Thursday, January 19, 2012

Discipline for Fauj, Indiscipline for Mauj


At dinner last night, Gen. V.K. Singh, the chief of the Indian Army, came up in conversation. Regrettably, but also inevitably, it wasn’t because of what he may or may not have accomplished in his four decades in uniform, but because of his date of birth. As is the norm in this great democracy of ours, the Armed Forces only find mention in the national dailies in one of two situations. The first, in times of war, when it is but natural to be swayed by the spirit of nationalism and populist fervour and report the heroics of the men and women who go into battle. The second, and this is the more frequent by far, is when there is some sort of “scam”. Whether it is isolated incidents of Army personnel selling fuel, generals being involved in loosely defined “land scams” or Chiefs trying to get their dates of birth changed, as far as most normal members of civil society are concerned, that is all there is to it. 

So going back to this dinner time conversation last night, the general consensus was that Gen. Singh was bringing dishonour to himself and to the Army by going to court over his date of birth, whereby he would keep the job for another year and by extension, get to live in the beautiful Army House in New Delhi till that extended term was over. 

My only question then, as it is now, is why the men and women in the Armed Forces should hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else in this country has ever been asked or required to. And why every Indian considers it his right to hold these men and women to standards that he may not hold himself to. I was told that in India, the Army (when I say army, pls read armed forces. I mean no disrespect to the other services, it’s just easier to type) is the only institution in the governmental fold that has maintained a sense of discipline, efficiency and integrity and that civilians look at the army with respect and expect its members to conform to the high standards it has set in the years since 1947, blah, blah, blah. All of this is, of course, true. And the central point of my argument is that by consistently setting itself higher standards than the rest of the nation, the army has done itself the greatest disservice possible. 

The “respect” for the army is the first point of contention. This so-called respect exists in the drawing rooms of a very limited set of individuals who have some sort of social or emotional connect with the armed forces. As a nation, there is anything but. That the armed forces have been systematically removed from the nation’s decision making matrix by a largely self-serving bureaucracy and intelligence establishment is neither new, nor remarkable. But having achieved the initial objective of keeping the upper echelons of the services out of this decision making process even in matters of national security, the civil establishment was not done demonstrating its “respect”. From the third pay commission onwards, the system has systematically screwed the army and skewed the balance heavily in favour of the civil administration. The army has now been reduced to fighting for one rank one pension, a battle that has been summarily ignored by the nation’s free media. As individuals, pensioners have been reduced to beggars, pleading an apathetic government to give them what is rightfully due after decades of service. We can go on and on about longevity of service, virtually guaranteed promotions, corruption… but the point of this little rant is not to criticise the way the civil administration functions, but to actually pat them on the back suggest to the upright men in olive green (or Air Force blue or Navy whites) that the way forward is not to consider themselves above the other organs of government and their political masters. The way forward—the only way forward—is for the armed forces to get into playing the same game. 

How many cases have there been of MLAs, MPs, ministers or even members of opposition parties occupying accommodation in prime locations even when they are not entitled to? How many other cases have there been of civil servants holding on to government accommodation in New Delhi while on posting elsewhere? Does it even merit a story in a newspaper? Does it lead to esteemed national newspapers calling for their resignation? Probably not. It just isn’t a big enough deal. We know bureaucrats and politicians are corrupt. So then why bother talking about what they are doing wrong? We can’t expect any better from them. But the army? Now that’s a different ball game. Those guys should know better than to try and hold on to house for a year longer than they are allowed to. It is, after all, the only institution that has any respect in this country. The men and women who form its ranks are brought up in a different India—an India where there is safe drinking water, no poverty, education for all and the integrity of men in unimpeachable. What’s that? They aren’t? They go to the same schools and colleges as us and exist in the same socio-cultural milieu? Really? To use a borrowed phrase, “whodathunkit”?

Forget about MPs and MLAs. Let’s talk about common people. Let’s say a constable in the Delhi Police. How can he (even if he is a head constable), on his government salary of six kilos of peanuts and two dozen almonds a month, afford to drive around town in a brand new car, complete with four wheels and a CD player? At that rank in the army, you can barely afford a two-wheeled contraption propelled by said army man’s feet at the pedals. But where’s the story there? Cops are corrupt. Everyone knows they are. The guy joined the Army to serve the nation. So if he sold a few litres of military issue diesel in the black market to send his daughter a new dress for her birthday, I say we should lynch the bugger. 

The point is that I don’t know what Gen. VK Singh’s motivation for getting his date of birth changed is. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet the man, and if I do I will ask him. Gen. Singh came in for more criticism when he said the government was treating him like the chief of the Pakistani Army. Would that he were so lucky. Had he been doing the same job on the other side of the border, god knows he would have to answer to anything as absurd as a civilian government. 

I am by no means an expert, but I do hold the opinion that in this great democracy of ours, everyone has to fight for what he wants. Just like the bureaucracy has spent the last sixty or so years setting itself up for retirement in luxury, and politicians have been getting fat at the cost of everyone else, it is time for the army too to realise it owes allegiance only to itself. As long as the armed forces continue to complete the tasks they are mandated to with the unparralled efficiency that has become their norm, let other matters not be of their concern. As long as the officers have the respect of the men under their command (which is all you have anyway, don’t let anyone fool you into believing otherwise), why should they be bothered about earning the respect of the businessman who doesn’t know the difference between a subedar major and a major general? Or the babu who might pay 5 crore for a posting so that he can make 50 crore when he gets the job? Or the pot-bellied, fat-arsed journalist (that’s me) who claims to be free and fair, but in truth is only serving the same political master he goes to bed with? 

I do not know what will happen of Gen. Singh, but I do hope his tryst with destiny and the date of his birth will open eyes and open doors. I do hope that every man and woman in uniform will fight (using democratic means, of course) to hang on to that house that they waited two years to get in the first place, and for every rupee of that pension that you or your brothers in arms shed their blood for. And if you can hold on to it for one day longer, get one rupee more, you will be a hero in my book. And you will have played the game—and won.


Chief Vs Mischief - a Question of Civil-Military Trust Deficit

Karan Kharb
Suddenly, the media is on fire calling Gen VK Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court ‘unprecedented in the history of independent India’ as if it were also ‘awfully unlawful’ for him to seek justice through a constitutionally defined legal recourse at the country’s most honourable Supreme Court. Some have hinted at his ‘greed to hang on for a few months more’ by getting his date of birth changed from 10 May 1950 to 10 May 1951.  Of these two dates, the aggrieved General says, the former is wrong and the latter correct – a simple issue of an error that was settled long ago at the time of his admission to the National Defence Academy. It is genuine ambition, not greed, in every promising youngster to climb to the top of his career – government services or private.  Likewise for a youngster commissioned in the Defence Forces, there is no harm in his aspiring to reach the top. In fact, an earnest quest to excel is very much needed and rightly fuelled in young officers everywhere for better overall accomplishments and evolution of future leadership.  Once you reach the pinnacle of your ambition, your aspirations are largely fulfilled and a few months more or less in chair do not matter. In Gen VK Singh’s case, he was fully entitled to be where he is today irrespective of which of the two dates is taken as the basis of consideration for his promotion. Therefore, change or no change in the dates, his position remains unaffected. The question, however, is if there are two dates, which one is right and which one wrong? Only the right one must be kept, the ‘wrong’ must be removed from all records. Legally or ethically, is it ‘wrong’ to fight for what is ‘right’?
If ‘greed’ were his motive, the General had much more to gain from the post retirement sinecures like a gubernatorial or ambassadorial appointments reportedly offered to him in bargain for letting the matter lie.  That he could not be won over by such allurements only goes to prove that there is something more meets the eye in the vitiated atmosphere of Civil-Military trust deficit scenario between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Armed Forces.
Whatever the outcome of the legal battle, it raises some pertinent questions. The way a minor issue like an error in his date of birth has been allowed to snowball, it appears a deliberate mischief against the Army Chief. The promotion process in respect of army officers is very comprehensively defined.  No ‘undertaking’ is ever taken from any officer at the time of his Promotion Board. It appears weird that making a departure from its own established conventions the Army Headquarters proceeded to extract an ‘undertaking’ from VK Singh prior to granting him promotion. If there was an ambiguity about the correctness of the date in his records, a Court of Inquiry (C of I) should have been ordered to investigate what was wrong and the cause thereof. Why did the authorities hesitate to order a C of I? An obvious inference is that concerted efforts were in progress to suppress rather than reveal facts at that time. Two facts that the C of I could have revealed were: 1) that his correct date of birth is 10 May 1951 and not 1950; and 2) that the error was settled long ago, which rendered any document showing 1950 obsolete and irrelevant. But rather than uncovering the truth, the authorities chose to impose their choice on an upcoming meritorious officer by way of extracting an ‘undertaking’ from him before clearing his promotion. If not blatant and outright blackmail, what will you call it?
Some more questions also prop up alongside. Who will be held responsible if the Government loses the case? Will the Government be magnanimous to treat Gen Singh honourably if he wins the case or will a witch-hunt be unleashed to fix him somehow? May be the government will go slow for now for two reasons – one, the case being currently sub judice, the Government will be wary of the Supreme Court staying its hostile move against the General; two, any hasty action at a time when five states are going to assembly polls which are viewed as a precursor to the general elections due in 1914 will be politically inopportune for the Congress. The adversity does, however, offer an opportunity, ironically though, to the Government to rise above the narrow lanes of its maligned bureaucratic wheeling dealing and accept with magnanimity whatever judgement the Supreme Court gives. The verdict, even if against the Government (as appears likely), can be used as an opportunity to show the world that ‘rule of law’ has indeed arrived in India and the Government has the capacity not only to endure it but to nourish it at a time when public is crying hoarse for good governance and inner cleansing. Logically, the Ministry’s legal advisors who tendered legal advice and the bureaucrats who rejected the General’s plea will have to be sternly dealt with in a manner that becomes an example of fair, transparent and speedy dispensation at the highest level.  It is becoming increasingly expedient to introduce accountability in our bureaucratic functioning because rampant corruption has only encouraged inefficiency, sycophancy and destroyed governmental credibility.   
Sadly, bigger issues have remained buried under the debris of murk and mirth dwarfing an illustrious soldier by frustrating his efforts for an honourable resolution. In times like these, on-going civil-military acrimony can seriously harm our national interests from within as is clear from the long pending modernisation programmes, mass dissatisfaction in the Armed Forces against what is largely perceived as short shrift, step-motherly treatment by the 6th Pay Commission, repeated Government appeals against High Court/Supreme Court rulings favouring ex-servicemen, non-implementation of recommendations given by Parliamentary Committees on issues concerning soldiers and ex-soldiers are some indicators of a stubborn attitude that helps none but eats into the vitals of nation’s last resort – the Armed Forces.
At a time when India is aspiring for a higher global role the need is intimate cooperation, trust driven cohesion and integrated work culture between the MoD and the Service Headquarters of the Armed Forces.  This need becomes even more acute in view of the worsening security scenario across India’s western borders. China too will contest India’s quest for a global role as was evident from her objections to Indian naval ships at the South China Sea and her newfound interest in the Indian Ocean, even as her claim over Indian territories and military posturing across the Line of Actual Control continue unabated. The internal security environment too is worsening with militancy spreading to newer areas. When, if not now, will India wake up to realities?
It is high time the Government decided to effectively implement the pending integration of the Armed Forces with the MoD, which has been always staffed with officers shockingly bereft of basic concepts of national defence and elementary knowledge about military matters. No other developed or developing country in the world has such a slip-shod Defence Organisation as India’s Ministry of Defence. Nations that humble their armies are doomed to be humbled by adversaries within and without. India’s proud achievements on the industrial front notwithstanding, she will not be acknowledged as a ‘global power’ unless she wields a credible coercive military power. Soldiers’ demands for genuine welfare and better treatment are therefore not so much for their personal comforts but most crucial for the nation’s honour, safety and wellbeing.         

Friday, January 13, 2012

The ‘age row’ – Coup against the Army Chief

The ‘age row’ – Coup against the Army Chief
Karan Kharb
                Dust kicked up in the media has the Army Chief’s date of birth at its core even though it is not the real issue.  Sadly, the Government authorities including ministers have sought to portray it as if Gen VK Singh were greedy to hang on to his chair longer by seeking a ‘change’ in his date of birth.  If it was so, why should the Government try to bargain with him by dangling ‘compensatory package’ in the form of post retirement sinecures like appointing him ambassador or governor ‘if he agreed’ to retire in accordance with the wrong date of birth? These offers reported widely in the media have not been denied by the Government until now – a live fact that lends credence to the existence of a more sinister intrigue squirming beneath the innocuous looking ‘date of birth ruckus.’  
Gen VK Singh has a proud record of unimpeachable credentials as an officer and a gentleman. Even his enemies, if there were any this side of the borders, would find it hard to question his integrity. For a man who has served the country with selfless devotion, any suggestion of greed guiding his petition is not only unfair to the country’s Army Chief –  proud symbol of nation’s military might, but also  utterly bad for the country and its military where officers lead by personal example. And Gen VK Singh’s personal example has been undoubtedly the most outstanding in all respects all through his long service career. If the general was greedy, he would grab the sinecures offered and oblige the authorities but his principles do not allow him to give up unless the wrong is set right – no matter how lucrative the offer in lieu.    
The argument of ‘personal greed’ pushing for a ‘change in the date of birth’ also gets demolished by the fact that Gen VK Singh was fully qualified to be where he is today because neither of these dates would come in the way of his promotion to general’s rank.  The ‘change’, if ever it was required, was settled long ago before his admission to the National Defence Academy when the UPSC had sought clarification about the variation in the date birth given in his UPSC application form (10 May 1950) and the date given in his School leaving Certificate (10 May 1951).  Having fully satisfied itself from his clarification then, the UPSC had accepted the date given in his School Certificate as the correct date of birth and closed the matter. Everybody knows that legally and conventionally the School Leaving Certificate is the accepted authority for date of birth in all government departments. In the instant case it has also been reinforced by his ‘Birth Certificate’ issued by a Military Hospital.  Where is the scope for doubt?  Further, at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) when merit list of the passing out course is drawn, dates of birth of each gentleman cadet (GC) is scrutinised while fixing the seniority and allotting Service number to the newly commissioned officers. They are then issued with their Service Identity Card that carries the officer’s date of birth. The IMA authorities too recorded 10 May 1951 as VK Singh’s date of birth in all his documents, which continued without any shade of ambiguity from any quarter until he was seen as a possible contender for the post of Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). Had there been even an iota of ambiguity in his date of birth, he would not have been granted Commission.        
                Now, as the storm gathers more dust it raises many intriguing questions. When did the second date of birth first appear in the MS Branch records? How did a wrong date of birth erased by the UPSC long ago creep in surreptitiously in the Officer’s service documents at the MS Branch so many years later? Why was no question raised on his annual confidential reports (ACRs) which carry date of birth and are submitted to the MS Branch every year? Why also were no questions raised on other periodical submission of service documents, reports and returns received from the officer’s Unit/Headquarters showing the same date of birth that came to be challenged by the MS Branch years later? Why was the confirmation given by the Adjutant General’s (AG’s) Branch not accepted by the MS Branch even though it is the AG’s Branch that is the official custodian of personal records of officers of the Indian Army? Why did the Ministry of Defence retract its initial decision to order an investigation in the matter? If the General’s contention is wrong, why are the authorities trying to placate and ‘rehabilitate him honourably’?   
It is well known in the Services that senior officers of the rank of major generals and above routinely weigh their inter-se probability of rising to higher positions and appointments in the coming years. In a milieu involving course mates and known equals in the Service, it is easy to calculate as to who is in the run for the top rung and who will miss out by superannuating before the incumbent Army Chief retires. Being Chief of an Army which is world’s third largest is naturally a very prestigious and enviable distinction for an Army officer.  Besides the lustrous embellishments of the high appointment, the position also has unique authority and an assurance of due prominence in the annals of India’s military history. Obviously, the position of the COAS is lucrative enough to make many in the queue aspire for the high position. However, if there be an unscrupulous person in this queue, the systemic process can be manoeuvred and manipulated especially in times when some very senior army officers including an MS have been recently court-martialled for unbecoming conduct. It is therefore relevant to ask whose interests are served most if Gen VK Singh’s date of birth is altered from 10 May 1951 to 10 May 1950? And who misses his chance to be considered for the top job if his genuine date (10 May 1951) is accepted as actual? The answer to these simple questions will provide you the thread that leads you through the weave to the coterie that conspired and connived to vitiate and circumvent service records of an unsuspecting soldier like VK Singh.
It is the General’s magnanimity that he is simply asking for removal of the ‘mischief’ in his record and not raking up the issue to unravel its cause. An enquiry into the matter might embarrass his predecessors and the Government. Therefore, Gen VK Singh’s is not a case of ‘change of date of birth’ as is being projected in the media. It is becoming more obvious that the entire case is actually a conspiracy that was hatched at the Army Headquarters (MS Branch) to pave the way for some ‘favourite’ who would otherwise have to retire as a lieutenant general unless something is done to force VK Singh out of office in a manner that would appear normal retirement on a date desired by the ‘coterie’.  Hence the mischief and fudging of his service records at the MS Branch (Army Headquarters) – and lo, even the Government appears to be conniving in the plot after initial wavering – the Law Ministry upholds one date, the Attorney General upholds another! 
Sadly, these are dirty times marked by endless high profile scams in the Government.  Even the Army’s image stands smeared by some of its own generals who drifted and succumbed to allurements in a couple of cases of unbecoming conduct.  At the time of assuming the office of the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen VK Singh had declared that he would clean up and improve the ‘inner health’ of the Army.  True to his word, he has acted against the malaise swiftly and sternly without fear or favour. This healthy trend to restore inner efficiency and professionalism of the Army must continue.
The need of the hour is honest and upright commanders at the top because officers given to manipulation and intrigue for self-advancement can wreak havoc for the country if assigned sensitive offices of high authority in the Armed Forces. It is desirable that absolute and fairness and transparency is observed by the Government in tackling issues concerning military leadership and morale of the Forces.  Prudence suggests that truth and justice alone must be allowed to prevail in the Armed Forces, even if such recourse appears unpleasant and bitter for the time being. The on-going ‘date of birth row’, as it has come to be known, must be quickly resolved in a transparent and judicious manner by accepting the General’s actual date of birth as actual and he must continue to serve his full tenure with full dignity and honour that is due to him.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Army losing its Sheen – Who’s Responsible?

Army losing its Sheen – Who’s Responsible?
Karan Kharb
Soldiers in uniform and those who have come out of it are all unhappy.  We hold bureaucracy squarely responsible for all our major troubles. This is evident from the spate of angry mails flying across the Net inventing hard-hitting, even filthy adjectives against the bureaucracy where indeed much dirt, intrigue and corruption lie. To be candid, however, is it fair to always put the blame always on them for all our problems? Honest introspection is needed.
The aam admi on the street had lots of respect for the Army and, tired and harassed under the rampant corruption in the Civil Administration, expectantly looked towards the Army with an abiding faith that someday it would shake its magic wand, cleanse the system and deliver him from the malaise.  Sadly, this faith of the Nation has been badly injured by our very own officers who were entrusted to inspire and lead the fighting units and formations. Scams like Sukna land deal, Adarsh Society bungling, rations and some other supply contracts have torn through the martial embellishments of top military brass, regrettably including three chiefs – two from the Army, one from the Indian Navy. A very highly honoured nonagenarian Gandhian, Shambhu Dutta Sharma ji, one day remarked to me at a meeting in the midst of retired judges, bureaucrats and social activists, “Until now the country had pinned hopes on two institutions that would rescue us - Army and Judiciary – if corruption and inefficiency in our polity and bureaucracy arose to threatening levels.  But today, I’m sorry, Col Kharb, the disease of corruption has infected even these two pillars of our national honour and pride. Where do we go from here?”  Used to hearing only appreciation from civilians, this was the most disconcerting comment for me. Everyone looked at me as if they could reach out to the tainted generals by piercing through me.
                Arun Shorie in his address at the USI had once expressed his anguish at this state of affairs.   “I often hear senior army officers complaining helplessly about the stubbornly anti-military posturing of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence.” In somewhat similar words he continued, “Arre Sahb, hamne to yeh dekha hai ki jab koi bhi aaphat bureaucracy ya Civil Administration ke kabu nahin aati to ve sab Army ki madad mangte hain. And lo, the Army has always triumphed over the crises that were insurmountable for the bureaucrats. It is a strange paradox that the most potent power of the Nation should be complaining against those who mostly depend upon the Army to manage their critical situations! Logically it should be the bureaucrats who should be complaining against a bossy Army.”  
Military leadership has failed to assert its rightful position in the role constitutionally assigned to it. Armed Forces have a vital responsibility to the nation, which they must boldly assert on all matters having a bearing on national security environment. Likewise, India’s relationships with her immediate neighbours, border management and strategic options to ensure lasting peace - all call for regular and intimate involvement of the Armed Forces in policy planning processes at the highest level. India’s aspirations to be a global power can neither be fulfilled nor sustained by keeping the Military in darkness.
                There is no alternative to creating your rightful niche through simple, direct and determined assertion to reclaim the lost dues. A widely acclaimed adage is: “No one can make you feel small unless you accept it.” Not all generals have been like Thimaya or Manekshaw.  As men of high integrity they had clarity of vision and matching courage of conviction to put their foot down.  Sadly, personal ambitions, greed and post-retirement goodies have taken toll of our strengths.  No Chief or Army Commander level officer has had the courage to resign in protest against the Government’s apathy towards the Armed Forces, which consume the largest chunk out of the national budget. (Much more, though, is needed to make them effective and responsive in the evolving global scenario).  
                Interestingly, whereas there has been a spate of sharp criticism of the bureaucracy from serving and retired military officers, often loaded with repulsive abuses and cheap sarcasm – all expressive of bitter hatred, there has been no matching riposte from the ‘dirty lot’ even after Sukna, Adarsh and other scams in our own camp. Nobody has contradicted the fact that corruption is rampant in police, bureaucracy and politicians.  Yet, some strains of great character, integrity and courage can be found even in these corridors of high corruption.  They had no Chetwode to give them a powerful motto to serve the nation selflessly.  Yet the created their own style and changed what we continue to think cannot be changed! Let’s mull over the role of these great bureaucrats:
(a)          TN Seshan was an IAS officer.  Prior to his arrival as CEC, many Election Commissioners thought they were powerless to control booth capturing and violence during elections.  Seshan charged like a bull dog and changed the ways elections used to be conducted in India leaving the politicians crying hoarse.
(b)          Vinod Rai, the present Comptroller and Accountant General (CAG) is an IAS officer too (1972 batch, Kerala Cadre). We hardly know his predecessors who came, served their masters and went. Most feared by bureaucrats and politicians, Vinod Rai is mercilessly charging through the power alleys of corruption and has not spared even the Prime Minister in exposing corruption at the top. He would be remembered as a catalyst for systemic change in the governance of this country. And all this without seeking limelight on himself!
(e)          E Sreedharan, the Metro Man already had rich credentials as a perfectionist Railway Engineer for doing projects always ahead of time before assuming his role as the boss of Delhi Metro. In an atmosphere of cynicism, he not only created history in accomplishing the herculean task but has left behind a rich culture of efficiency, discipline, cleanliness, public safety and security so unique that Metro India is a class different from India outside Metro stations! If it were not for this man, Metro would be just another Railway.
(f)           Kiran Bedi – the Super Cop has been known for her daring to take on the powerful goondas, lawyers and Netas. Resolutely enforcing ‘Rule of Law’ she did not spare even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s car and had it towed away for violating parking rules. Denied her rightful chance to be Delhi’s DGP, she resigned and without bickering over it dedicated herself to a number of social pursuits empowering commoners. She is currently part of the Anna Hazare Campaign for Lokpal in their bid to end political, bureaucratic and judicial corruption.  
None of them sought any favours, privileges or powers. Obviously, it is not the type of office, cars, flags or perks that get you noticed and respected in modern India.  It's the inner power – your very own guts – that lift you.  We need to introspect and reposition ourselves to be in tune with the current realities. Whereas there is every logic for acceptance of OROP, too much noise on this single point campaign at a time when the nation is crying at high decibel against issues like corruption, callous civil administration, terrorism, communal divide, prices etc makes us appear self-centred unmindful of national problems.
Also, our call or campaign will acquire the right punch if we remain objective in our criticism. The danger of angry writing is that the main issue gets buried under the deluge of emotions and sludge of abuses turning the reader against the writer.  There is need to be guided by our traditional virtues of chivalry, courtesy and decorum.