Let’s discipline the Army

There have been a series of disciplinary cases in the Army. The trend is worrisome, and so also are the reasons. It seems the age-old institution is working on a short fuse, which is hardly the case because the Army is the last bastion of hope for the nation and is, undoubtedly, one of its finest institutions. On the other hand, the Army just cannot sit tight and treat the rising number of cases as exceptions. The string of disciplinary cases has sent off an alarm. Clearly, corrective action taken on the previous cases has not had the desired effect, or else, two other recent cases – one at Meerut and another at NCC battalion – would not have taken place. The situation thus demands that the Army take a more holistic view, yet not a very generalist view, as all these cases are taking place across the board, within all sections of the Army, be it field or peace, fighting arms or service.

At the heart of the problem lie two issues, the acute shortage of officers and the decreasing social gap between the officers and the men (jawans). Whereas the first is an age-old problem and will take time to be fully addressed, the latter’s corrective mechanisms are Army-centric and need to be tackled on a war footing.  The delicate balance in the relationship between the officers and the men has been upset and it becomes more evident when officer shortage is acute. The officer-jawan equilibrium within the Army will continue to get more and more lopsided if immediate social changes that are taking place are not addressed. Since the social gap between the jawans and the officers has been decreasing for a while now, the feeling amongst the soldiers happens to be one of envy and frustration, thinking that the officer is one amongst them who’s merely got luckier than most. Moreover, just because he has the stars on his shoulders, he shouldn’t really have an inflated ego.

The bulk that made up the officer class in older times had, in fact, studied in public schools, while the jawans mostly went to rural schools. Thus, there was a social difference, which suited the Army model that we inherited from the British. Today, by conservative estimates at least 30 per cent of the men would have studied in similar schools as the officer. Thus the semi-privileged and privileged classes of military leadership of yesteryears have given way to the competitive classes of the present times. Moreover, both the value system and ethical content have undergone a sea change. Today, there are special classes for English speaking, grooming, and dress sense. Since all that is available to the common man, the question as to why a commission gives special privileges to a particular section within the Army is inevitable. Clearly, the military leadership needs a high ethical quotient. 

 The men are also no longer in awe of their officers and don’t look up to them as they did a few decades ago. The dynamics of military leadership essentially at the junior level need to change, and junior leaders will also, in addition to moral ethics, have to rely more on technology to assert military leadership.  On the other hand, technology has percolated to the grass-root level; children learn to operate remotes as if they are born with them. The jawans are technologically proficient, all have the latest smartphones, motorcycles, their homes have the latest gadgets; flat colour screen television sets are the in thing in unit lines. Their wives are all professionals. The old system of welfare needs a decent burial. The trends of the trickle-down effect in the Indian economy are most visible post Sixth Pay Commission.  

The HR policies of the Army are at best traditional in nature and a lot have to be overhauled. The Army cannot hang on to old customs in the name of tradition: these will have to change. One of the issues, which cause a lot of heartburn, is the system of Sahayak. It needs a de nouveau look. One of the greatest challenges will continue to be meeting the rising hopes and expectations of the men that an officer commands. Of course, rising hopes and expectations are part of life, this will shorten the gap between the officers and jawans even more. So, are we ready for it?       

The first thing that needs to be done is to address the ethical content of leadership within the Army. When the privileged class gave way to competitive class, ethical conduct has been a direct casualty and value system a fall out of the modern generation. Military ethics includes core values, honour code, loyalty towards nation, integrity, selfless commitment, and respect for others. All this requires ethical training in addition to management skills of dealing with the chain of command. It is an impersonal world with the youth on the move and in a hurry; our men come from this environment. There is also television beaming senior officers’ misdeeds direct to their bedrooms. Just as there are special grooming, English-speaking and dress classes, there needs to be an enhanced methodology to reinforce this delicate balance. Such a thing is best done by reinstating institutions, especially when the society is changing fast.

How should the Army react is the moot point. The shortage of officers is serious and needs to be addressed. At 1,000 extra officers per year, finding and training them, in addition to the normal intake, it will take 11 years, if additional infrastructure is built today. 

The Army needs to sensitise and train its officers especially to deal with this decreasing social gap. It needs time to train its officer cadres from military academies, right until senior command levels. It needs to reinforce its institutions, look at enhanced training capsules of dealing with the social changes, reinstate some old traditions which best served the British, train officers in ethical leadership content, and make its junior officers technologically proficient, in addition to attaining physical and mental robustness. 

The officer-jawan relationship needs corrective measures, some cognitive, some symbolic, and some back to the drawing board all over again to reach the full strength of officer corps.

The author is a retired brigadier
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