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The Indian solider and his struggle with change

Last updated on: October 12, 2013 17:12 IST

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders -- the officers -- will have to adapt themselves to the new reality, says Nitin Gokhale.

On October 10, when soldiers of the 10 Sikh Light Infantry beat up a couple of officers in the wake of an internal boxing competition, eyebrows were raised over the incident across the Army. The incident acquired further salience because the current Army Chief General Bikram Singh also belongs to the same regiment, although to be fair to him it would be gross exaggeration and overreach to embroil him in the post-mortem of the event. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what was done by a section of the media.

But blaming the media is akin to shooting the messenger. The fact is: the Indian Army is going through a churn and there have been at least four incidents of gross indiscipline and mini revolt within different battalions in the past two years, an inconvenient truth that cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet.

As I wrote in a longish paper for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in March this year, 'Although from disaster relief in floods, tsunami, and earthquakes to rescuing infant Prince from a deep tube well and from quelling rioters in communal strife to being the last resort in internal counter-insurgency operations, the Indian Army is omnipresent; as an instrument of the State the Army’s effectiveness is being blunted through a series of ill-advised and ill-thought-out decisions.'

The Army remains rooted in an outdated, British-inherited system that is struggling to cope with the combination of challenges posed by demands of modern warfare and a society that is undergoing a great churn.

This has posed a great challenge to the famous officer-men relationship in the Indian armed forces. In the past decade, the armed forces are faced with a new problem: increasing incidents of indiscipline, suicides and fratricide. Are these incidents happening because the traditional bond between officers and men, the bedrock on which the military functions, is fraying at the edges? Are there other external factors that are impinging upon the armed forces' functioning and eroding some of its admirable values?

Some studies have been initiated to get to the root of the problem after it was noticed that more than 90 soldiers were committing suicide every year since 2003, the figure going up to an alarming 150 in 2008. Adding to the worry is the growing cases of indiscipline and intolerance. In 2012 alone, there were at least three cases of showdown between men and officers. At least 50 to 60 soldiers of an artillery unit clashed with a group of officers after a young officer allegedly beat up a jawan, leading to near-mutiny among the soldiers.

There were a couple of other instances where tension between jawans and officers boiled over, both the incidents happening in two different armoured regiments, one following suicide by a soldier. This set the alarm bells ringing in the army headquarters and although the top brass publicly maintained the issue wasn’t as serious as made out to be, Defence Minister A K Antony in a written answer to the Lok Sabha, said, “The incident of suicide by an army personnel on August 8, 2012, in the Samba sector of Jammu and Kashmir led to unrest.”

A former vice-chief of the army staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, also said it's a matter of concern and it's time to take note. In a recent article General Oberoi said, 'Three incidents of collective indiscipline by jawans in the last few months, reflecting a breakdown in the traditionally close officer-man relationship, are a cause for concern, especially as all three of them are related to combat units, where a stable and healthy officer-man relationship is an article of faith.'

Some others, however, maintain that these are isolated incidents and they should not be taken as an indication of a trend in as large an army as India’s with 1.1 million soldiers. But for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, these incidents should certainly serve as timely warnings. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of these acts of indiscipline: It's time to ask the question -- Is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers' stress levels peaking dangerously? Making them prone to acts of indiscriminate violence?

There are no straight answers.

Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is an outcome of a combination of factors: Erosion in the soldiers' status in society, prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs, crippling shortage of officers in combat units, and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers!

A psychiatric study by army doctors a couple of years ago on 'Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts' revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront, contradictions between war and low-intensity conflict situations and particularly the concepts of 'enemy', 'objective' and 'minimum force'.

Some other findings were:

• In general war the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.

• A hostile vernacular press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.

• Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.

• Monotony, the lure of the numbers game, and low manning strength of units lead to overuse and fast burnout.

Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors. The main worry are the problems back home -- land disputes, tensions within the family -- rising aspirations, lack of good pay and allowances, and also the falling standards of supervision from some officers, and all these factors have led to major stress.

But there are many non-combat reasons that lead to stress.

During my travels in counter-insurgency areas, I have often come across company commanders telling me how, for many soldiers, tensions at home create unbearable stress. Often a land dispute back home or a family feud weighs heavy on the soldier’s mind.

For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Again, I have frequently come across a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation.

Add to it the fact that society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. A local politician, a thanedar, seem to command more clout in society today. This has often led to loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie, Paan Singh Tomar, depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

As a former army commander had once pointed out to me, "You see he (the soldier) comes from a society where he compares himself with others and when he realises that he is at a disadvantage -- the kind of respect that his predecessors had is no longer there."

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from leave. It is precisely this concern that had prompted Antony to write to all chief ministers some years ago asking them to sensitise district administrations in their states to the needs of the soldiers. State governments were asked to set up a mechanism at district and state levels to address soldiers' grievances.

And yet, the Army must look within too.

Soldiers these days are better educated and consequently better aware of their rights. This, coupled with falling standards of command and control among some of the undeserving officers who have risen to command units, is becoming a major cause for worry.

As the armed forces are in themselves a microcosm of India, the rising education and awareness levels in recruits are easily perceived. A sea change from yesteryear is now visible in the hordes of young men who crowd recruitment rallies across the country. Most hopefuls are the educated unemployed youth who turn towards military for acquiring early financial and social security. Educational qualification is Std XII on an average, many being graduates too. The stereotype of an innocent, less educated but hardy soldier is now a thing of the past. The officer base has also shifted predominantly to the middle class. This has further narrowed the gap between the ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’.

An acute shortage of officers at the cutting edge level is the other big factor contributing to an increasing gap between soldiers and officers. Against an authorised strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best eight or nine officers available to the commanding officer these days.

Very often young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.

So what is the way forward?

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders -- the officers -- will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. The new fashion to dismiss them as outdated ideas must be arrested. Military ethos are not developed overnight and are certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in society.

What, however, must be done is to eliminate the overwhelming trend to be a ‘careerist'. The desire to advance career at any cost, to strive for promotion even by cutting corners, and craving for awards as a means to boost chances of attaining the next rank has become a rampant practice among the officer class. Preservation of self has exaggerated that protection and advancement of career at all levels seem to have become a sine qua non for most officers.

That must change. And that change must come from the top.

Finally, if the led are to believe the leader, the leader must walk the talk. Officers must believe in themselves and the system that they work in. They must take pride in the fact that the military is essentially different in its work culture, ethos, traditions and values from any other entity.

The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To remain relevant and effective, it must however embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership.

Image: Soldiers from the Sikh Li regiment take part in the Army Day parade in New Delhi

Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

Nitin Gokhale is Editor, Security and Strategic Affairs, with NDTV

Nitin Gokhale