A few days ago two news items regarding our army attracted my notice. One, the Defence Ministry has placed orders for Ultra Light Howitzers worth Rs. 3000 crores with a renowned U.S. firm. Earlier this year we had irritated the U.S. by placing a similar huge order for sophisticated planes with the Dassault Rafale of France. Then a few weeks ago we successfully launched the Agni V ICBM with a range of 5000 miles. All these are good news considering the war preparedness of two of our neighbours. But, on another page there was a rather non-descript news item referring to a fracas involving the jawans and officers of a filled artillery unit posted in Ladakh at an altitude of over 13,000 feet. My eyes got glued to this small piece of news. Having lived in Jammu for over 37 years and interacted with army officers of different ranks at different levels and occasions I just could not believe what I read. Indian soldiers are known for their strict discipline and ungrudging obedience to their seniors, even when the latter failed in their duty to take care of the safety comfort, and honour of the men under them. How could the jawans could defy officers and go to the extent of physically assaulting them? The following day the details came out exposing the rot that has afflicted our armed forces.
As per news paper reports a jawan who was attached to a major as his Sahayak (batman) had an altercation with the latter’s wife. On hearing of it the major came out and began thrashing that jawan in the presence of other jawans.
Obviously, he had no authority to thrash some one for legged misbehavious with his wife. Other jawans protested against the Major’s behaviour, which again was unexpected in the Indian army. But, they did it, and the noise brought the C.O of the unit, a Colonel, to the scene. He again blundered by berating the major in the presence of the jawans and other officers who had by then gathered on the scene. Then the unthinkable happened: the junior officers physically assaulted the C.O., and on seeing their officers fighting one another the jawans felt themselves free to go on a rampage hitting any officer they could find — obviously such was their pent up rage and bitterness for the men they have to serve. The colonel, a major, and a jawan were hospitalised such was the free for all till men of another unit restored some sort of calm. The unit is likely to be disbanded, and the conduct of the C.O. and the officers involved will be enquired into.
This incident, by itself, is a very small one involving not more than a dozen officers and jawans. But, unless one is naive enough to treat this incident as an isolated aberration of conduct on the part of those involved, it is symptomatic of the deep malaise of loss of trust and care-respect relationship that has bonded the Indian army, in fact all armies, as a fighting machine for offence and defence. In the first place the major and his wife must have exceeded all limits that provoked the Sahayak and later his colleagues to protest, which was formerly unimaginable. Then, true the C.O. should not have berated the major in the presence of others, but that was no excuse for the junior officers to set upon their C.O. Anyway, at all levels the code of conduct was defied by all concerned. How far can one depend upon that army where there is complete trust deficit between the officers and their men?
The reason behind this sad state of affairs lies in the fact that officers, by and large, have by their conduct forfeited the respect due to them or they wish to command. Many senior officers have been publicly accused of misappropriation in different ways — in unlawful sale of liquor, the Sukna land scam, the Adarsh Building scam, and the latest charge of an offer of Rs.14 crores to the COAS for the aborted purchase of trucks. The present day jawan is no illiterate peasant. He reads newspapers, listens to the T.V., the transistor, and the talks that go on in the officers mess. So, they often have scant respect for the officers who demand respect but actually do not command it.
The rot cannot be treated by disbanding the concerned unit and court-marshalling a few officers and jawans. The officers themselves will have to mend their manners, treat the men under them not as servants and but as respectable young men working with them for a common cause, and maintain transparent honest and commitment to their duty. They must reflect through their words and deeds what is inscribed as their motto on the wall of the Chetwood hall of the I.M.A. at Dehradun, which reads something like this: the honour and interest of the country comes first, the safety and dignity of the men under you comes second, and that of yourself comes at the last. Now it appears like a tall order, but it has to be fulfilled.
Apart from the serious malaise revealed through incidents like the aforesaid one what worries many is the rising incident of fragging (killing of ones colleague or senior) by soldiers going berserk with their weapons as well as of suicides. While a couple of dozen in our army are killed every year by their col-leagues or juniors — unheard of even a few years ago — the number of men in uniform killed by themselves, last year, has exceeded that of those by militants in J&K and in the North East. What accounts for such emotional aberrations?
Men take to fragging or suicide only when driven to despair, when he finds that he is being continually dishonoured and discriminated against, and there is no scope of redress and justice in sight. Why should such conditions be created? The men in command should know and sympathise with the unexpressed complaints of those under them, and make them feel that all that can be done for them in the existing situation is being done or will be soon done for them. The soldiers must be made to feel that the men at their command are willing to share all the risk they are expected to face as well as the honour and shame of their unit. Our army needs a thorough over all, and we cannot wait very long. It is necessary to have the latest sophisticated weapons, but we should also remember that what is of greatest importance is the men behind the machines.