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Why are some army officers becoming Dabangg?

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
May 14, 2012 12:34 IST
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Is the Nyoma incident, where a group of army officers allegedly thrashed a jawan for alleged misbehaviour and then defied their commanding officer, an aberration?

Or is the matter more serious than what the army is making it out to be?

Colonel Anil Athale (retd) explains the origins of this Dabangg-giri.

Without the bedrock of discipline, the armed forces would be reduced to a group of violent men. The Nyoma incident, in which a group of officers allegedly thrashed a jawan for alleged misbehaviour with a lady and then went on to defy their commanding officer, can well be dismissed as an aberration.

As the Indian Army has asserted, it was an altercation and NOT a mutiny. But the collective insubordination by a group of officers certainly comes within the legal definition of a 'mutiny'.

An oft repeated saying is worth quoting here: 'There are no good or bad soldiers, only good or bad officers!' It is this aspect in the deterioration of the quality of officers that ought to be the 'real' worry for the nation.

Frankly speaking, an odd incident of this kind taking place in a 1.1 million-strong force is not abnormal. In the past, similar -- even more serious -- instances of indiscipline did take place.

About 30 years ago, an officer occupied a post on the Line of Control near Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir and declared 'independence'! In the 1970s, a Gorkha battalion revolted due to mismanagement by a bad leader over the issue of food!

These incidents have been known in army circles for a long time, but never received the kind of media attention the Nyoma incident is getting. What is new is the media coverage and wider impact this incident has on the discipline and morale of the whole force.

The media actions have a 'multiplier' effect that was absent in the past. It is also necessary to see the incident in the wider national context of 'climate of impunity'.

One notion that needs to be dismissed out of hand is that this incident was some sort of 'class' struggle between the officers and men. For unknown to most armchair critics, the majority of officers in the armed forces today belong to the same socio-economic strata as the jawans.

An overwhelming number of officers today are from the lower middle class; many are themselves the sons of jawans. In addition, close to 20 per cent of the officers are promotees from jawans.

As a matter of record, in the 1970s, four out of the top five generals of the Indian Army had started their careers as jawans. Incidentally, the so-called 'backward classes' are in a majority in the officer cadre.

Without fanfare or reservations, the army has indeed been an 'inclusive' organisation, but has steadfastly (and rightly) refused to divide its members on caste or communal lines. The so-called 'class conflict' theory cannot explain the happenings in Nyoma.

The army chief versus defence ministry standoff has certainly vitiated the climate in the armed forces. As I mentioned earlier, in this ill considered open fracas, the nation and its armed forces have been the losers. Both the principal actors in that sordid drama cannot wash away their responsibility in creation of a climate of defiance.

But there are wider issues that the Nyoma incident has raised. One has to come to the painful conclusion that the actions by a group of officers are more reflective of the wider social malady of taking the law into your hands and the expectation of being able to get away with it.

The Nyoma incident is thus more a reflection of the total collapse of the criminal justice system in India as well as a void in leadership.

Climate of impunity

With Dabangg heroes and 'Rowdys' as role models, Bollywood is making its own contribution to the general lawlessness. Our esteemed 'leaders' routinely misbehave in Parliament in full view of the television cameras to set an example.

I do not claim legal expertise, but common sense seems to question the fact that such large numbers of VIPs, actors, relatives of politicians, policemen seem to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively.

The infamous Jessica Lal murder case to the actor convicted under TADA in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, the BMW hit and run case, the fodder scam convict, actors accused of killing black bucks, all seem to have got away.

Judicial delays seem to ensure that their cases will continue till eternity! Nothing can otherwise explain the rational calculation of the group of officers in Nyoma who thought that they could also get away with their Dabangg-giri.

Even more intriguingly, to the best of my knowledge, one has not heard of a single person being charged or convicted of perjury or lying under oath in the last 60 years!

Have all Indians turned truthful Harishchandras? Do we live in Satyayuga where everyone spoke the truth and only the truth!

At least the judicial system seems to think so. This rampant practice of lying under oath seems to have brought our criminal justice system to a standstill.

When no one gets punished, why worry about a small matter of thrashing a jawan seems to have been the thinking in the minds of the bunch of officers in Nyoma.

Being an Indian Army veteran is not a license to criticise current incumbents. One is acutely aware that the challenges to the armed forces' leaders have multiplied manifold.

A jawan today is far more conscious of his rights. The old paternal leadership, that was rooted in the traditional rural background of the jawans, has broken down. There are pressures on the men staying away from their families due to the break-up of the joint family system.

To top it all, the increasingly aggressive media puts all the actions of the armed forces under a microscope! Added to this is the constant engagement in internal security duties.

The job of leading men is indeed a formidable one. But given honesty and fairness in dealing with men, the jawans are capable of delivering the goods. But for the officers to carry out their difficult job, society also needs to do its bit.

If the nation has to survive, it needs efficient and disciplined armed forces. But the armed forces do not exist in a vacuum, they reflect society and its ills.

The Indian Army will certainly give exemplary punishment to all concerned (as it did for instance in the Tehleka sting operation case). But unless society at large and the judicial system end this climate of impunity by delivering timely justice and punishing the mighty, some army majors some other time may well think that they can get away with being Dabangg!

If these incidents become the norm, it will result in the collapse of the system.

Let us not forget that the British ruled India with barely 60,000 people on the basis of 'rule of law' with the consent of the majority of Indians for over a hundred years.

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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
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