Suresh Bangara: Changing face of the Indian soldier
Prolonged use of the Army in counter insurgency operations can easily corrupt personnel who witness misgovernance and maladministration
Suresh Bangara / January 02, 2011, 0:42 IST
The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations was written by Samuel Huntington in the 1950s. Much later I was presented a copy by my commanding officer when I was quite wet behind the ears. Those were the days when we had recovered from the Chinese aggression and the failed Pakistani attempt to grab some territory in 1965.Those were also the days when senior officers spent valuable time with their young officers to groom them and educate them on the virtues of being totally apolitical, among other things. A distinct feature of the Indian Navy in particular was its approach to secularism. No pictures of Gods and goddesses were permitted where officers or sailors lived. No religious ceremonies of any kind were permitted on board a naval ship.
In his book, Huntington referred to the role of a soldier vis-a-vis the State by drawing upon events and anecdotes that threw up challenges to a democracy whenever there was tension between the armed forces and the democratically elected leadership. Just as the Americans went through a critical phase of challenges thrown at the elected government by some military leaders, we too will have to learn to live with such episodes. It is often forgotten that India is a very young democracy and that both the government and the military would need to accommodate intrusions in each other’s limited space.
It is axiomatic that the soldier’s performance while practising the skills of management of violence is directly proportional to the support and aspirations of society. When military leaders are isolated from the decision-making structure of governance, the political leadership is bound to be isolated from the factors governing preparedness and morale of the forces. This in turn results in bureaucratic interpretations and increased isolation due to the trust deficit between the political leadership and the military. What are the symptoms of such isolation and what can be done to alleviate the situation?
The symptoms have been very discernible in India for many decades. First, inadequately equipped forces, much like the paramilitary and police forces, are often expected to deliver against innumerable odds. Second, compare a battle-ready soldier and his clothing and equipment (with the exception of soldiers at Siachen) with those of our immediate neighbours. Does he have a modern helmet, clothing and fatigues to match the terrain and weather, bullet-proof jackets, and quality footwear that can launch him into action in all terrain? Most of all, does he have modern communication and night vision devices and a fail-proof personal weapon? Third, is he treated as a professional and respected in society and well cared for after retirement? Fourth, few democracies have witnessed the sorry sight of veterans returning medals to the supreme commander. India has, and what is more, the government has chosen to ignore a sign which has the potential of demoralising the large number of personnel who are on the threshold of retirement. Even worse, such sights and the inaction could adversely impact the youth who wish to enlist.
How do we end this apathy? By simply restoring the self-esteem of our armed forces personnel. Give them the respect they deserve and do not deny them their due. Armed forces should neither be compared with civil services nor are they to be treated as policemen. Setting up a war memorial in Delhi has been under debate for decades. Only the minister of state for defence from Delhi attended the funeral of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: reportedly, protocol prevented the Union defence minister and above from doing so. Why do countries which have faced long-drawn-out wars ensure that soldiers are treated with utmost respect and memorial services and war memorials treated as temples? Because they are convinced that the soldier is willing to “die for the ashes of his father and the temples of his god.”
There is evidence to show that the military is fast being identified with the police forces in the manner in which governments have tended to treat it. Prolonged use of the Army in counter insurgency operations can easily corrupt the personnel who witness misgovernance and maladministration. Soldiers sprawled across railway stations in various forms of undress due to the inability of the nation to provide compartments to perform official duties are but a symptom of apathy and contempt. It is our collective responsibility to care for them in peace time.
By keeping the Service Chiefs/Chief of Defence Staff (when created as a single-point advisor) out of the decision-making process we have removed their accountability to the system, for, ipso facto, they are expected to deliver with what they have. What they should have is outside their prerogative. They follow the laws of Epictetus: “Do not be concerned with things that are beyond your power.” Restore their rightful role and then make them accountable.
Samuel Huntington also wrote about how society should treat a soldier. So before you display shock and anger at the recent aberrations which have come to light, do ask yourselves whether you have stood by the soldier by holding governments in power accountable for his neglect.
The author is a former C-in-C of the Southern Naval Command