Monday, January 16, 2017

Military competent to do self-correction; leave it alone

Last week saw a spate of video messages by soldiers across Army, BSF and CRPF complaining and highlighting what they felt was supply of bad food, lack of good facilities and demeaning treatment because the leadership in these forces—according to them—is involved in corruption and has feudal attitude towards the men they command.

While the men may have genuine grievances and perhaps felt that existing channels of redress are not sufficient, I am aghast at the extrapolation done by a section of the Indian media portraying these complaints as catastrophe that has overtaken the Indian security forces and that the time-tested officer-men relationship—especially in the Army—is no longer as robust as it used to be.

As someone who’s had an opportunity to be a media practitioner across web, print and broadcast mediums for over three decades, I am aware of the pressures of ratings and compulsion to be ‘first with the news,’ that often overtakes sound judgement. And that is what has happened over the past week. In the mad race to boost circulation and viewer ratings, a section of the ignorant media has, in one go, sought to tarnish and destroy one of the last institutions that has stood rock solid in defence of India.
Ill-informed—I would in fact go the extent of saying ‘uneducated’ (in military matters)-- star anchors and reporters are out to create divide within the army where none exists. The officer-soldier relationship has certainly undergone a change over the past couple of decades thanks to the churn in the Indian society at large but it is still the bedrock of the Indian Army’s day to day functioning. The bonding between officers and men is evident in the hundreds of daily counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations carried out by the Indian Army. Indeed, without that bonding officers will not be able to lead--and men will not willingly go into--operations that can lead to death of brothers-in-arms.
It is easy to sit and pontificate from the confines of the studio and reduce the issues to binaries of good and ugly but the reality is more complex. Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is not as disastrous as made out to be. In fact these issues are an outcome of a combination of factors: erosion in the soldiers’ status in the society; prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs; crippling shortage of officers in combat units; and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers!

A psychiatric study by Army doctors some years ago on ‘Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts’ revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront, contradictions between war and low-intensity conflict situations, and, particularly, the concepts of ‘enemy’, ‘objective’ and ‘minimum force’. Some other findings were:
• In general war, the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.
• A hostile vernacular press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.
• Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.
• Monotony, the lure of the number game, and low manning strength of units lead to overuse and fast burnout. 

Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors. The main worries are the problems back home: land disputes; tensions within the family; rising aspirations.
During my travels in counter-insurgency areas, I have often come across company commanders telling me how, for many soldiers, tensions at home create unbearable stress. Often, a land dispute back home or a family feud weighs heavily on the soldier’s mind. For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Again, I have frequently come across a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in the actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation.

Add to it the fact that the society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. A local politician, a thanedar, etc., seem to command more clout in the society today. This has often led to loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie—Paan Singh Tomar—depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. And yet, the Army must look within too. Fortunately the leadership in the Army is as acutely aware of the need to change with time and adapt new practices in daily functioning.

Reforming the Organization

Soldiers these days are better educated and, consequently, better aware of their rights.
As the armed forces are in themselves a microcosm of India, the rising education and awareness levels in recruits is easily perceived. A sea change from yesteryears is now visible in the hordes of young men who crowd recruitment rallies across the country. Most hopefuls are the educated unemployed youth who turn towards the military for acquiring early financial and social security. Their educational qualification is Class XII on the average, many being graduates too. The stereotype of an innocent, less educated but hardy soldier is now a thing of the past. The officer base has also shifted predominantly to the middle class. This has further narrowed the gap between the ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’.

An acute shortage of officers at the cutting-edge level is the other big factor contributing to an limited bonding between soldiers and officers. Against an authorized strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best eight or nine officers available to the commanding officer these days.

Very often, young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three, given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.

What, then, is the way forward?

Embracing Change

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders—the officers—will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust, and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. The new fashion to dismiss them as outdated ideas must be arrested. Military ethos is not developed overnight and is certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in society.

However the leadership needs to take cognizance of a new challenge: Proliferation of social media. Access to improved technology and means of communication has meant that soldiers are now tempted take a short cut to air their grievances—genuine or otherwise. The new Army chief has done well to issue a legitimate warning that misuse of social media will lead to consequences while at the same time, providing a new avenue of grievance redress through his office. However, the top leadership will have to be careful in not short-circuiting the traditional chain of command. 

The change must come from the top.

A former Army Commander, Lt. Gen. C.S.K. Sabu, had encapsulated the desired change in view of altered socio-economic conditions at a seminar on ‘Leadership Challenges in an Era of Turbulence’ at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, in June 2010. He said: ‘Such a change needs to be top-down, and be backed by the force of institutional ethics, tradition, peer pressure and group dynamics. While the Chetwode motto of the Army is everlasting, it loses focus once a soldier is beyond his CO—it lacks the guiderail required for a codified, value-based ethical conduct on the part of senior officers, which must be set right.’
Certain changes which can be considered and deliberated are:
• 360 degree assessments in the context of Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs).
• Inculcate the warrior ethos in the Army.
• Embrace the soldier’s code—Veer Senani must be codified.
• Encourage scholar–warrior ethos for the officers.
• Promoting ethics and probity in military life.
• Norms for conducting welfare activities must change—it is a command function and must be restored to the same. 

Finally, if the led are to believe the leader, the leader must walk the talk. Officers must believe in themselves and the system that they work in. They must take pride in the fact that the military is essentially different in its work culture, ethos, traditions and values from any other entity. Soldiering is the only profession in which a man voluntarily chooses to enter into a contract that entails death if the occasion so demands.

The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To be relevant and effective, it must, however, embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership. However, let the change be driven by the military itself rather than pesky anchors and upstart reporters hectoring soldiers on a matter that they have very little idea about.

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