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.


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