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How not to deal with defence services

How not to deal with defence services

Author: Inder Malhotra
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: October 7, 2008
URL: http://www.asianage.com/presentation/leftnavigation/opinion/opinion/how-not-to-deal-with-defence-services.aspx

Mercifully, The ugly imbroglio over the armed forces' grievances about salaries and status of their officers and men, following the release of the Sixth Pay Commission report, has been resolved at the 11th hour. But the respite is for the time being only, as much would depend on what the three-man ministerial committee decides before the end of October. However, the painful and avoidable episode has underscored the insensitivity with which the government treats the defenders of our freedom and frontiers. The other side of the coin is that in the present case, the three service chiefs - headed by the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Sureesh Mehta - did cross the Lakshman Rekha of discipline that Indian military usually respects.

It was perfectly legitimate for Admiral Mehta, General Deepak Kapoor and Air Chief Marshal Homi Major to take a firm stand in defence of their demand for removal of grave anomalies in the Pay Commission's recommendations, which had been endorsed by the Union Cabinet. They were also right to forcefully present their view to the government through defence minister A.K. Antony. But the letter that the Army Chief wrote to the jawans, and the unclassified signal that the Navy Chief issued to all ranks - assuring them that in refusing to implement the directive on pay they were watchful of the interests of other ranks - were uncalled for and unacceptable.

The defence minister rightly drove this point home to the three chiefs. Public statements emanating from them after the "compromise" indicate that Mr Antony's plain speaking had the desired effect. Civilian control on military is one of the foundations of the Indian democratic system. There cannot be any compromise on this. Jawaharlal Nehru had asserted this most emphatically way back in 1959 in the midst of an embarrassing and complex incident. General K.S. Thimayya, arguably the most popular Army Chief this country has had, had resigned in protest against the arrogant behaviour of Krishna Menon, the brilliant but waspish defence minister and a friend of Nehru's. The Prime Minister had persuaded Thimayya to withdraw his resignation. During a parliamentary debate, that coincided with the stopover in Delhi of Pakistan's first military dictator Ayub Khan, there was trenchant criticism of Menon and great support for Thimayya. That was when Nehru thundered about the doctrine of civilian control over the armed forces. He also said that while he liked and respected Thimayya, he "could not congratulate the general on the manner in which he has acted".

For their part, military leaders over the decades have been complaining that the perfectly unexceptionable principle of civilian control has been converted in this country into "civil servants' control". The grouse is both right and wrong. Right because the services' headquarters get brusque directives only from the IAS officers manning the ministry of defence (MoD), and wrong because military leaders ought to know that no bureaucrat can dare issue an order that does not have the backing of his political master. The tragedy with the Indian political class is that it is not just insensitive to the needs and feelings of our uniformed forces but also ignorant of them. One reason for this may be that, barring some honourable exceptions, politicians here have never served in the armed forces nor do they let their children do so.

It is a measure of this indifference that in the six Pay Commissions appointed so far, there has never been a single military officer, serving or retired. Worse, the committee formed to look into the military's dissatisfaction and demands after the latest commission's report, consists of four IAS secretaries. It never occurred to the United Progressive Alliance government to include a senior military officer.

In most mature democracies, not only are the salaries and perks of military and civilian officers decided separately, but there is also a permanent pay commission for the armed forces. No wonder an SMS doing the rounds in Delhi says: "The winner of an Olympic gold has been given crores of rupees. Even the winners of bronze have got tens of lakhs. But the reward for the soldier laying down his life for the country is Rs 15 lakh".

Strangely, there is little realisation of the high risk, harsh working conditions - from the Siachen Glacier to the burning deserts of Rajasthan - and long separation from families that military personnel, especially Army men, have to face even in peacetime. Counter-insurgency operations have taken a larger toll than the casualties in the all the wars India has fought.

It is in this context that military men across the country have been seething with discontent, even anger, ever since the government put its stamp of approval on the biased recommendations of the four IAS officers. No fair-minded person can deny that the military's complaints are justified. Isn't it ridiculous that lieutenant generals, who work as Army Commanders or Corps Commanders or Principal Staff Officers, should be made junior to director general of police (DGPs) in the states, as well as to officers of paramilitary organisations, including the Coast Guards. Already there have been incidents in which higher-paid paramilitary officers have felt emboldened to tell their commanders in the Army or the Navy to "go take a walk". For the Indian Army, izzat has always taken precedence over pay.

However, in all fairness, the Army and the other two services must accept their share of blame for the situation in which a brigadier, with 30 years of service, has to report to a civilian director in the MoD with only 13 years of service, and so on. While full allowance has been made for the pyramidal structure of the armed forces and fewer avenues of promotion, why can't the defence services accelerate promotions in their ranks? A thorough restructuring of all three services is long overdue. Let the government appoint what the Americans call a "blue ribbon commission" for this purpose.

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