Armed forces must continuously strive to pursue excellence, change and reform to cope up with the dynamic security challenges and new technologies. For this, first, they need a culture that promotes intellectual thought to flourish and a leadership with a strong will for reform. Second, they require a political leadership that is well-versed in military aspects of national security, is receptive to advice, guides, finances and at times forces reform. Third, they need public respect and support. Finally, they need a media that reports and acts as a watchdog in a non-partisan manner.
On Sunday, October 8, a tweet I posted created quite a furore on social media.
The accompanying photograph was probably taken at the Guwahati air base and posted on WhatsApp by Army/Air Force personnel on October 6. These photos were in the public domain and the damage had been done. My decision to post this tweet was deliberate in order to highlight the current shortcomings that plague all four players that have a say in military reform. More so, because we have reached a stage that reforms will take place only when we shame ourselves.
The unfortunate accident took place during a supply dropping mission in the Northeast, close to the Line of Actual Control, most probably owing to the tail rotor detaching, as highlighted by the Air Chief himself. Ever since the Kargil War, bodies of soldiers killed in action or on duty are sent home in ceremonial caskets draped with the national flag. Formal respect is paid by the armed forces at a military base and then the bodies are dispatched to the hometown or village where the funeral rites are performed by the kith and kin and traditional military honours given by the armed forces. This procedure is on a par with most modern armies.
Generally, facilities to make caskets are only available at unit headquarters or bases. Herein lies the dichotomy. No military body bags are authorised in our armed forces. This is standard military equipment authorised in most armed forces except ours.
This is a most unsatisfactory arrangement as packing material, blankets, bed sheets and even gunny sacks, are used for initial transportation of the bodies, which is an insult to the fallen soldiers. Military Body Bags cost a pittance and can easily be stored at all posts and in units. This initial insult to the fallen soldiers stands out in sharp contrast to the ceremonials at the military bases and during cremation/burial. In earlier times, the soldiers killed in action were cremated or buried in field area itself and only the ashes were sent back home. In fact, the armed forces had a Grave Registration Unit that was responsible for maintaining a record. Nearly a decade ago, the Army Headquarters had taken up a case with the Ministry of Defence for authorisation of body bags. Given our warped bureaucratic procurement system, the proposal never fructified.
These days, with every soldier having a mobile phone, photos are taken or videos made of all activities. In this case, either by default or design by a ‘soldier journalist’, the photos found their way into the public domain.
The alert PROs of the Ministry of Defence and the public information officers of the armed forces failed to proactively respond to the disturbing photos for 48 hours. It is only when my tweet went viral and it led to a ‘Twitter war’ between the ‘nationalists’ and the ‘anti-nationalists’ that the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Defence issued a on its website and the ADGPI on Sadly, the perception battle had been lost. While they did try to highlight the problem of difficult terrain, they accepted that the transportation of bodies of fallen soldiers in the manner done was an “aberration” and in future body bags or coffins will be used. The irony is that Military Body Bags are not authorised in our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence should have clarified that body bags will be purchased on fast-track and given a timeline.
The only thing worse than ignoring or disrespecting the armed forces by the public is their deification. And if the public identifies the armed forces with extreme nationalism, it only compounds the problem. Any suggestion for reform or criticism of the armed forces is viewed as anti-national or anti-government. All aberrations are overlooked and reforms stymied. The tenor of the public debate on Twitter was a testament to this in all its crudity.
Once my tweet was posted, the bugle was sounded by the Lord Cardigan(s) – defence journalists/analysts known for their ‘nationalist’ credentials – and the Charge of the Light Brigade began. Like the Light Brigade pumped up with adrenaline and high on emotion, they galloped headlong into the irrefutable evidence of photographs and facts. Ceremonial photographs at Palam were displayed, the bravery of the rescue team and the degree of difficulty of remote posts was highlighted. The messenger was not only shot but literally blown to smithereens by abuse and whataboutery. His military credentials and patriotism were questioned. But in doing so and using the clinching evidence of photographs, they ended up drawing attention to the glaring contrast between the photo op display at Palam and the initial crude reality; and above all highlighted the sad but hard fact that when Military Body Bags are not authorised, only crude and makeshift methods will be used for initial transportation.
The battle royale continued until the ADGPI clarified at 19:09 hours and the Ministry of Defence at 21:08 hours that the shoddy and crude initial transportation was an “aberration” and that in future “carriage of mortal remains in body bags, wooden boxes, coffins will be ensured.”
About the media watchdogs, the lesser said the better. All TV media channels and newspapers had copies of the photographs on October 6 itself, but none broke the story. What they are afraid of only they know. Even after the news went viral only one TV channel, the whipping boy of the nationalists, NDTV, covered the news in detail. But I must place on record that a fair number of journalists, despite the deafening silence of their channels, rationally participated in the Twitter debate and supported the ‘anti-nationalists’. On October 9, most newspapers covered the story in detail.
The government had little role to play in this event. But since politicians are always high on rhetoric about military matters, the least that was expected was an apology for the sordid event and an assurance that Military Body Bags will be procured on a fast track.
My advice to the armed forces is to reform from within before they get forced by debacles or are shamed to do so. To the public, I urge, that respect and support the armed forces but do not deify them or identify them with extreme nationalism or the government since that will stymie reform. To the media, I would say that please pull your tails out from between the legs, at least on matters military, and act as a responsible watchdog to ensure reform. Finally, my advice to the government is that the armed forces are not a tool for domestic politics but your instrument of last resort. They must be owned, directed, financed, looked after and forced to reform when necessary.
As a veteran, I salute our fallen comrades and apologise for the disrespect shown to them on the way to Valhalla. In the first innings, as an Army Commander, I may not have done enough, but in the second innings, as an activist for reform, I will not fail you.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @rwac48.