Hardly a week goes by when the Army does not find a mention in newspaper columns about alleged violations of human rights, corruption and other misdemeanors. A headline in this newspaper last month read: “Lt-Col gets three years in milk scam”. The trend can no longer be passed off as a mere aberration. Fortunately, the Army Chief, Gen VK Singh, has admitted to the defects in the internal health of the Army. While no stone is left unturned in improving professional excellence, not enough is done to restore the high standards of ethics, leadership and man-management. Still the Army will be voted the best in the indices of loyalty, integrity and sacrifice among the civilian services and other professional bodies.
A newspaper survey of 500 persons in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore last Independence Day found that Indians still saw the security forces as the institutions that safeguarded their freedom the most. As the vertebrae of these institutions, the Army remains staunchly apolitical and firmly under civilian control which itself is rapidly declining in matters of probity and governance. For that reason, the Army retains its title as the last bastion of democracy. During the Independence Day speech last month, for the first time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh surprisingly omitted the traditional words of praise for the security forces.
Starting with Tehelka and Coffingate, the inventory of corruption cases now includes scams in rations, clothing, medicines, canteen stores, fuel, oil and lubricants, land, military farms, recruitment and so on. An aggressive media has launched sting operations to trap on camera officers taking bribes. The contagion has spread to defence accounts where false claims have been made good. For the first time, three Lieutenant-Generals and one Major-General were implicated in a shadowy land deal, and now the first serving Lieutenant-General is to be court-martialled.
Former Army Chief Gen Deepak Kapoor admitted that such cases dented the image of the Army but maintained that these were aberrations that needed to be corrected. The wheels of justice move fast within the Army compared to outside the military where it takes decades. The first tinkering by the Army in internal reforms took place after Tehelka in 2001. At least 20 officers of Brigadier rank and above were indicted in various corruption-related cases while others were being investigated. During the last three years 10 officers of General rank have been involved in cases “unbecoming of the conduct of officers”.
Disciplining the Army within its internal legal system is an ongoing process with the Summary Court Martial (SCM), most widely used for this purpose. Between 1999 and 2004 an average of 995 SCMs were held every year. According to The Hindu newspaper, 1215 soldiers were court-martialled in 2000, 1034 in 2001, 1031 in 2002, 945 in 2003 and 87 in 2004. Last year, around 30 officers were convicted through court-martials.
According to CBI sources, three senior officers were charged in a CBI court with purchasing substandard coffins (Coffingate) for carrying bodies of Army personnel killed in the Kargil war. In 2003, the CBI filed an FIR for the first time against Defence Minister George Fernandes and former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sushil Kumar in the Barak missile deal, which was one of the 15 defence contracts that figured in the Tehelka tapes which was entrusted by the government in 2001 to the Justice K Venkataswamy Commission for enquiry. Arms purchase has become the means with which to attack the previous government, said the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Pradeep Borbora.
Besides corruption, sullying the image of the Army are two other issues: fake encounters and allegations of human rights violations. After the famous rigged Siachen encounter and the ketch-up Colonel case, the most recent development and one of the triggers for the present unrest in J&K is the Machchal episode where an Infantry battalion on the LoC staged an encounter involving three local persons. Gen V.K. Singh has promised to take exemplary action against the culprits. This must be made public.
Over the years, the performance of units has been judged by body and weapons count during its tenure in a counter-insurgency area. This yardstick is followed the world over with local modifications. A unit is awarded the COAS citation for the best battalion based on this criterion as also its record in human rights and winning hearts and minds. This measurement of performance requires greater oversight to prevent its misuse. The health and vitality of the Army must be judged by the transparency and probity of its performance in internal security operations.
By all accounts, the Indian Army’s human rights record is about the best among the armed forces the world over. The Army’s figures relating to alleged human rights cases are revealing. Of the nearly 3000 cases registered since 2000, only 4 per cent were proven true and offenders cashiered, jailed or “disciplined” within months compared to decades taken in civil courts.
What are the causes for the declining image of the Army. One of the key reasons is the massive expansion from 300,000 in 1947 to a million plus now. The old days’ image of the Army, when soldiers could do no wrong — an officer’s cheque dishonoured by the bank was sufficient reason for him to put in his papers — is gone. Soldiers were role models for values in society. The motto of service before self and the pledge that the safety, security and welfare of “your country” came first, always and every time, followed by the well-being of men under command. “Your own” comfort and safety came last always and every time.
These high principles are not easy to emulate today when the Services do not draw the best material in the market, resulting in a shortage of 12,000 officers. The Sixth Pay Commission and the AV Singh Committee reports I and II, enhancing the pay and rank structure to ensure a younger Army, have helped, but restoring the standards of the past is near impossible. Today’s Army is professionally much richer, and the officer corps more worldly-wise than two decades ago. The platoon, company and battalion commanders are the backbone of the Army as they lead the firefights along the LoC on a daily basis.
The Indian Army is a highly committed institution and has not received the right attention from the media, which has excelled in highlighting merely the negatives. The problem in the Army is the erosion in higher leadership and intellectual dishonesty that has crept in even in the promotion system. Promotion of mediocrity through seniority must be stamped out. Scouting for talent and boldness must be the new mantra to produce the generalship the country deserves. Army chiefs have come and gone. Many high-level studies have led to doctrinal improvements like “cold start”. It is high time we started correcting the deviations in leadership norms without treating them as aberrations. Let the Army not be in denial mode over the loss in the standards but initiate measures top down to restore its image in the eyes of the people and its own soldiers. The government and society must chip in. Still, the Army will have to do much more.
-via The Tribune.