Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rot in the armed forces



"The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time."

When you now look at these 37 words, etched on the walls of the famous Chetwode Hall at Dehradun's Indian Military Academy - the cradle of officers heading for the Indian army - they have a distinct ring of irony. The stirring credo of military selflessness today stands inverted. Far from breeding a band of fearless and honourable soldiers, the Indian Army seems to be spawning a crooked cocktail of "ketchup" colonels, "booze" brigadiers and land-scamming generals - all of whom seem to have made their own ease and comfort, not to speak of fat bank balances, their primary motto.

It's not that corruption - or "moral turpitude" as it's delicately referred to by the brass - was unknown in the army. It was small, though, even petty. Oldtimers say it was largely in the service arm of the army, the ASC (Army Service Corps), which they recall was referred to as "Atta Sugar Chor" . The disease has now hit the top guys: colonels, brigadiers and even generals. In fact, the army chief might not have been implicated in the latest Sukna land scam, but he has certainly come under a cloud for trying to protect his top aide, Lt Gen Avadhesh Prakash, who seems neck deep in it. Clearly, the army's moral fibre is fraying and has weakened like never before.

But it's the rot at the top that is a big worry. At least 10 generals - of two- and three-star rank, which means major-generals and lieutenant-generals - have come under the scanner for corruption and financial misappropriation in a series of meat, ration, fuel and liquor scandals over the last few years. And it's not just lucre that's corrupting the top brass - a major-general was court-martialled in 2007-2008 for sexually harassing a woman officer under his command at Leh.

Corruption seems to have seeped through the army in the last decade or so, corroding the backbone of the force. Its combat sabre-arm , like infantry, armoured corps and artillery, has been infected and, unless arrested, the very character of the Indian army could get deeply scarred. The by now infamous Sukna land scam case, in which four generals have been indicted, is just the latest manifestation of the malaise afflicting the force, which for long was seen as the last surviving bastion of discipline and probity in the country.

Says former army chief Gen V P Malik: "The entire Sukna episode shows the weakness in the leadership's moral fibre. There is no doubt that we need to strengthen the ethos and ethics of the armed forces. Senior officers need to stand up to pressure, whether it's from politicians, power-brokers , contractors or even the society at large. They need to ensure that young officers and jawans look up to them since in the armed forces, which are different from other government services, you actually order them to go to their deaths."

While the Indian Army may not be anywhere close to becoming a rotting institution - upright veterans swear it's still much cleaner than many civilian institutions - but there are obviously enough disturbing signs for worry. Why are so many senior officers getting caught with their hands in the till? Does it indicate that corruption is rampant in the army? Or does it show that the crooks in uniform haven't yet learnt the art of covering their tracks, as has been mastered by their civilian counterparts?

TOI-Crest put this question to several honest soldiers - both serving and retired. The general opinion was that it's impossible to insulate the armed forces from the "general social degradation" and "corrosion of the moral fibre" as it is the larger society from which the military rank and file is drawn. Probed further, an interesting analysis emerged. While relative poverty in India guarantees a steady supply of manpower at the level of jawans, the army is finding it extremely difficult to attract enough bright youngsters - especially, those with the requisite OLQs (officer-like qualities). The Indian Army, where life is tough, where you get shifted around every two-three years from one remote posting to another, and where the salaries are relatively modest , is just not an attractive option for most of the brighter lot. Often, those who fail to secure a class-I government job turn to the olive-green uniform. "It's the last resort," said an officer. A young third-generation officer says he was surprised at some of the reasons his batch mates at IMA gave for joining the army. "Once it was a passion and adventure, now it's just any other job,'' he says. "I was shocked when one of my course-mates said he had joined the army to get subsidised booze, big houses in cantonments and good medical facilities. Many of the top IMA graduates, in fact, opt for ASC or other service arms to lead easier lives, and (to be) where there's opportunity to make the extra buck." In short, the army is often left with no option but to take in second-rate people with third-rate morals. Some officers claim the army's "extensive and committed training processes" , at both the physical and psychological levels, as well as "strong institutional mechanisms" are still able to mould these young recruits into "motivated, disciplined, law-abiding officers and men." Says a brigadier: "There is poor quality of intake. But if we induct 10 donkeys, at least seven are transformed into horses." Whether this is an accurate conversion rate or just a fond hope is anybody's guess. This, however, is at the induction level. How are so many soldiers of easy virtue managing to reach the top, as action against 10 lieutenants and major-generals in the recent past would indicate? Why are the wrong officers not being weeded out? "There is too much of a 'Yes, Sir' culture. If you question a senior, you are unlikely to make it to the next rank in the pyramidal army structure," says a serving Lt General. The general added that the army was no longer insulated from the civilian way of life, as it once was, and that was often bringing wrong values into the armed forces. "That, coupled with prolonged deployment in internal security duties, is steadily chipping away at the army's fundamental values," he says. Not all is lost, though. The military wood is seasoned and the axe of corruption will find it difficult to chop through it. On top of that, punitive action is stringent and swift. The army alone conducts almost 1,000 court-martials on an average every year, a major chunk of them being summary ones wherein the unit or battalion commander or commandant acts as the investigator, prosecutor and judge, all rolled into one.

The colonial practice of summary court-martials is prone to a lot of abuse, but the army insists it is needed to maintain discipline in the ranks. But punishing errant jawans is one thing, acting against senior officers altogether different. Many senior officers are known to brazenly abuse their perks and privileges, and line their pockets. Some officers have gone to the extent of faking killings to improve their standing in the hotly-contested race to bag gallantry medals, unit citations or commendation cards among battalions.

In 2003-2004 , for instance, there were the notorious "ketchup killings" and "Siachen killings" episodes. While tomato sauce was used to fake photographs of "slain militants" in Assam's Cachar district in the first case, the latter saw video-tapes being made of the fictitious killings of "enemy soldiers" on the world's highest battlefield at Siachen. And to the Army's credit, all these cases were dealt with swiftly and harshly.

"Three major-generals , a brigadier and a colonel named in the Tehelka expose of 2001, for instance, were punished. Conversely, politicians and bureaucrats involved in the scandal simply got away,'' says a senior officer. Most soldiers still spring to the army's defence. Lt Gen R K Gaur (retd) says, "When Kargil happened in 1999, the belief that young officers and soldiers lack the dedication was thoroughly disproved. Despite the worst kind of odds, they went up the hills in the line of fire to evict Pakistanis from their positions."

The refusal to see no wrong in the army could be interpreted either as denial of a spreading disease or an innate sense of pride among soldiers who insist corruption cases are "an aberration" and that the army still remains one of the cleanest institutions in the country. There is deep hope hidden in this optimism, and it is that as long as there is pride in an institution, it cannot go under.

1 comment:

  1. It is generally agreed that the quality of intake has gone down. But, how do we explain the rot among those at the top, who were the best at those times. Or is it correct to assume that the rot started 40 years back?