India’s venerable scholar-statesman-warrior, Jaswant Singh, recollects a telling incident in his biography, A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India: “An officer at Jhansi railway station, aping the mythical Brabazon to the flustered and hapless station master, after being informed that the train to Delhi had gone: ‘Gone’ the officer asked in a gimlet-soaked drawl, ‘what do you mean gone? Get another, instantly, go and get another train, now.’
Soon thereafter, he writes, ‘I realised soon enough that all this was empty posturing, this living as caricatures; that the Army had better awaken to reality.’ Not biting on the truth, the man of who had tired of saying ‘Yes Sir’ when he really meant ‘No Sir’, sought premature discharge, even though the pucca sahib graciously acknowledged, ‘what the Army gave me, taught me, left with me is my priceless pension.”
Yet, there were occasional missteps, derelictions, and intransigences, which accompany every institution. The army is not perfect, but it is still the most disciplined and apolitical institution of the sovereign.
Donald Trump's 'My Generals' Reference
The drilled, regimented and command-and-control culture of the armed forces resisted the incoming air of societal revolution that sought more informality, openness and challenging of the norms. Sadly, there is a very thin line between fine traditions and unnecessary inflexibility.
Also, the military is not the most enthusiastic in disowning anything, good or otherwise. The hierarchical institution works on ‘orders’, and therefore, the faster the top brass salutes its acquiescence, the sooner things change. But the top brass is also the most culture or tradition-conscious and averse to change, like in any organisation. Technology and battlegrounds have evolved rapidly in the profession of arms, and that has made challenges and their solutions more asymmetric and unconventional, requiring adaptability in a decidedly rigid environment. Thus, instead of unleashing creative tensions, often, emotional tensions get released.
Compounding this change-retain conundrum for the institution is unprecedented politicisation. Today, the malaise of partisanship has deeply infected the veteran community, which supports or slams a move solely based on partisanship.
Essentially, the holy grail of being an apolitical entity is fractured. In such times, the aesthetic, moral and ideological preferences of the dominant political persuasion find ample hacks, expressions, and worse of all, decibels. The necessity of institutional restraint (not, ignorance) and the apolitical ability to speak truth to power is compromised. And the primary culprits are the unhinged politicians who feed this ecosystem of conveniences, leniencies, and recklessness. It’s eerily familiar to the infamous Donald Trump reference of ‘My Generals’, which made almost all ricochet with horror. But it’s not so in India.
Today, Even Professional Dissent is Disloyalty
For a grave security scenario, when the world’s largest and the second-largest militaries (both nuclear-powered) are eyeball-to-eyeball with bloodied and violently contested borders, the energy, focus and soundbytes of the veteran community are deliberately distracted, mobilised and provoked towards the theatre of the absurd.
Informed and professional conversations on China are either muted or susceptible to the ‘scorched earth’ kind of perspectives, which satisfy political rhetoric for the cadres but don’t lead to serious scholarship or enquiry.
So, what’s making the headlines for the institution? Semantics, for one. Was it transgression or intrusion? Was the flame extinguished or merged? Is it a Golf course or Army Environmental Park and Training Area? Were the Indian soldiers who died before 1947, simply Indian soldiers or mercenaries? Should it be ‘Abide with me’ or ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’? Traditional military marching tunes or Bollywood?
These are not irrelevant questions or concerns, for they do have a deep import that may be unfathomable to the uninitiated. But these are, at best (or worst), matters of topical taste, of far less consequence and urgency than what has happened and is still happening on the Indo-China Line of Control (LoC).
But since Chinese is off the menu and because it makes for an uncomfortable topic, it is left undiscussed, garbled, or when everything else fails, subjected to manufactured-outrage a la, “are you questioning our Indian Armed Forces”? Meanwhile, the project of wordsmithing is afforded the most generous faux-incredulity, whataboutery and mealy-mouthed deflections. There is simply no space for professional discussions, apolitical nuance, or objectivity. Now, even professional dissent is disloyalty. Period.
How Politicisation Can Ruin Good Opportunities
Jaswant Singh had reflected on the vain and disconnected “golden age of cantonment soldering” pre-1962, to which he willy-nilly attributed the lackadaisical ‘air’ (both politically and within the proverbial barracks) that contributed to the 1962 fiasco. Today, that concern can be said to have metastasized to that of an unhealthily politicised, confused and status-quo-ist ‘air’ that could disallow making the best out of opportunities and situations.
Hackles are immediately raised out of basic instincts (sometimes with rather unchivalrous and despicable comments), instead of professional disagreements, facts and rationality.
‘Warfare in the information age’ will necessitate leveraging tools like Artificial Intelligence and big data crunching. It will require re-imagination for countering transformed threats (China is certainly working on the same) like cyberattacks, disinformation, drones, hypersonic missiles, energy weapons, anti-satellite weapons, etc. Herein, the gender or orientation of the ‘uniformed’ personnel are basically irrelevant.
The Military Must Also 'Unlearn' a Few Things
Even philosophically, a meritocratic organisation like the armed forces cannot be in denial and so ‘un-today’ that it voluntarily curtails the ability to attract the best of talent from the potential recruiting pool. There is certainly scope for some introspection with the recent discourse and news about the armed forces, as the inelegant phraseology, instincts and expressions deployed have been rather political and dismissive. It may even be tantamount to ‘unlearning’ some things to ensure that it always stays ahead of the curve.
The most competent people to articulate that evolutionary call would likely still be those in the ‘uniform’, who abide by sworn constitutionality, not those who have hung theirs, and certainly not the patronising and condescending politicos from the ruling or opposition benches who have their own vested agendas.
We Are in the Same Team
India’s sword-arm needs to remain blunt, kinetic, and professional with well-intentioned discussions and evolutionary support. The warmongering thunder, Napoleonic poses, and vainglorious loyalty to partisan agendas displayed by ‘newsroom warriors’ won’t help. Trust in the majestic and constitutional ‘Idea of India’, institutional ethos, service-before-self, and above all, faith in each other, is foremost.
That is an invaluable lesson for all those who question the questioners, progressives, and critiques – never forget, we are in the same team.
About The Author
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.
(This article was first published in 'The Quint' and has been reproduced with due credits and permission from the author. Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial views of Mission Victory India)