The focus today remains on the official statement issued by the army pertaining to the ‘incident’ — a scuffle between officers and jawans — during a military exercise in Ladakh on May 10. It has been reported that this is an “isolated act of indiscipline” and not a mutiny, and that the situation is “well under control”. The regiment has moved back from the ranges to its location. The army release also mentions that some sections of the print and electronic media had sensationalized the incident and this “needs to be dispelled”. The army further clarified that the “court of inquiry will identify the complicity of the officers and men. However, nobody has been removed, dismissed or suspended.” It further stated that it was a “minor scuffle” resulting in “minor injuries” to four people who are “in hospital”. “The accused”, it added, “will face court martial… under the Army Act.”
The attempt of the army top brass to downplay and camouflage the disorder in its camps is understandable. But the gravity of the situation cannot be ignored. Two factors are at work in India. First, there is a lamentable lack of knowledge or interest in military matters. Second, the defence forces continue to be a “no-go-area” for those who are dealing with the subject. Unfortunately, such a restricted approach towards the army is creating more problems than providing answers to the burning questions that are facing the country. These questions are associated with such issues as acquisition, purchase, promotion, probity, age-row, man-management, insubordination and, ultimately, the complete failure of command, as was the case in Ladakh in May.
One wishes to raise a few questions in this context. The police report of the incident alleged that the soldiers shouted slogans and hurled abuses over loudspeakers throughout the night. Is this incorrect? Further, is it a normal practice for army unit personnel to sustain “minor injuries” and resort to a “minor scuffle” in a high altitude operational area that lies adjacent to a not-too-friendly neighbour, which has allegedly violated the border on 500 occasions in recent times?
One should not embarrass the army at a difficult time. Nonetheless, one should suggest some legal deterrents to avoid such unfortunate incidents in the future. The first and foremost line of action should be premised on the implementation of Section 47 of the Army Act that states that any officer who uses criminal force or otherwise ill-treats any person subject to the Act, being his subordinate in rank or position, is liable to be punished with imprisonment upto 7 years.
The failure of senior officers — known as ‘command failure’ in military terms — apart, the indiscipline and misbehaviour of a number of soldiers are sure to make the army authority invoke Section 41 (Disobedience to superior officer) as well as Section 42 (Insubordination and obstruction).
‘Disobedience, insubordination and obstruction’, however, do not find any place in Section 3 — titled “Definitions” — in the Army Act. The term, ‘mutiny’, too, has not been defined in this section. Mutiny, however, has been described broadly in Section 37. Perhaps it is pertinent to offer a detailed definition of the aforesaid term to understand what constitutes ‘mutiny’. There is no doubt that the disciplinary and the administrative authorities will take up all these factors in the course of taking corrective action.
An old case study may be of some use to reveal the repercussions of a somewhat ‘minor’ offence like ‘Disobedience to superior officer’ on the life of a soldier in the course of duty. The first charge on sepoy Prem Chand of 1st battalion Punjab Regiment attached to 2nd battalion Dogra Regiment was of ‘disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer’ in Allahabad on January 28, 1977. He had been asked to turn out for the commanding officer’s parade, but he did not do so. Consequently the accused was arrested. Thereafter a second charge was slapped on the accused. This related to ‘using insubordinate language to his superior officer’. The accused had allegedly uttered the following words: “You know only how to arrest a sepoy. You are good for nothing”. The district court martial, dated February 1, 1977, sealed the fate of the accused under Section 41 of the Army Act.
Several structural and systemic fault lines have emerged in the overall command, control and communication in the Indian army. Urgent corrective measures need to be undertaken before these faultlines widen in the near future.
Two ‘mutinies’ by Indian soldiers come to one’s mind. One took place in 1857. The other happened in 1984. The violation of religious sentiments were the primary causes in both incidents. The unrest in Ladakh had no religious undertones. Yet it exposed a a strange sense of alienation and resentment in the mind of the sepoys. It gave the impression of the existence of a profound trust-deficit between superiors and subordinates. This has shown the former in a poor light. It is being alleged that they are incompetent leaders of the men in arms.
It needs to be borne in mind that in the 21st century recruitment, man-management and retention of troops are vastly different from what they were in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today’s sepoys no longer hail from remote, rural areas. They have become computer savvy. They know how to operate mobile phones and the internet. They are aware of the wrongdoings of the political class. They also detest their corrupt commanders, who are embroiled in land scams. In fact, any person with an ear to the ground will be able to hear the rumblings from the barracks. The soldiers’ grievances are on account of the injustices that are being perpetrated on them.
A sense of deprivation must have been playing on the minds of the soldiers for a considerable period of time. The indifference shown by the superiors to the mental sufferings of the soldiers proved to be the last nail in the coffin. The superiors demonstrated a lack of understanding of the situation. The rest, as they say, is history. The army faced an ugly, embarrassing and avoidable situation in its camp in a potential war-zone.
-via Telegraph India