Visakhapatnam, Feb 12, 2010.
Honour in uniform
THE ARMY is the ultimate weapon of the nation. In the words of Eisenhower, “When diplomats fail to preserve peace, the Army is called upon to restore peace and when the civil administration fails to maintain order the Army is required to restore order. As the nation’s ultimate weapon, the Army must never fail”. In a democracy, the military must remain subordinate to the civil.
The latter means the elected government and not the bureaucracy. This subordination must never be reduced to servility or subservience. The military and its chiefs are institutions whose image must be safeguarded by the government in the interest of the nation. The chiefs also play a role in ensuring this.
Britain being the “mother of parliaments” established the principle of supremacy of the civil over the military. The Indian Army raised by the British imbibed that tradition. Thus there was no hiccup in continuing with this after Independence. The Army has been executing the nation’s will and has never imposed its will on the nation. Our problem in 1947 was to transform what had been a colonial Army into a national Army. On the eve of Independence Mahatma Gandhi wrote about the Army in the Harijan: “Up till now they have been employed in indiscriminate firing upon us. Today they must plough the land, dig wells, clean latrines and do every other constructive work that they can and thus convert the people’s hatred of them into love”. The Army’s role in maintaining order during the Partition holocaust, in saving Kashmir and Hyderabad, and in defending the country, made it the most popular instrument of the state. Unfortunately, the increasing esteem and popularity of the Army among the people has been matched by the progressive diminution of the Army both in decision making and in status. This is a matter of grave concern. Both the government and the service chiefs have to ensure that their image is not allowed to suffer.
The Sukna land scam has been under the scanner of the media for nearly four months. One is confused about what exactly has happened. It is reported that contrary to a previous decision, four generals were involved in issuing a no-objection certificate to a builder for building a school on land which belongs neither to the Army nor the government. So far no report has appeared of any bribe being taken or any disproportionate assets. Four very senior officers of the Army are facing a court martial. Hopefully justice will not only be done but seen to be done — the guilty punished and the innocent acquitted. However, it is distressing that differences between the defence minister and the Army Chief about taking administrative action or disciplinary action were aired in the media. Could not this have been sorted out at a meeting between the two without publicising the differences between them? Our irrational higher defence organisation, based on the philosophy of “we” and “they”, and not “us”, continues despite the meaningless change in nomenclature from C-in-C to COAS in 1955, and of the recent change in terminology to Integrated Ministry of Defence.
This militates against an “us” approach. The manner of handling the Sukna land case has unnecessarily undermined the position of the Army Chief.
Look at the history of the Indian Army and how both failure and disagreements have been dealt with. Within a few weeks of Independence, the Army Chief was dismissed. Sir Robert McGregor MacDonald Lockhart, who took over as Army Chief on August 15, 1947, had been informed by his British counterpart in Pakistan of the preparations being made in that country for the invasion of Kashmir. He failed to apprise the government nor did he take any action in the matter. Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir in October 1947 caught us totally unprepared. The Army miraculously managed to retrieve the situation. Sardar Patel insisted on removing Sir Robert. Sir Roy Bucher relieved him in November 1947. No publicity was given to this sacking for obvious reasons. We still had British officers serving in the Army and a British General as Army Chief for over a year till January 1949. The next such instance was the dismissal of the Navy Chief in 2000. Whatever the merit of Admiral Bhagwat’s stand on the basis of the Naval Act of questioning the government’s decision to appoint Vice Admiral Harinder Singh as vicechief, the episode and the drama connected with the removal of Admiral Bhagwat were unfortunate. Neither George Fernandes, the then defence minister, nor Admiral Bhagwat acquitted themselves too well.
There has been only one occasion on which a service chief tendered his resignation. General K.S. Thimayya resigned in 1958 over differences with the then defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, on a promotion case. He was a charismatic, very respected and popular Army Chief with a brilliant war record. Pandit Nehru persuaded
him to withdraw his resignation and thereafter castigated him in Parliament. General Thimayya ignored this reproach and continued to serve. He became a lame duck Army Chief during his remaining tenure. Had he chosen to resign on a more substantive issue, like neglect of defences in the Himalayas, and stuck to his resignation, he could have gone out a hero, setting the right pattern for civilmilitary relations. The nation would have been saved the humiliation of 1962. Nehru need not have died broken-hearted. By 1962, the institution of service chief had been so degraded that the then Army Chief, General P.N. Thapar, seems to have had little say in the decision to go to war with China. On his way to Sri Lanka, Nehru told the press at Chennai that he had given orders to the Army to evict the Chinese from the Himalayas. A joint secretary at Tezpur conveyed this order on a chit of paper to Gen.
Thapar. Fortunately the position of the Army Chief was redeemed by General J.N. Chaudhuri during the 1965 war, and more so by Manekshaw in 1971.
The Bofors scam ushered in an era of ongoing rampant corruption and the most blatant coverups. Hardly any of the numerous tainted political leaders have been convicted. Corruption, like a galloping malignant cancer, has been spreading to all departments of the government and to all sections of civil society. The Army has also been affected and a few general officers got involved in corruption. This has badly tarnished the Army’s image. A redeeming feature has been that unlike in the case of civilians, the tainted generals were promptly dealt with and punishment meted out to them.
The author, a retired lieutenant general, was Vice Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir