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Rot in apolitical armed forces

By Inder Malhotra

In the midst of the excitement and suspense over the fourth and final phase of the election, the shameful shenanigans of an Army unit in Siachen, the world's highest and coldest battlefield, have come as shock and have caused dismay. Paradoxically, the cognoscenti are not surprised at all. This is so because what has come to light, thanks largely to an enterprising journalist, is arguably the unavoidable culmination of the comprehensive and steady degeneration of the Indian state system and society that has taken place over the years unchecked.

Even so, it is deeply disappointing, as also depressing, that the rot should have spread to the shiningly apolitical armed forces that have, by and large, enjoyed great respect for their professional conduct. This, alas, looks like becoming a thing of the past if the proclivity of the politicians in power to mess around with the three services and the apparently growing frailties of the military leadership continue. How Pakistan, especially its Army, would view these pernicious trends in this country should not be hard to imagine.

"A Matter of Honour" is the title of Philip Mason's brilliant history of the Indian Army. But the word honour can in no way be associated with the faking of "enemy killings" on the Siachen snows, with soldiers being put in Pakistani uniform and asked to feign to be dead, and construction of a "Pakistani bunker" in Indian territory to blow it up.

Utterly disgraceful though this activity is, it is not the worst part of the sordid story. That dubious distinction goes to the Army top brass' unfailing reflex to not just pass the buck but specifically to pass it downwards. The elaborate statement of the Defence Ministry's spokesman and such hints as have emanated from the Army's higher echelons seek to claim that the media is making a mountain of a molehill. Their contention is that what has happened is only an "aberration" for which a court of inquiry was appointed and on the basis of its finding "disciplinary action" is being taken against a Major and perhaps a Lt. Colonel.

This deplorable attempt to make light of the Siachen outrage is on a par with the U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld's description of the sadistic torture at the notorious Abu Gharib prison near Baghdad as "mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners."

At the same time even the redoubtable Mr. Rumsfeld has had the decency to accept full responsibility for the barbarity of the U.S. troops and "contractors" though he is still refusing to resign. Here the attitude of the commanders of the higher formations responsible for the defence of the relevant region is precisely the opposite. There has been and continues to be thundering silence at the Divisional, Corps and Army Commands.

Nor can it be overlooked that the Siachen scandal is but the latest of a whole chain of troubling developments in the realm of national defence. One need not go back any farther than the sudden dismissal of a Service chief in murky circumstances. The Defence Minister responsible for this had to resign later because of the shattering Tehelka disclosures but was brought back even when the judicial inquiry into the affair was far from complete and is indeed still going on. Then followed the intelligence failure in Kargil and the series of fires in ordnance depots, no less suspicious than the "Ojhri Inferno" in Pakistan that many Pakistanis believe was the handiwork of Generals with much to hide.

What makes the Siachen incident all the more disturbing is that, contrary to the Army PR's claims, the practice of using all kinds of unscrupulous methods, including downright chicanery and worse, to win gallantry awards is far more widespread than is generally believed. It is not just breach of discipline, as Army authorities are pretending, but disconcerting erosion of moral fibre. The horror, however, is that no one seems horrified by it. That is where the comparison with and contrast to the U.S. comes in once again.

The Bush administration would surely have been delighted to somehow sidetrack the gruesome crimes at Abu Gharib but it just cannot do so because both the people and the U.S. Congress are vigilant and outraged. This country ought to learn appropriate lessons from the open and forthright inquiry two Congressional committees are conducting at a time when the U.S. is still at war in Iraq.

Sadly, this is a vain hope because it presupposes that there would be a similar insistence on accountability and transparency in all walks of life, civilian as well as military. This unfortunately runs counter to what passes for Indian political culture.

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