Millennium Post

Not just Veterans

A common code of conduct for the entire armed forces is needed for them to introspect and regain their rectitude and apolitical bearing

Every serving soldier today is a Veteran tomorrow. There is the umbilical cord of sovereign honour afforded in allowing the 'rank' in retirement that is above all, a clarion call of responsibility-of-conduct, with seamless continuum. Article 18 of the Indian Constitution entitles the suffixation of the 'rank' in retirement and death, as the 'rank' neither retires nor dies. General Douglas MacArthur's farewell address invoking the ballad 'old soldier never die, they just fade away' is reflective of that spirit that insists on the soldiers marching into oblivion, without breaking step. The Veteran is a soldier who has sheathed his sabre but not surrendered the ethos, values and purpose that defines a serving soldier. This continuity of conduct necessitates that the Veteran proximate the restraints, dignities and expressions that are mandated on the serving soldier. This mirror reflection of behavioural conduct by Veterans (both, upholding and the occasional misstep) is a natural reflection on the prevailing culture within the serving institution, as Veterans no longer set the institutional narrative. If the serving institution reflects the unwarranted strains of partisan politics or unnecessary commentary on non-professional issues, the Veteran community tends to see that as the 'new normal stretch' of conversational realm and commentary. Conversely, rectitude is reciprocated by rectitude.

There have been three exceptional leaders who famously chose to express their institutional concerns by way of letters or speeches, namely, Field Marshal KM Cariappa, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw and General K Sundarji. Interestingly, all three posited their concerns within the ambit of serving soldiers, as they too perhaps saw the Veteran angularity as a by-product of the serving institution. Kipper had laid out the foundation of an apolitical army by writing to all officers, "Politics in the Army is a poison. Keep off it". Colourful Sam Bahadur had presciently warned of 'Yes Men'. General Sundarji's famous letter had a profoundly introspective tone: "First, let us look at ourselves, the senior officers; most of us are senior to some of the others and so this includes almost all of us. We have obviously not set the right example and while recognising all the politico-bureaucratic challenges, reiterated that we want to dwell on what we can do, in-house, to increase the elan and self-esteem."

Undoubtedly, the sword-arm of the Government i.e., Armed Forces, remain the bluntest, effective and disciplined instrument of governance. Yet, we must recognise the operative changes in the societal landscape within which it operates as new national passions, urgencies, intolerances and other global winds have seeped in through the restricted entry of cantonments. The derivative slippages with Veterans came chillingly with the recent example of a senior Veteran General suggesting language and means, which would never pass muster in the uniform. This is symptomatic of a cultural malaise that needs immediate fixing. Veterans across the spectrum of political preferences had slammed this indiscretion and are united in making sure that the institutional name remains apolitical, in consonance with 'officer-like qualities', a euphemistic term that cuts across ranks and services.

Culturally, the Armed Forces are deeply rooted in history and traditions and that elevates the position of Veterans in the institutional pantheon beyond the linear cut of ranks. The hierarchical eminence is put on the 'senior-most' as determined by the chronology of retirement date and not the 'rank' as the first-amongst-the-equals of the Veterans. The Veterans may not be up to speed in terms of technological, doctrinal or topical imperatives of modern soldiering, however, due to the 'father figure' attribution, they are valued as the regimental lodestars for behavioural conduct within the serving soldiers and the not the other way round. Sadly, the conduct of a few Veterans has led to talks about a formal 'code of conduct' for Veterans. Well-intentioned as it may be, it addresses a specificity that has its roots in the larger institutional morass within the serving forces, as it has been navigated, infringed and pushed towards.

What is needed is the reaffirmation of a 'code of conduct' in letter and spirit for the institution as a whole, within which the Veteran realm is obviously embedded. This will have a more holistic and pervasive impact in terms of overall restraint and rectitude as the Veteran domain is only reflective of the 'liberties' and 'expansions' that have entered the imagination, lexicon and conversation of the serving forces. The onus of starting is within the serving domain, as the external manifestation of the Veteran community can never adopt a stance that is seen to be stretching or violating the serving institutions moorings.

Also, apolitical does not mean Veterans cannot enter the political domain. On the contrary, the institution needs more voice in the power corridors, across the political divide. However, no such Veteran-turned-politician ought to be speaking on 'behalf of the soldier', as has become the won't of even the non-Veteran politicians. They ought to refrain from using their military invocations whilst taking a political position as that could willy-nilly suggest an institutional preference. This unsaid decorum was well maintained by the likes of Jaswant Singh, BC Khanduri, Rajesh Pilot, etc., who pursued their politics without dragging their alma mater into the context.

Honest introspection will reveal that all political parties without exception have had vested interests in the misuse of the imagery of the 'Indian Soldier', and have failed to honour the same beyond vacuous, patronising and condescending symbolism. Since independence, our civil society has been gripped by multiple challenges of inequities, discriminations and divides and yet, the institution was able to restrict the seepage of the same within its confines.

Today, the obvious overreaches, politicisation and compromises have infected the 'uniformed fraternity' and therefore it is not just the Veterans alone but the institution as a whole that needs to navel-gaze and regain its rectitude and apolitical bearing. The buck stops at the very top.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal

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