Once upon a time in India, the Armed Forces were the most respected organization in the country. The Armed Forces had a hallowed place in society. They were an elite, their cantonments and military stations were strictly out of bounds for those who had no business being there, their spit and polish, their unique ethos, everything was admired, but more importantly, was never grudged by the citizens.
They were the ones who were regarded as not just being non-corrupt, but being incorruptible. They were the nation’s last bastion, the one that could be counted upon to stand up to any occasion, be it in war or in peace, and to lay down their lives for the greater good. As time went by, things changed. Purely military traditions, cultures, procedures, perks and privileges, were slowly but surely usurped by other organizations, mainly the plethora of central and state police organizations.
While the military hierarchy disdainfully ignored these little signs, the police forces adopted the military uniforms, the battle fatigues, the badges of rank (which convey an impression of equivalence with the Armed Forces, but in reality, are completely misleading), the officers’ messes, the subsidized canteens, and so on.
A solemn, wholly military tradition, the Beating the Retreat ceremony, was hijacked and turned into a carnival of pseudo-patriotism. What the military hierarchy failed to notice was that all this was being done while these civilian organizations held on to their own integral perks. And that, while this was done, the pedestal on which the common man in India had placed the Armed Forces, was being gradually chipped away.
Why is this happening? Why is the one organization that India can be truly proud of, being demonized, demoralized and degraded? Why have the pitiably few perks of the Armed Forces suddenly become a thorn in the side for the general public? Why does an indiscretion on the part of an individual within the Armed Forces be viewed as an organizational failure? Who gains by bringing down the status of the Armed Forces?
While there can be no clear answers to these questions, there are certain undeniable factors that have contributed to this situation, the first being envy. The respect that the military uniform carried and the regard being given to the wearer of the uniform was not liked by those in the corridors of power. A business suit, even one tailored in Milan, does not have the same aura as an olive-green uniform.
The answer, therefore, was to take the sheen off the uniform, and this was achieved by making the uniforms of the police forces so similar to the military that the common man cannot distinguish between the two.
The media added to the confusion, either due to ignorance or by coercion, by referring to the blanket term “security forces” for the Armed Forces as well as police organizations. An operation in which an infantry column is accompanied by one police constable is termed as a “joint operation” by security forces. And yes, a police constable is constantly, and erroneously, being referred to as a “jawan”.
The second factor, partly linked with the first, is the visibility factor. The spotlessly clean cantonments, the shining brass, the olive-green vehicles, the ceremonial guards, are there for all to see. So, while the rampant misuse of anonymous looking official vehicles by civilian functionaries goes completely unnoticed, any military vehicle in a non-military area stands out like a sore thumb and becomes a news item for a roving journalist.
Beautifully maintained roads and gardens within the cantonment raise questions of the misuse of soldiers for maintaining these areas. And of course, the bête noire of the bureaucracy, the sahayak, becomes the symbol of oppression and misuse within the Armed Forces.
Drive around the colonies in Delhi that are housing politicians, bureaucrats, judges, senior police offices and the like, and one will observe the same trappings of power, the guards, the ultra-luxurious bungalows, the well-tended gardens, the support staff, the luxury cars. Nobody questions them.
The third factor, again linked to the first two, is entirely the fault of the Armed Forces. No other organization brags about, nor flaunts its perks, like the military officer does. We boast about our subsidized liquor, our clubs and our golf courses. We take the lead in offering our resources and our privileges to host our childhood school friends for a class reunion in the military clubs.
It matters little that most of the civilian classmates are earning well enough to afford, or host, a party in the most luxurious five-star hotels. The lure of the Army’s subsidized liquor is simply too tempting to resist! And of course, the same guests will go back home and talk disdainfully of the Armed Forces and their insatiable greed for more allowances and One Rank One Pension.
Whatever may be the motive behind the movement to degrade the Armed Forces, it is meeting with indisputable success, and it has been orchestrated very cleverly. It has been an operation that would be the envy of any military strategist. Opening up of cantonments, arranging yoga mats, inclusion of police bands and classical music in the Beating the Retreat ceremony, these were all small probing attacks to see if the Armed Forces would react.
They didn’t, and of course this emboldened the strategists to up the ante. Picking up garbage left behind by tourists, opening up tourism in highly sensitive areas like Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley, Turtuk, Siachen Base Camp, all decisions detrimental to the image of the Armed Forces and the interests of national security, followed in quick succession. Making the Armed forces the showcase for gender equality is just one more step. Good for optics, but has anyone considered the possible repercussions? Or don’t they matter?
There is one final factor that actually emboldens the anti-Services lobby while keeping their collective conscience clean. They are fully aware that no matter what, when the day of reckoning comes, the Armed Forces will deliver, as they have always done. Thus, using the greatest strength of the Armed Forces as its weakness is truly a strategy of Machiavellian dimensions!
The foregoing is in no way to imply that the Armed Forces should not remain subordinate to the Government. That is in the best interests of a democratic nation. What the Services need to do is to get their act together and have the moral courage to stand up for what is right for the Forces and thereby for the country.
This does not mean a confrontation but rather the ability to put across their point of view logically, cogently and confidently, not get bowed down by the superior attitude of the bureaucracy. And most important, convince the policy makers that we know our job, and how to do it, better than anyone else.
About the Author
Colonel (veteran) Shivaji Ranjan Ghosh was commissioned in the Punjab Regiment in December 1974. He is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy, the Indian Military Academy and the Defence Services Staff College. He has commanded an Infantry Battalion on the Line of Control and in Counter Insurgency operations and has served with the National Security Guard.
Subsequent to taking premature retirement from the Army in 2005 he has been working in the field of aviation emergency response in the Middle East and in India and is one of the pioneers in this subject in the country. Currently he holds the position of Associate Director Emergency Response in IndiGo Airlines and is based in Gurugram.