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Home > India > News > Columnists > Harsh V Pant

Stand up for the Indian soldier

June 06, 2008

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It is with a sense of disbelief that one hears the Indian minister of state for defence, sitting in his cozy air-conditioned seminar room, pontificating that 'it is unbecoming' of former soldiers to protest against the treatment meted out to them by the government. So here's a non-soldier making a public protest. One hopes that it is not below the dignity of the minister to read this.

The minister would not have dared to make such a comment had the protestors been a part of his or his party's vote bank. The fact that the Indian armed services do not go public with their grievances does not mean that they do not have any concerns and the fact that they have been forced to come to the streets should make the minister and his government acknowledge how desperate the situation might be.

The Indian government is fooling itself if it thinks that by dragging its feet on the issue of the armed forces dissatisfaction with the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, it can make the issue go away.

A country that refuses to respect its armed forces will eventually end up getting forces that will not respect the nations' aspirations. A country makes a sacred contract with its soldiers that while he/she will lay down his/her life when called upon to do so, the nation will take good care of his/her and his/her family's needs to the extent its resources would permit.

This contract underpins the very survival of a nation as when its territorial integrity and political independence are under threat, the nation looks upon the only instrument that can protect it -- its armed forces.

While all governments have to look for a considered bargain between their commitments and power and between power and resources, a responsible government will always be aware of the serious implications of not spending adequate resources on defence.

The debate as it has been made out to be in some quarters between defence and development is a spurious one. Unless adequate provisions are made for defence, no state will be able to pursue its developmental agenda. This is much more important for a country like India that faces a unique security environment with two of its 'adversaries' straddling it on two sides of its borders and problems on all sides of its periphery.

A government can keep spouting pious rhetoric about global peace and non-violence but it realises fully that force is the ultima ratio in international relations. Politics among nations is conducted in the brooding shadow of violence. Either a state remains able and willing to use force to preserve and enhance its interests or it is forced to live at the mercy of its militarily powerful counterpart.

Even Nehru, after neglecting defence for all the years after independence had to eventually concede in 1962 that India's military weakness 'has been a temptation, and a little military strength may be a deterrent.'

The Indian public and press remain apathetic on defence issues. We make Kargil into a television spectacle, an opportunity for our journalists to try to show their temporary bravery by going to the frontlines for a few hours and getting the excitement of covering a war from the inside. And then when it is all over, our soldiers have been interred into their graves, we move on to new and more exciting spectacles -- to our song and dance reality shows and saas-bahu sagas, forgetting that soldiers are still on guard.

This is a nation that will cry with Lata Mangeshkar [Images] when she sings Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon but will not make any effort to understand the real problems and concerns of its soldiers. It is a sign of the highly skewed priorities of the Indian media that the rising turmoil and dissatisfaction within the ranks of nations' armed forces is being given only perfunctory coverage.

It is an issue of nation's very survival yet the media seems busy with its devotion of superficialities. Every rave and rant of Bollywood actors is religiously covered, detailed dissection of seemingly never-ending cricket matches are conducted, exorbitant pay rises in the corporate sector make it to the headlines but the one issue that can make or break the future of this country is consigned to the margins.

We continue to pray at the altar of our false heroes while our real heroes continue to face neglect and scorn.

The armed forces feel they have never got their due from various pay commissions over the years but the government in its wisdom decided to keep the armed forces away from any representation in the latest Pay Commission. The dominance of bureaucrats meant that while the interests of the bureaucrats were well-recognised, the armed services once again ended up getting a raw deal.

The discontent is so serious that some of the best and brightest in our services have refused to go for the Higher Command Courses and more and more are seeking an early retirement. Indian armed forces are desperately trying to fill vacancies as other professions are luring the young of the country.

Against the sanctioned strength of 300 per batch, the National Defence Academy finds that it can only attract 192 cadres this year. The same story repeats itself in the Indian Military Academy. A country that purports to be a rising power is facing a shortage of more than 11,000 officers.

The reason is pretty obvious: One can't think of any major power in the world that treats its soldiers the way India does. It is indeed a sorry sight when India's bravest have to literally cry out for help from a callous politico-bureaucratic elite.

Our politicians remain more than willing to waste tax payers money by routinely boycotting Parliament and have never shied away from increasing their own pay and allowances, claiming that they remain underpaid. Yet those who defend the sanctity of Parliament are given a short shrift.

The abysmal knowledge of defence issues that pervades the Indian political class probably gives them an illusion that the country is being protected by divine blessings.

Political apathy and bureaucratic design are rapidly eroding the self-esteem of our forces. A functioning liberal democracy needs a loyal soldier that can take care of the state's security, allowing the state to look after its citizenry. In India, the State is gradually withering away, all that's left is the loyal soldier. How long will this soldier, under siege from all sides, remain steadfast to its commitments, is a question all Indians should seriously ponder on.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College London [Images].


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