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Home > India > News > Columnists > Lieutenant General Ashok Joshi (retired)

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In defence of the armed forces

September 08, 2008

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On a cold and dark night somewhere high up in Ladakh, a group of officers and jawans were huddled together in a tent that was made livable by a stove. The mood was a mix of anxiety and humiliation. The Chinese had dealt a few decisive blows and unilaterally withdrawn, leaving India almost despondent. The prime minister downwards everyone was occupied with thoughts about why this ignominy had come to us and what could be done about it.

In this gloom, the conversation over rum was not about old times and old-timers, as is normally the case when a former commanding officer is on a visit to his unit. The senior war veteran present, a subedar -- he had seen it all, from Alexandria in Egypt [Images] to Sangro in Italy [Images], with the Eighth Army during World War II -- asked of his old commanding officer: "Sahib, when we lost at Panipat to Abdali, bad as it was, at least it was a tough fight in which everyone was there, the prime-minister's brother and son downwards. The highest in the land led in the battle from the front and all of them perished but they did not quit. Even then the battle was lost. What would happen now if the Chinese come at us again? Will any of the children or grandchildren of the ministers join the armed forces and fight?" If such a question were to be raised today, what would be the answer?

The question has already been answered unequivocally by two generations since the early 1960s. With few exceptions, youth of capability have turned away from the armed forces and opted for other vocations. Their cost-benefit-analysis gave a clear indication to them that a career in the armed forces was not for them. The armed forces, as a vocation has consistently lost its sheen since 1947. At one time, the sons of two chiefs of the Indian Army [Images] served in the armed forces; so did the scions of Baroda, Jaipur [Images], and Kapurthala royal families. They did so with pride and without asking for any special consideration. They looked upon the armed forces as a matter of pride and honour and satisfied some of their own inner needs and longing to maintain the tradition. In turn, they brought prestige to the armed forces.

Does it sound medieval? Actually, it is, but so is the idea of fighting and dying in battle. Most of the present decision makers in India, within the establishment, whether they are the elected politicians in power, or the bureaucrats who are their key aides, or the members of the judiciary, live in a world far removed from actual prosecution of war and have no real feel or experience to get into the shoes of a professional soldier. The armed forces expect much of individuals who serve in them, and their families.

On the other hand, maintaining the armed forces demands a great deal of the nation in terms of the opportunity costs. No nation in the world has such surfeit of resources that it can afford to incur opportunity costs without qualms. The armed forces fully deliver only when they 'deter' the adversary from battles because even victories are accompanied by irreversible losses, particularly of life. The cost and consequences of lost battles and wars, of course, are beyond recall. Some time in the future, the effectiveness and the efficiency of the armed forces may prove to be one of the main determinants of national survival with honour. There are national stakes in the effectiveness of the armed forces.

It is for this reason that they make claims on being a national institution. Constitutionally, don't they report to the President of the Union? Apparently there appears to be inadequate comprehension of the real issues involved in raising, equipping and governing the armed forces. This is not uncommon in democracies, even amongst mature democracies. The compulsions of electoral politics often prove overwhelming, apart from the ideological baggage and prejudices. But the advanced democracies have the monetary resources including the advanced technologies; and more importantly, they have the tradition of their decision makers fighting in battles and wars extending over several hundred years. Their knowledge of war and peace is not academic. In India, there is an unfortunate belief that good arguments will prevail. They may not. Even 'truth' does not always 'prevail'.

The armed forces, in their own way, are an 'anachronism' when it comes to their unique value-system in which loyalty, courage, effectiveness, and continued defiance, even when there is no hope, matter more than the values of 'civil society'. Bereft of this value-system, and its concomitants -- an exaggerated sense of self-esteem that makes a person think that he is irreplaceable, a belief that Lord God will back him, and so on -- the armed forces may render themselves less than useful.

The decision and opinion makers too need to help the professional soldiery so that it can protect its elan. Surely, elan is not a commodity. But it cannot be the attribute of those who are made to feel second class because they cannot maintain the lifestyle that their peers do, or their children cannot go to the right schools. Money and prestige do enter the calculus somewhere. To be told that the more intelligent have to have far more because they passed the right competitive examinations does not help much.

The military machine depends a great deal on technology and its products but its most critical cogs are human which, if substandard, can cause the system to collapse. Who mans this unique national institution cannot be determined by market forces alone.

Elementary, is it not? Then how come, we in India seem to be losing our focus over past 60 years? Look at the quality of debate over the deal given to the armed forces by the Sixth Pay Commission? The letter written by the three service chiefs to the defence minister towards the end of August, asking that the decision by the government be put on hold pending consideration of the recommendations made by them has caused some sensation. At least one national daily took notice of the letter, and handed down a rebuke to the service chiefs. How are the services concerned with equivalence? Why have they shown the temerity even to compare themselves with the IAS? What's the fuss about?

It seems that the chiefs of staffs were exercised by one particular dispensation of the government on a matter that had been referred by it to the committee of secretaries at the instance of the ministry of defence. Precise details are of no general interest except that a deliberate decision seems to have been taken by the government to disturb the equivalence between the armed services, and the rest, to the detriment and disadvantage of the former. The officers in the armed services feel either that they have been brought down a peg or two in relation to their former peers, or the others have been hoisted above them. The result is the same. The officers of the armed services have been overtaken for reasons not known to them. Let us presume that there are very good reasons for the government decision. But those reasons are not known. Is it the public perception that the armed services must gracefully accept what they are 'granted'? Come on, they have a code of conduct: 'theirs not to question why'. What's the fuss about? They proudly wear the uniform. Isn't that enough?  Is that the message for the soldiery that public opinion has, or is it the view of a small coterie?

But what is the rationale of decision making? Of course, the rationale has been stated by the Pay Commission, you silly. But what are the assumptions made? What has been the experience of those who made the assumptions? Was there a single member in the Pay Commission who had actual combat experience? Did the Pay Commission appoint a panel of consultants who had the combat experience?

With the kind of non-violent struggle that secured for India its independence, there were visions of India relying on the police forces for maintaining the law and order, and making do with the very minimum of the armed forces. No nation could do without them because they were an essential trapping of an independent sovereign State. They would, of course, mainly be employed by and for the United Nations to maintain peace.

Some of the idealism started evaporating as early as October 1947 when troops had to be airlifted to Srinagar [Images] to stop in their tracks the murderous tribes sent there by Pakistan. But for this timely intervention, the Kashmir valley might have been an integral part of Pakistan. The Chinese aggression from 1960 onwards brought about some reorientation in thinking but there remained lurking doubts about them mainly on account of happenings in Pakistan. Was it not important to ensure that the armed forces did not damage the polity? They needed to be kept in their place. Therefore, the basic outlook did not undergo a serious change.

The two fundamental tenets that guided the decision makers in India seem to have been:

  1. Every rupee saved by cutting down on 'unproductive' expenditure on armed forces was for the national good.
  2. The armed forces needed to be controlled and kept in their place by subordinating them to 'civilian control'. This in effect has meant control by the civilian bureaucracy because except when war is imminent, the actual decision makers have little time for professional soldiery.

Even now the scope of the current debate is narrow: it has been reduced to scoring of debating points by the advocates of the armed forces, and their opponents. The debate is missing out on more substantive issues. In any case, what has to be decided now cannot be postponed indefinitely. Will the service chiefs be satisfied with just another consideration by the government? The immediate problem has to be addressed: the hemorrhaging of the armed forces by early exit of disenchanted or disappointed persons has to be staunched. But that would nowhere be enough.

We in India need to move ahead at this stage, and seriously question what has been taken for granted for last six decades. But would that be enough to meet the national requirements? Or, do we require a separate pay-commission for the armed forces? We may have to go further than that. There may be a need for addressing the whole gamut of raising, equipping, manning, and governing the armed forces so that their effectiveness as a national institution is assured till, say 2040. The nation must know who will bear arms for it, and why; the market forces are poor arbiters in this matter, although gods as of now seem to have taken up their residence in the market place.

Here is a rather sad quote from Rudyard Kipling's Epitaphs of the War, 1914-18:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Will we deserve something better?

Lieutenant General Ashok Joshi (retired) is a former Director General of Military Training, Indian Army.

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