Old Soldiers Fade Away (Redux)

"Reports suggest that irrespective of the outcome of the election the good general has been assured an appropriate reward. In other words, a deal has been struck. He has also been used; not the individual but the institution of the Chief. The motive is personal."

Old Soldiers Fade Away (Redux)

An Army Commander on the eve of his retirement was asked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as to where she could place him post retirement to which he replied that his appointment carried the potential to alter the history and geography of the country and if there was anything that carried a similar onus he would be glad to accept it. He was not only echoing the stated onus but also the stature of his appointment. The decision of a former Army Chief to contest assembly elections is the antithesis of all that soldiering at senior levels stand for.

The military is perhaps an organisation which is rooted most deeply in traditions and conventions which go on to define it as an institution. The Army treats specific individual appointments as institutions which carry their own code of conduct and corresponding respect by others: Subedar Majors and Commanding Officers of units, Formation Commanders and at the apex Army Commanders and Chiefs. At the Defence Services Staff College, while all other guest speakers are open to questions the Service Chiefs ‘address’ the students and no questions are asked.

The recent appointment of the Army Chief by superseding two seniors was justified by the Defence Minister by saying that nowhere was it written that the senior most is to be appointed. While the issue here is not the nomination of the Chief, what the honourable minister failed to understand was the relevance of tradition and convention. A better argument would have been more appropriate. Interestingly, Section 45 of the Army Act 1950 details an offence punishable by court martial as ‘Unbecoming Conduct’. What constitutes unbecoming conduct is encompassed by custom and usage, tradition and convention.

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Post-Independence, the political leadership was inclined to bypass General Carriappa, the senior most general, for appointing the first Indian chief and sounded Lt Gen Thakur Natu Singh for the post. Natu Singh declined stating that Carriappa was his senior and appointing him would set a bad precedent as also be against the established convention.

General Sinha on being ignored for the top appointment promptly resigned. Both went by established conventions. In the very recent appointment, sadly, both ignored convention setting the precedent for future political picking and military jockeying. Perhaps the biggest blow to the prestige and standing of the institution of the Army Chief was delivered when a serving chief went to court over the issue of his date of birth and consequent tenure.

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Some serving and retired individuals applauded his conduct as ‘standing up to the political leadership’; what they failed to appreciate was that his stand was for personal gain and did nothing for standing up for the institution. On the contrary it did incalculable damage to the institution of the chief. Izzat is a concept unique to the Indian Army and is frequently invoked in promoting professional excellence and performance beyond the call of duty.

Philip Mason explained it comprehensively is his classic, A Matter of Honour. It is also cited when injustice or an unfair dispensation is perceived by the services. But what is increasingly forgotten is that the military is the custodian and enhancer of its own izzat by consciously watching its actions and conduct. This encompasses both the serving and the retired.

Media reports suggest that irrespective of the outcome of the election the good general has been assured an appropriate reward. In other words, a deal has been struck. He has also been used; not the individual but the institution of the Chief. The motive is personal. Tellingly it is at the expense of the institution of the Army Chief.

The military sees itself as a band of brothers. They do not fight against each other. An unwritten code of conduct enjoins every soldier, sailor, and airman to count on their comrades should the need arise - that they will never be abandoned. Politics is always perceived as dirty and dishonest. There are no comrades, only interests, the very anathema to the military professional.

For a former chief to subordinate himself to such an apparatus would do no good to the institution. Given the political discourse in the country today, no political party would hesitate to link in-service actions and decisions of a former Chief in the context of his politics. This would open cans of worms to discredit him, something which would not bode well for the prestige of the Army.

When veterans gather, they fondly recall old colleagues and commanders and at the same time have nothing but abuse and contempt for some who did not live up to the values of the service. As a young officer one of our colleagues was marched up to the commanding officer for misconduct. The commanding officer simply told him that he had ‘let us down’ and his conduct was ‘not done’. Perhaps it would be appropriate to remind the former chief that contesting assembly elections is ‘not done’.  Old soldiers just fade away. Senior old soldiers must fade away.

About The Author

Lt Gen NS Brar (Retd) is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and a Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He can be reached on Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Mission Victory India)  

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