power at the Centre other than to maintain law and order and a semblance of the rule of law in the country, while it plans and implements changes according to democratic, constitutional processes. In order to maintain stability of governance, the primary instrument of the Union Government and governments in the States is the bureaucracy (IAS and State AS) along with the State and Central Police forces, which comprise the civil administration. Because of a combination of several reasons, perhaps the most important of which are political interference and corruption, the demonstrated performance of the governments’ primary instruments over the decades since independence has been in decline, with self-evident effects.

Trump Card

IT is precisely because of poor and declining governance standards providing by the elected executive through the bureaucracy-police, that the military (or more familiarly, the fauj, this term referring to the Army, Navy and Air Force or the defence services, whose personnel of whatever rank are termed herein as faujis) has been frequently called by the civil administration in “aid to civil power” to solve a variety of problems or handle emergency situations. This is not to argue that the military should not be called out. After all, the military is a national body that is meant to serve the nation and its people. However, it is necessary to point out that though the primary role of the military is to defend national borders and maintain India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, it has been and still is very frequently deployed in its secondary role of aid to civil power because the civil administration has failed in its primary duty, which is governance.

The secondary role tasks assigned to the military range from holding flag marches to quell social or communal violence, handling insurgencies, undertaking relief operations in natural disasters like floods, cyclones or earthquakes, to undertaking relief in manmade disasters, and/or providing rescue and accident relief in railway accidents, building, collapse, children falling into tubewells etc. And all this, it may be noted, is undertaken and executed despite an overall and growing shortage of officers which stands at 14,264, with 11,238 in the Army alone, mostly at the ground-working levels. These situations are caused by wrong governance (insurgencies or communal conflict situations) or inadequate governance (rescue and relief operations that can be undertaken by the police), at the root of both of which are the Central and/or State civil administration. For example, as reported in the media, after the warning of the mega-cyclone that hit Orissa in October 1999, the senior staff of the District Administration had themselves fled to safe places, leaving the citizenry to their fate at the peak of the crisis. Once the military is called out, it can be observed from media reports that the civil administration most often does little or nothing.

Ever so often, when an emergency arises, or law and order is threatened or deteriorates, governments at the Centre or in the States are paralysed into inactions. The most recent display of this was during the terrorist attack in Mumbai commencing November 26, 2008 (or “Mumbai 26/11”). In other instances, which need not be elaborated here, governments have displayed “masterly inaction” and even complicity for political or ideological reasons. It is in such situations that the use of the military in aid to civil power to restore internal stability is an instrument of last resort like a “trump card” for governments in the States and at the Centre. And it is the traditionally apolitical, secular and professional character of the Indian military over the decades since independence that has made the restoration of internal stability possible.

View within the Military

THE military is a somewhat closed system, like any strongly hierarchical organisation is bound to be. Unlike any other organisation or body in India, the relative insulation of the military from the rest of India’s society is due to its traditions, ethos, training and deployment which have made it what it is—to repeat, it is apolitical, secular and professional. Faujis are subject to Military Law and are therefore denied the right to freedom of speech and expression to communicate with the media under the Constitution of India’s Article 19(a), and are denied the right to form associations or unions for collective bargaining under Article 19(c) that are guaranteed to ordinary citizens including the bureaucracy and the Central and State Police forces. Thus, faujis are in fact extraordinary citizens. But serving faujis do communicate with their colleagues, and civilian friends and relatives when they meet them. Thus most veterans are upto date regarding the faujis’ grievances, their fears and anxieties, their desires and aspirations, their moments of pride and achievement and their motivations. After all, every fauji in service today is tomorrow’s veteran.

The grievances, fears etc. and the pride achievements etc. of faujis do not reach the upper echelons of governance partly due to the insulation of the military because of denial of constitutional rights, and partly due to the several (unnecessary??) layers of the military and bureaucracy. The result is that the inner-most thoughts of the simple jawan at the base of the pyramid or the junior officer who has the most direct contact with him rarely, if ever, get known outside the military. These are the thoughts that, when put together, indicate the individual fauji’s morale and, when aggregated, the morale of the military unit and of the military as a whole.

Apart from training, team-spirit and regimental tradition that are a part of motivation and morale painstakingly built up within the military, there are two external factors that contribute towards the morale of the individual fauji, namely, status (more appropriately described as “izzat”) and salary. Pay scales are important to faujis, but anybody with the least familiarity with the military knows that izzat is always more important. The first is to satisfy the corporeal and temporal needs of the fauji and his family, and the second is what motivates him to fight for national causes and, if need be, sacrifice his life. And the two are inextricably linked. It is necessary to clarify at this point that the present paper is not an oblique attempt to make a case for pay parity or status parity, though both these issues have a great and immediate bearing on a much more important issue that follows. Rather, it is to focus on the current situation that may degrade, even invalidate, the “trump card” that the government has been using with abandon.

The Focus

THE centre-piece of this paper is the worsening morale of the serving fauji in general, his feeling of being let down by the government, and the ramifications on internal and external national security. The serious negative effect of lowered individual morale on the morale of military units and formations does not need emphasis. The concatenated effect of lowered fauji morale on the government’s continued ability to use its instrument of last resort to maintain internal stability or in withstanding external aggression, can be ignored only at the cost of national security.

This is the assessment of many military veterans, many of whom are very senior general officers. They would agree that the proximate cause of lowered morale is the Sixth Pay Commission (6 CPC) and the fact of there being no fauji member in the 6 CPC to represent the faujis, who form not only the single largest majority of people affected by the 6 CPC, but who also constitute the only group that is denied the fundamental freedoms under Articles 19(a) and 19(c), and have terms and conditions of service, promotion and retirement that are adverse when compared with any other category under consideration of the 6 CPC. Live issues such as physically and psychologically trying service conditions especially during IS duties, insufficient living accommodation, jawans having to retire at the age of 38 and most officers below the age of 54, and promotions (to which pay is linked) being very limited especially in the officer cadre, have been borne without much murmur in the past. But now the dissatisfaction in the military is at a high pitch, although this may not be seen by those outside “the system”, not even those who have access to intelligence reports, because most intelligence agencies tell the boss only what is “music to his ears”.

Bureaucratic Control

THE hard fact is that rightly or wrongly, most faujis and veterans harbour a grudge against the bureaucracy which they understand as the hand behind the consistent denial of what they see as their just and fair demands. Admittedly, every person would feel that his demand is just and fair. But here we have to see the great dissimilarity between what the fauji does, how he lives and works with risk to life and limb on the one hand, and the bureaucrats, who live comfortable lives, receive assured promotions, draw higher salaries and earn more during their much longer service life, on the other.

The load on the exchequer for providing military personnel status-cum-service-cum-salary parity with the IAS or police at all levels is not unaffordable considering, for example, the huge tax holidays and concessions being freely given to commercial and industrial corporations. While he freely accepts being under the control of the Union Cabinet through the Defence Minister, the fauji resents the real-time control that is exercised by the bureaucracy to his personal detriment and the izzat of his Service. He feels de-valued, neglected and insulted by the sarkar. This state of affairs is positively harmful for the country’s internal and external security.

Military Veterans

PENSION is based upon pay drawn at the time of retirement. Ex-servicemen have held a long-standing demand for “one-rank-one-person” (OROP), which means that regardless of when a fauji retired, those who retired with the same rank and the same length of service should receive the same pension. This demand is based upon the fact that faujis who retired long ago draw much less pension and are in difficult economic circumstances than those who retired more recently. OROP had not been acceded to by successive CPCs, even though OROP had been agreed to in-principle by several elected representatives in various Union governments. Faujis continue to believe that such refusal has been the unofficial stand of the bureaucracy. It is learnt that, while discussing the OROP issue recently, a senior official of Defence (Finance) has said, “Finances are not an issue” or words to that effect, since the amount in question may be a mere Rs 600 crores. This view from the Finance angle clearly reinforces the fauji’s apprehension that the bucreucracy is at the root of consistent refusal.

Hitherto, military veterans had always silently accepted whatever the CPCs have dispensed with by way of pension and allowances over the decades. The CPCs have always been headed and dominated by bureaucrats, who have little idea of and even less interest in the working and living conditions of the fauji or the ex-fauji, and have made decisions for the single largest segment of the Central Government servants without their representation in the CPCs. The unfairness of successive CPC dispensations was not lost on military veterans, but their long-ingrained habit of acceding to “superior authority” hitherto ended in simple grumbling, mostly at the personal level. It needs to be noted that the worst sufferers of the neglect of ex-servicemen are the jawans who, after retirement at a young age, are too busy trying to reconstruct their lives to be able to afford time to join hands to make demands concerning their pensions.

However in late 2008, following the 6 CPC, military veterans have organised themselves to agitate vigorously and have taken the unprecedented step of offering satyagraha by relay fasting at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi since mid-December 2008, and also in metros, cities and towns elsewhere in India. The veterans‘ fast unto death—recently withdrawn, though the relay fasts continue—has been kept out of the media possibly due to the bureaucratic influence on the government. Thus the veterans are even more disillusioned since nobody appears to care about them. Earlier, senior retired officers of General rank, demonstrating silently in the Boat Club area with prior intimation to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the police, were arrested by the police and taken to the Tilak Marg Police Station. The continued stonewalling by the government, including the arrest of veterans mentioned above, has turned the mood of military veterans from unwilling acceptance into one of disappointment and demanding anger. It may be argued that the voice of the military veterans is not important to the future of the country, but such an argument neglects the fact that the serving fauji is well aware of the socio-economic conditions of the military veterans, and also knows all too well that he will one day join their ranks. Hence, today’s neglect of the military veterans is tomorrow’s neglect of the serving fauji, and this is taking its toll on the morale of the fighting man.

Today’s Fauji

THE position of fauji officers in the Order of Precedence has been steadily falling over the years relative to the IAS and police appointments. The government may deem this necessary, but it is viewed by the fauji as deliberate devaluation of the military rank and as part of loss of izzat. This by itself may not mean much (at least to a bureaucrat) but in the matter of pay equivalence with bureaucrats and police officials lower down the military hierarchy and the skewed recommen-dations of the 6 CPC, it has resulted in police officers who hitherto drew less salary than their fauji peers, drawing more salary than them, despite less years of service. At the operational level in J&K and the North-East States, there are reports of police officers refusing to serve under Army officers of the rank of Lieutenant Colonel since they (the police) now draw higher emoluments according to the 6 CPC. This has also happened between Navy Commanders and Coast Guard officers. Herein lies a serious risk of operational failure and consequent national security risk, and, worse, further lowering of the fauji’s morale.

Now consider the serving military personnel with lowered morale especially in the present circumstance of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan following Mumbai 26/11. Almost all faujis would have followed the media coverage of the attack and the sacrifices made by the NSG (SAG) commandos. In fact, many faujis serving in counter-insurgency operations are personally under direct fire from militants and witness to such actions much more often than is reported in the print or electronic media. And they see the cause of their exposure to such difficult or life-threatening situations as being due to poor governance, more specifically failure of civil authority (the political executive and the bureaucracy-police) to handle political violence or law-and-order situations, necessitating frequently requisitioning the military in aid to civil authority.

Thus, among serving personnel there is an undeniable, general feeling of dissatisfaction plus a deep-seated feeling of injustice plus the feeling of helplessness plus the certain knowledge that many of the people in the higher echelons of government are callous or corrupt. One might argue that such is the feeling even among the general public as demonstrated most recently following Mumbai 26/11, but then members of the general public are not required to carry out onerous, life-threatening tasks as part of duty.

A not unlikely situation of open hostilities between India and Pakistan exists in the wake of Mumbai 26/11. Most citizens oppose war, and no soldier anywhere in the world is in favour of war or hostilities, because most bullets have soldiers’ names written on them. He goes to war because he has to do so, not because he likes it. India’s military remains staunchly apolitical and professional unlike in some countries in India’s neighbourhood. Hitherto, our faujis have displayed exemplary courage, fortitude and hardiness since independence in all wars thrust upon us, and are respected within and outside India as they are counted among the top fighting forces in the world. But in the fall-out of the 6 CPC and the generally negative, even sullen, mood obtaining, in a forthcoming war with Pakistan, should there be even a temporary or local reverse in the military situation, it is quite likely to be interpreted as a failure of morale by our (irresponsible??) media, and the canker of lowered morale can rapidly spread through the branches of the military. This can be much worse than a military defeat for both India’s military India. From the already rapidly growing regional pressures, a weakened India will be easy meat for superpower ambitions in South Asia.

Conclusion

SOCIOLOGISTS widely accept that conditions of dissatisfaction plus the feeling of injustice plus the feeling of helplessness plus the certain knowledge that many of those in power are callous or corrupt, are a potent social explosive. Such conditions are obtaining today among veterans, especially after the 6 CPC, and the events following it. The government’s continuing refusal to give status parity especially with the police, and refusal of OROP are issues that could well cause any far-seeing person to fear for the Union of India because, as argued above, it is the apolitical and secular Indian military that is holding India together, not the bureaucracy, not the police and not the politicians. A demoralised or fractious military, denied the right to free speech, cannot be in the best interests of the nation. Restoring the izzat of the military and providing faujis at various levels salary commensurate with their onerous duties on a consultative basis appears to be possibly the most important and urgent step that the government needs to take at this juncture, to rejuvenate its instrument of last resort.

Kautalya is said to have advised Emperor Chandragupta as follows:
It is my bounden duty to assure you, My Lord, that the day when the Mauryan soldier has to demand his dues, or worse, plead for them, will neither have arrived overnight nor in vain. It will also bode ill for Magadha. For then, on that day, you, My Lord, will have lost all moral sanctions to be King. It will also be the beginning of the end of the Mauryan Empire.

The present situation is not merely a matter of the demands of the military veterans or the needs of the serving faujis who are bound to silence due to Military Law, but a matter of utmost urgency concerning devaluation of the instrument of last resort that affects national integrity and security. This paper is a humble attempt to apprise those in the highest echelons of governance about the seriousness of the situation, in the hope that they will cease rearranging the furniture when the house is smouldering.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional DG in charge of Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ AG’s Branch, New Delhi. He can be contacted at sgvombatkere@hotmail.com

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