Tell-tale signs of a strained Army
The disturbing news of an infantry unit jawan dying during a training session, the accompanying murmurs of a follow-up “mutiny” by the unit jawans and the subsequent roughing up of a Captain-in-charge, bodes ill for the country’s most disciplined and patriotic institution. Army authorities have unequivocally denied the news of a “mutiny” and said that “only a few (4-5) got emotional and agitated”. Although this is not the first time, such incidents are occurring with greater frequency. This follows an ugly officer-jawan incident in a Horse Cavalry Regiment in October 2014 and earlier in 2012, in an Artillery Regiment in Ladakh.
This is ironical, given the singular distinction of the Indian Army, which has the highest “officer-jawan” casualty ratio in combat, across all armies of the world. The Chetwodian code that mandates, “……welfare and comfort of the men you command come next and your own ease, comfort and safety come last always and every time” is deeply ingrained in the psyche and DNA of every soldier before they take their “final step” at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. This manifests in the hallowed and unique concept of “Unlimited Liability” of leadership during combat operations. It is sub-consciously mandated on the officer cadre to lead from the battle front with umpteen examples of battalion commanders paying the ultimate price for defending the nation. With this backdrop of the basic “officer-jawan” equation prevailing in the forces, it can only be hoped that the latest incident is down to individual culpability and not reflective of a systemic rot.
That said, the recent work conditions and the commensurate circumstances afforded on the Indian Army with very limited understanding of the same by the civilian administration, it would be hardly surprising that pent-up frustrations of an over-stretched, under-equipped, underpaid and under-appreciated defence forces would not vent out the resultant angst and ire, like in the one in the recent incident. The silence of the institution is taken for granted. The recent handling of the OROP and the 7th Pay Commission was a damning indictment of this behavioral simplicity of the defence forces with the civilian administration, muzzling the rare uproar with bargains, requests for accommodation and divide-and-rule approach of splitting opinions to ensure the overall, reneging of terms and shortchanging of the original promise – akin to handling a trade union with an embarrassing line of, “it’s still a good deal” for the forces.
A deep dive of the headlines pertaining to the defence forces, just in the month of May itself, will reveal the genesis of the trouble brewing in the organisations’ soul and spirit. On May 7, Sepoy Kishori Lal was killed as he fell into a gorge while he was patrolling the anti-infiltration fence along the LoC in Machil sector. On May 10, Lance Naik Om Vir Singh of Rashtriya Rifles was shot dead in Kupwara’s dense Rajwar forest in an anti-militancy operation. On May 1, the ultra-disciplined and poignant struggle of the war veterans for OROP on Delhi’s Jantar Mantar ended silently after a marathon 320 days of patient agitation against an unmoved and strident government, left only with a legal recourse to fight the battle. This is not the complete list of the Army’s operational commitments and casualties. It is only symptomatic of the unforgiving conditions, life threatening deployments in the hinterland (intrinsically, a police job that has been increasingly handed over to the Army to reign in the inimical elements) and most importantly, the disinterested and support-less environment which allowed the OROP cause to wither away with inexplicable intransigence and belligerence against the old war horses who had given up their best years for the nation. Even civilian deployments like in the recent Haryana agitation or in other riot-affected areas, the Army was dragged into picking up the gauntlet for the failings of other governmental institutions.
So, the Army is deployed on hostile borders, on policing duties of containing hinterland insurgencies and secessionist movements, during civic unrests, in natural disasters, and even to make odd pontoon bridges for private events of certain “holy” men. Add to all this, the famed shortage of 12,000 officer cadre and you have the combat units perennially short of officers to man the various positions in an optimum manner . The picture for mental snapping of individuals is complete under such work conditions. With limited manpower, hierarchical structures, and deployment commitments, the onus of working professionally in high-stress situations, cutting down on annual leaves, and an ACR-culture of delivering irrespective of the work conditions, is bound to drive certain quarters to the level of exhaustion and combustion.
Amidst all these unreasonable demands and pressures, the cavalier talk is of correcting the “teeth-to-tail-ratio” of the Indian Army’s “flab”. In itself, the principle of a lean-mean-fighting-machine is correct and desirable. However, such a conceptual framework and outfit necessitates investments in weaponry, equipment, work conditions and motivation accoutrements of the forces. While not much progress has been made on most of the prerequisites of a “trim” force, the convenient “teeth-to-tail-ratio” argument has been addressed prematurely with a committee under a retired Vice Chief to submit an approach to “right-size” the army in three months! In such times, the very term “flab” for the armed forces is an affront, with the retinue of daily deployments and commitments enforced on the Army to manage every little political and bureaucratic failure.
The defence forces need a voice that can be heard at the right quarters of the government or else the situation will further deteriorate affecting the efficacy, morale, and discipline of the most organised force that is often abused for its very efficiency, and, ignored due to its feeble and disciplined protests. But the writing is on the wall and it can only be hoped that the recent event in Arunachal Pradesh is not repeated. Executive action is sought to make some fundamental changes for the Defence Forces – cutting the “flab” of operational commitments that are neither under the strict purview and domain of the Army and going beyond ritualistic platitudes and condescending concerns, would be a good start – else the tell-tale signs of an exhausted Army will take its toll.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views are personal.