On January 8 this year, a media tsunami was triggered by a series of videos posted on social media by Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav of 29 Border Security Force Battalion, who was then deployed on the Line of Control in Punch Sector. His videos were picked up by national news channels and soon, everyone in the country was witness to the poor quality of food served at his post. His commentary also insinuated corruption in the supply of rations. Soon more videos by others posted in different parts of the country surfaced. These ‘soldier reporters’ from the Armed Forces and the Central Armed Police Forces were highlighting a host of issues that covered the entire gamut of conditions of service.
The Armed Forces and the Central Armed Police Forces, true to tradition, responded by defending the system and with terse statements that the ‘aberrations’ would be investigated. The media took up the issue with a vengeance, implying that these aberrations were the rule rather than exceptions. The retired fraternity, which itself had a divided opinion on these issues (between the officers and the other ranks), joined the debate on TV media.
These debates were acrimonious and circled around three core issues.
The poor conditions of service with respect to rations, habitat and redressal of grievances. There were allegations that the relationship between ‘privileged’ officers and ‘suffering’ soldiers is skewed. Related to this was the issue of sahayaks, who it was alleged were being misused as personal help.
As the debates got louder, it seemed as though the Armed Forces had been pulled down from the pedestal on which they had been placed by the same media and public. So much so that on January 13, former Chief of the Army Staff General Shankar Roychaudhry told Times Now’s Anand Narasimhan, “Thank you, Anand, for slapping the Army so hard. You have done enough damage to the institution of Armed Forces tonight.”
These are serious issues that require serious thought, rather than headline-making statements alone. I shall primarily focus on the Indian Army, but the same would generally hold true to a great extent for the other two services and the Central Armed Police Forces.
No army can fight and win battles if the officers do not lead and the men do not willingly follow them. To this end, the officer-soldier relationship of the Indian Army is of the highest order. Like all hierarchical organisations, the officer has a higher status, better pay and allowance and better quarters than the soldiers. This is equally true in civil life. Egalitarianism is a goal of all societies and over the centuries the Armed Forces have also strived to give better conditions of service to the soldiers. All soldiers understand this and I have never seen any soldier begrudge the same. The Armed Forces have a good system of administration and at the worst of times, soldiers are well looked after. However, there is always scope for reform in pursuit of excellence.
What ails the system?
Are these videos the manifestation of disgruntled soldiers exploiting the social media or are there genuine problems being brushed under the carpet? In my view, the truth lies in between. The Armed Forces, being non-productive organisations funded by the tax payer, generally have absolute standards enforced by equally absolute rules, regulations and military law. Yet all leaders and the led are individuals with their own limitations of emotional quotient. Enforceable rules and regulations bridge the gap to ensure an organisational ethos/culture. Our current problems are due to relative shortfall in leadership standards and inter-dependent shortfall in enforcement, which is the responsibility of the same leadership.
There is no gain saying that as far as the physical needs for battle are concerned there should no difference between the officers and the soldiers. Yet until a few years ago, there was a major difference in the protein content and variety of rations between the officers and the soldiers. The meat scales of soldiers was less than half of officers. They were not entitled to eggs and a number of other items like cheese, butter and coffee etc. Soldiers were compensated by higher carbohydrate content. For over a century, this was explained away by citing rural food habits and nature of physical work. As late as 2007, my recommendation that the rations must be the same was unanimously rejected at the Army Commanders Conference, which the highest army forum. Credit must go to AK Antony for having bridged this gap up to 80 percent. In my view, there should be no difference in the rations between the officers and the soldiers.
The ration supply system in the Armed Forces is centrally controlled by the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters for dry items and Command/Corps/Area/Divisional Headquarters for perishables. The executing agency is the Army Service Corps. There is rampant corruption in the system of supplies leading to 20-25 percent loss of quality/quantity. For example, the minimum weight of eggs laid down is 48 grams per egg and a dozen eggs weighing not less than 600 grams. The ones supplied generally weigh 25-30 grams. Forty percent of the loss of weight for a million eggs per day supplied to Northern Command means 400,000 less eggs per day. That is nearly Rs two lakh at current prices. I have just highlighted one aspect as the issue was personally investigated by me in 2007. Of course, there are checks and balances and units are not supposed to accept less or sub-standard supplies, but the enforcement is poor. The higher leadership is responsible for this unpardonable lapse. The entire chain of supply of rations needs to be cleansed of corruption. This is one aspect that the Defence Minister and the higher leadership cannot afford to neglect.
The infrastructure of the cook houses and soldier messes also leaves much to be desired. Cook houses are primitive and in field, non-existent. Modern appliances are limited and hygienic conditions very poor. The food lacks variety and is not menu-based. This is primarily due to lack of supervision and enforcement. There is a glaring difference between the messes of other ranks and officers, which needs to be bridged. As compared to a Western Army, the infrastructure, quality and quantity of food is barely 60 per cent. Ample scope exists for improvement.
Have I painted a bleak picture? Let me say that despite all the shortcomings, food in the Indian Army is wholesome and tasty. I have shared the same food as the soldiers for long and it was no different from what I ate at home. Yet as I have highlighted, the scope for reform exists.
On the issue of sahayaks (known as the batmen), it should suffice to say that in battle, operational areas and field exercises, these soldiers are a necessity for officers who need assistance in their personal administration and battle tasks. This enables officers to reconnoiter, plan and lead the troops. In peace stations, the misuse and abuse for household chores is rampant and the sooner the sahayak system in its present form is done away with, the better it would be.
The proposal of civilian stewards in my view is a retrograde step. The concept of ‘followers’ was done away with to reduce the tail and having the burden of non-combatants in the battle zone. Even in peace stations, there is no need to reintroduce it. It should not take an officer more than 20 minutes to get his uniform ready. Alternatively, the existing sahayaks should strictly work for a fixed duration per day to only upkeep the officer’s uniform. This is to avoid sudden change which is necessary when units are in field for training or to mobilise for war from peace stations. Officers are quite capable of and should hire servants for household chores.
Let me give you an example from the 1950s to mid-1960s. My father’s pay varied from Rs 1100 to Rs 1500, from the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel. The following servants were employed:
Cook@ Rs 40-50
Dhobi @ of Rs 40-50
Safaiwala Rs 20-30
Mali @ Rs 20-30.
Roughly Rs 100 in the 1950s and Rs 150 in the 1960s, ie 10 percent of the pay, was spent on personal servants. Today, a Colonel gets the pay of approximately Rs 1.6 to Rs 1.8 lakh per month. Ten percent of his pay can be used to hire (at least) two full time servants at the national minimum wages. For the junior-most officer, it would be possible to hire one full time servant. The misuse of sahayaks in peace stations for household chores is not an exception and must stop forthwith.
The idiot box
The media storm rubbished the redressal system within the Armed Forces, which is incorrect and unfair. A very robust redressal system exists from a platoon right up to the Centre and thereafter, there’s the Armed Forces Tribunals for all personal and service-related grievances. By and large, the system is good and functional. The only flaw is the inordinate delay in decision-making, which needs radical reforms. A period of six months has been laid down for decision-making when representations are made to the Central Government and the Chief of Army Staff. In actuality, no decision is arrived at before one and a half years and more often than not, it takes longer. The system needs to be streamlined with automation and decentralisation.
On the issue of airing grievances or exposés on social media or through anonymous complaints, as per Armed Forces rules and regulations and the Army Act duly approved by the parliament, it is forbidden and is a punishable offence. It is mostly resorted to by disgruntled soldiers to get even with the organisation. All such cases must be investigated both for the complaint/grievance per se and to assess whether the existing redressal system was utilised or not. Remedial and disciplinary action against those that failed the system to redress the grievance/complaint must be initiated if complaint was genuine. However, if the soldier did not utilise the redressal system, he must be punished. This is no shooting of the messenger, but the very basis of military discipline.
At best of times, the Armed Forces all over the world have had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the media and India is no exception. From the days of Waterloo and Crimea, militaries have felt that the media does not adequately support the war/conflict effort, interferes with mission accomplishment, lowers the morale and needs to be ‘managed’. The last thing the media wants is to be controlled and managed, notwithstanding its own biases, influence of the financiers/owners and the indirect pressures of the governments. The media tends to propose that the Armed Forces are a non-productive organisation, financed by the tax payer and must be investigated and held accountable, warts et all.
Upto the 1990s, mainstream media (print and TV), while treating the Armed Forces with kid gloves, struck a fine balance. But as the public became news hungry and TV media proliferated, the trend became ‘good news’ is ‘no news’. The Armed Forces started getting mostly negative coverage and responded with ‘rationing of information’ and opacity. In balance, I would say that our mainstream media remained benign to the Armed Forces, which over the years developed too many warts in their character, efficiency and functioning in peace and conflict.
With the dawn of the 21st Century, and proliferation of computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones, a new, real “bad ass” medium – social media – has emerged. Because of its potentially infinite reach, it empowers the common citizen to be a role player in the information domain. It also drives the information flow, shapes opinions, politics and governance. In fact, it also drives mainstream media, which often picks up information posted by ‘citizen journalists’ and now ‘soldier journalists’, and then turns it into an ‘exclusive scoop’ by picking the brains of overeager, publicity-hungry panellists.
This was exactly how the story of ‘privileged rogue officers and suffering jawans’ played out. Each panel discussion became more irrational with new storylines emerging each day. These were seized by eager and aggressive anchors who went overboard and even insulted retired generals and a retired Chief of the Army Staff.
The original story questioned whether these were genuine grievances from soldiers or false narratives, but this was lost in the cacophony. At no stage did the media give the impression that it was rationally trying to focus the attention on the reforms required in the Armed Forces.
The conduct of the media is more disturbing on one more count. For a couple of years, the media (along with nationalistic political establishment and public) has been responsible for a deification of the Armed Forces. It reached such ridiculous levels that when the well-meaning people advocated the urgent reforms – including those being trumpeted now with respect to National Security and the Armed Forces – being branded as anti national.
After this deification, how does the media reform the Armed Forces on the pedestal? By pulling its “rogue leadership” down from the pedestal and dragging it in the dirt! This is exactly what the media did to the Officer Corps of the Armed Forces which invited the anguished lament of General Shankar Roychaudhry.
The way forward
Empirical wisdom is that the Armed Forces rarely reform themselves from within. It is normally the government, parliament, media and the public that force the reforms. This has been the experience of all modern states. Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, which led to radical reforms in the USA, was the result of relentless pressure of the media, the public, and an enlightened Senate. Sadly, all these elements or their equivalents in India, are behaving like “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan” with respect to National Security and the Armed Forces.
My advice to the mainstream media is to first educate itself regarding the reforms required with respect to the Armed Forces and National Security, and then launch a relentless attack to force the same through rational coverage/debate; and not by a quixotic, ignorant attack.
My advice to the the Armed Forces is to initiate reforms from within before the ‘ignorant’ runaway with them. My former comrade-in-arms Captain Raghu Raman says, “The Army is not the nation’s conscience keeper.” I say, “We are the best, let us reform, measure upto our own high standards and actually be the conscience keepers of our wretched country!”
My advice to the Government is set to up an empowered commission and bring about a Goldwater Nicholas type of act. My advice to the parliament is to force the Government to be serious about National Security and reforms in the Armed Forces.
Last but not the least, my advice to the Generals and other veterans appearing on news channels is to avoid doing so unless the ground rules of the debates are rationally framed.In their present form these debates serve no purpose and certainly don’t help the Armed Forces to evolve to be the institution that the country needs them to be.