Blame the Army's cover-up culture, not ‘colonial-era institutions'

Praveen Swami caught the wrong end of a long stick in his article >“Ladakh troop revolt underlines Army class tensions” ( The Hindu, May 13, 2012). His interesting analysis of the indiscipline and disorder by personnel of the Ladakh-based 226 Field Regiment was based on two arguments. His main argument was that the Army continued to run on antiquated arrangements which then created the conditions for troops and officers of the Artillery regiment to come to blows. Combustion is inbuilt in the functioning of the Army and the fracas at Nyoma in Leh was waiting to happen. He makes two points to underline this argument.

First, the Army continues to run on “colonial-era institutions” and, second, that it remains “divided rigidly between sahibs and men, which allowed, enabled, or rather created conditions for tempers to boil over in Nyoma. Before responding to his line of reasoning, it is important to firstly condemn the incidents that happened in Nyoma. There are no grounds to justify, or let alone explain, the fisticuffs during the bara khana after the regiment had completed its field firing practice. It must be understood that a bara khana is standard procedure following any field firing, by any unit. That an Army tradition came to be marred by unforeseen incidents is a sad commentary on the calibre of officers who were holding staff and command appointments of the 226 Field Regiment. For they are the principal beneficiaries of what Praveen Swami has called “colonial-era institutions.”

His first line of attack is on the continued practice of employing combat trained soldiers as the personal valets of officers — once called batmen by British Indian Army officers and now known as sewadars, sahayaks, and also buddies in many units. His argument is that this institution is outdated in today's India. It humiliates the soldier detailed for such duties with an officer. And because of its misuse, the Nyoma incident happened. Class tension is inherent in the structure of the Army, hence the fires of revolt in the 226 Field Regiment.

There is a basic flaw in this reasoning. For if that were the case, the Army would long have been reduced to an institution wrecked by confronting its thousand inbuilt mutinies. But that has not happened and neither will the Army go that way. Regiments and battalions under far greater combat stress, and with far higher levels of battle training, would also have been stricken with this ailment. Infantry units, the primary application of force by the Republic of India, would not have been able to perform their basic military tasks if the “colonial-era institutions” remained the prevailing atmosphere in the battalion. The institution of sahayak is certainly an outdated one, and there can be no two views on that score. But it is not responsible, whatever its levels of misuse, for the acts of indiscipline in Nyoma.

The second point raised in the report was about the Army being a house “divided between sahibs and men.” Sahib is an honorific bestowed on those who have attained certain ranks, officers or men. Officers are taught by tradition to address as “ Sahib” those who have achieved such ranks even if they are junior in the command structure. Consider this: India's Army achieved one of its greatest military feats 25 years ago during this time of the year. On June 26, 1987, the 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry captured Quaid Post from Pakistan in the battle to dominate Siachen. The success of that operation was because of the extreme bravery of late 2/Lt Rajiv Pande who began the operation, that was completed by then Naib Subedar Bana Singh, for which he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra. To come to the point — even in the midst of the highest combat ever fought, Pande and Bana Singh would only address each other as “ Sahib,” despite the vast difference in age and rank. That has been the practice ever since the Indian Army came to be made, and it will remain so. The addressing of someone as “ Sahib” doesn't cause divisions in the Army. And neither does the presence of the ‘Sahib culture'. What causes divisions, and which lie at the root of the problems on display in Nyoma, is, in fact, of far more recent origin.

The armed forces of India, unlike other government services, have a sharply pyramidal structure, both within a unit and as institutions as a whole. The competition of ranks is far higher in the armed forces than anywhere else in the country. And this is as true for officers as it is for enlisted men, for the number of junior commissioned ranks are few and far in between. This competition for higher ranks has created a culture of command that revolves around the “zero-error syndrome.” Simply explained, this essentially means the avoidance of risk so as to sail the waters calmly. When no risks are taken, no mistakes are made. So annual confidential reports remain sanitised to the last line and the grading is excellent. Thus, promotions are easier achieved provided the examinations and courses are also graded well. True of men as also of officers. But human life is not so mechanical, and military life less so. The lure of higher ranks, however, requires that the record be spotless, so units do what they know best: brush the mess under the carpet. Lapses are routinely covered up, and command failures remain un-reported, or at best under-reported.

The failings of command, thus, come to be hidden, from platoon level upward. It is plain to the eye who is and is not fit for the higher ranks. But the military bureaucracy only looks at sterilised pieces of paper in the Military Secretary's Branch. Who they select for commanding a combat unit may really not be fit for that appointment, intellectually, physically or even morally. Murphy's Law is the most popular dictum in the armed forces, and it catches up some time or the other. In Nyoma, it caught up with the 226 Field Regiment. It is certain that this regiment has had numerous incidents of indiscipline in the past. None came to be reported, or they were covered up. Indiscipline to the point of revolt does not only affect those in the unit, but even those commanding higher formations. Accountability in the Army is lateral and vertical. So to avoid stains, some in the past have ignored goings on inside the 226 Field Regiment. All that it required was an incapable officer and an incapacitated soldier to come together, and they did in Nyoma. First-rate officers and first-rate soldiers in other units continue to perform commendably by “colonial-era institutions.” It is obvious the first-rate are not in the 226 Field Regiment.

(Manvendra Singh is co-convener of the Bharatiya Janata Party's defence cell. He was a member of the Standing Committee on Defence in the 14th Lok Sabha.)

>Praveen Swami responds

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