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The Indian Army’s ‘welfare’ malaise

AS ONE: The Army has an age-old system of kinship which includes the women and families of those serving in it. Picture shows a play being enacted during the Army Wives Welfare Association Day celebrations in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

AS ONE: The Army has an age-old system of kinship which includes the women and families of those serving in it. Picture shows a play being enacted during the Army Wives Welfare Association Day celebrations in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

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The recent outburst of an Army officer’s wife is illustrative of how easily so-called welfare activities subsume the Army’s professional duties

The wife of a Major in the Indian Army, posted in an artillery unit in Faridkot, has shot off a complaint to the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the South Western Command alleging that she and her husband were threatened, harassed and humiliated by the Brigade Commander when she refused to attend rehearsals for a fashion show. The show was being prepared by the women of the station in anticipation of the visit of a senior officer’s wife. Vidhya Anappa Karajagi’s missive is now the most shared document on social media within Army circles and posts appreciating her courage to stand up to intimidation by her husband’s senior are flying thick and fast.

Widespread resentment

That the men in olive green are applauding Ms. Karajagi more is indicative of the widespread resentment generated by official and unofficial activities of the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA) in recent times. In March 2009, a ruling of the Central Information Commission (CIC) specified that AWWA is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which assists in the welfare of Army families but is not a part of the Indian Army. Subsequently, its central office was shifted out of the Army Headquarters in South Block and now operates out of an AWWA hostel in Delhi. Following the CIC order, AWWA activities, which were well-defined till the battalion level, are now restricted to the Corps level or area headquarters commanded by a Lieutenant General. No serving officer will be a member of AWWA and where an officer is required to assist in its functioning, it will be purely on a voluntary basis.

In practice, AWWA is very much a part of the system, perhaps even more so after the CIC ruling, and though it is not defined as such at the battalion or brigade level, the lines between ‘welfare’ activities and AWWA activities are blurred.

The ambiguity is explained by the conduct of the Brigade Commander in Faridkot and the commanding officer of Ms Karajagi’s husband’s unit, who pulled her up for refusing to join what he described as an “AWWA activity.” According to Ms Karajagi’s complaint, the Brigade Commander said: “I will make sure it is understood well. Got the issue? Both of you.” He went on to say, “You must understand what your commander is thinking. That’s it.” And the final warning: “If the boundary’s four lines are crossed, I will not accept it…Fine, Mrs. Anappa. I had to speak today because if I don’t nip it in the bud, this malaise will continue.”

Ms Karajagi’s complaint raised three questions. In what capacity did the Brigadier call her for an interaction on an AWWA issue? How is he related to AWWA activities and why is he protecting an institution which is an NGO and not related to the Army? The Army has since deputed a Brigadier to inquire into the matter and submit a report.

A 2011 letter from the Army’s Adjutant General Branch clearly states that “welfare meets” at the battalion level are forums to address the welfare-oriented problems of families. The meets are to be conducted with dignity and without any frills, which by no stretch of imagination can include a fashion show.

System of kinship

But the Army has an age-old system of kinship which includes the women and families of those serving in it. It is perhaps one of the few organisations where families are made to feel a part of it and bonds extend across ranks and even after retirement. No social function is complete without the participation of women. If an officer’s wife has not turned up for a formal event, her husband is pulled up for it. What many women do not appreciate is the benign institutional assistance for many of their domestic and personal problems. In no other organisation is it incumbent on a senior officer’s wife to attend to complaints of domestic abuse by any woman in her husband’s formation.

As the same letter points out, “welfare” is the responsibility of the commanding officer and it involves “not only those personnel under the command but also their families, whether residing in station or away at home/forward area family quarters.” In addition, formation commanders are instructed to look into family welfare activities during inspection of the units under them and “get feedback on genuine welfare.” In its truest sense “family welfare” is serious business because with the menfolk away on long and stressful duties, the families, particularly of persons below officer rank (PBOR), need a caring and responsive mechanism for their problems. It hardly needs to be reiterated that the assurance that their families are well looked after in their absence makes for a healthier, motivated workforce.

That said, AWWA has in recent years become the biggest bugbear, not only for the wives but for officers too, when the so-called welfare activities are stretched to include fashion shows, tombolas and coffee mornings for wives of visiting senior officers for which the Army unit’s resources are freely used. Ms. Karajagi’s outburst is illustrative of just how easily such activities subsume the Army’s prime professional duties and are seen as a vehicle for professional advancement. Her husband had taken leave to study for the crucial staff college course when the two were summoned by the Brigade Commander. With scarce domestic help, it fell on Ms. Karajagi’s husband to look after their two small children while she attended the rehearsals. She did it for about a week and eventually threw up her hands. The duo’s anger at being threatened is shared by many other silent sufferers. The “malaise” as the Brigadier in Faridkot described, is perhaps of another kind.

chander.dogra@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2018 6:12:43 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-indian-armys-welfare-malaise/article6321747.ece