CHANDIGARH: The Indian Army has a long tradition of checks and balances in curbing ‘wrongs’, may they be operational; administrative; man power or discipline related. Every issue and each case is deliberated upon extensively before judgment is passed or plans finalized.

Under the circumstances, one read with considerable consternation and shock that the Raksha Mantri (RM) of our country and the person responsible for the security of the nation has lost faith in the Chiefs of the three services.

My reference is to two recent diktats of our worthy RM, who presides over the three services and is supposed to have the interest of the armed forces as his foremost task.

In the first case, the RM, no doubt at the behest of the bureaucracy, ordered that in future selection boards for officers, an independent observer would sit in to ensure that the proceedings are above board. This move was apparently strongly objected to by the Chiefs and for good reasons. However, the RM persisted and only modified his orders stating that at least a representative from another service as an observer must attend.

It is understood that the issue is still under consideration, but since it has undoubtedly been raised and reported, it reflects adversely on the propensity of the RM to shoot from the hip, without fully grasping the implications of such diktats.

As a brief background, it was the first Prime Minister (also the defence minister), Jawaharlal Nehru, well known for his deep distrust of the military, who had first tampered with the then prevailing instructions in the Defence Services Regulations (DSR) relating to Selection Boards for officers that had existed for decades. By an order dated 10 April 1953, he ruled that all proposals for promotions and postings of officers of Colonels and equivalent ranks and above, along with dossiers would henceforth be submitted to the RM, along with reasons for non-selection. It went on to add that no promotions/ postings will be announced until the Minister’s approval had been obtained and communicated.

One does not know as to how the service headquarters responded to this high-handed order, but it did become the norm! This was the start of nepotism and politicization that resulted in promoting incompetent sycophants in the military and the adverse results were visible to the entire world when the much vaunted Indian Military suffered the ignominious debacle of 1962!

The successive RM’s and MoD bureaucrats lay low and bided their time, till during the NDA Regime in the second half of the 1990’s, the then RM-George Fernandes, issued an additional fiat stating that ‘the central government has the inherent power to modify, review, approve with variation or repeal recommendations of selection boards’. In other words –“we are the bosses”! Jai Ho!!!

In no democracy in the world, has the so-called ‘Civil Supremacy’ manifested itself in this manner. The ignorance and arrogance of the politico-bureaucratic combine had now reached its zenith and one witnessed, with shame, even flag rank officers who had not been recommended for promotion by the selection boards, queuing up in front of the concerned joint secretary’s office like supplicants, but with cash in their pockets!!

The authority of the military hierarchy and the impartiality of Selection Boards now lay in tatters, but the Chiefs for unknown reasons remained mum and shackled with their penchant for not ‘rocking the boat’! Another Jai Ho!!!

Let me now highlight the second fiat issued by our learned RM recently. Most newspapers had a headline last month that stated: “Parrikar raps service HQs for taking action against personnel who complain to him directly”. In elaboration, it was stated that the Defence Minister expressed his anger for the service headquarters taking action against personnel who had made representations to him directly. The Minister also directed that henceforth service headquarters shall restrain from taking action against complaining personnel and if any action needs to be taken, the same shall be first furnished to the MoD for seeking approval of the RM!?!

The Minister may be under the wrong impression that it is a welfare measure. In actuality, it will result in subverting the loyalty of military personnel and will adversely affect discipline, which is the bedrock of all militaries. Are the brownie points that may accrue to the Minister worth it?

This move in actuality undermines the discipline of the Indian Military and amounts to gross interference in the chain of command; letting down the hierarchy of the Chiefs; and encouraging serving personnel to violate good order and military discipline that is a fundamental precept of all militaries.

This is populism of the worst kind as it interferes with laid down norms of dealing with aggrieved personnel. Aggrieved personnel already have avenues of Non Statutory and Statutory Complaints available to them, which they can invoke if they feel that they have not received complete justice. Besides the overall negative implications of this order, the Minister would be opening the proverbial Pandora's Box, which will bog down both him and the MoD with a spate of ill conceived and ill perceived complaints of even trivial nature.

The bureaucracy has its own personal and institutional agenda to try and dominate the armed forces, whether it is in pay and allowances; lowering of status; or keeping the services starved of funds for modernization; training and administration. For egoistic reasons, they seem to take a perverse delight in showing how powerful they are, even to the extent of confusing a well educated and learned RM. The Minister would be treading on dangerous ground when such diktats boomerang. When that happens, the bureaucrats will conveniently wash their hands off and let the poor Minister fend for himself.

No one disputes that prompt redress of grievances by the concerned commanders in the chain is a must, and all commanders do give great importance to regulations,procedures, and in going by the legality of issues involved. Commanders are well conversant with the Regulations; they have studied military law; and they rarely, if at all, cut corners, on account of empathy with their comrades in arms.

Let the armed forces function and execute their command functions, as per the time tested procedures. In democracies like ours, political leaders must not tamper or short circuit the chain of command of the military. The RM needs to reflect on how an interfering Defence Minister – Krishna Menon seriously damaged the professional military by his gross interference and politicisation of the Indian Military in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, despite being cautioned repeatedly by that great Chief Timmy.

If the minister wants to persist in this folly, not caring for the damage he will inflict on the armed forces; then I suggest that he requests for a change of his portfolio and becomes the Home Minister, as the institutions and departments therein are in any case highly politicized and would welcome him with open arms!

In a democracy, it is the trust that a Defence Minister has with the heads of the armed forces and non-interference in their internal functioning, which result in the armed forces giving their best. If trust is lost or gets diluted, it is the country that suffers, not individuals. The Indian Military has not only served the nation loyally but has done so comprehensively, through wars; insurgencies; major internal disorders and even in areas where the other instruments of the state have failed miserably.

Let me end this epistle with a quote from a great politician, a great statesman and a great soldier, albeit an imperialist to the core:

“The army is not like a limited liability company; to be reconstructed, remodeled, liquidated and refloated from week to week as the money market fluctuates. It is not an inanimate thing, like a house, to be pulled down or enlarged or structurally altered at the caprice of the tenant or the owner, it is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy it pines; if it is harried it gets feverish; if it is sufficiently disturbed it will wither and dwindle and almost die; and when it comes to this serious condition, it is only to be revived by lots of time and lots of money”.

- Winston S Churchill, 1905

(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff)