Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Zero tolerance needed to stem Army rot
The day after tomorrow, on January 15, the Indian Army will commemorate the 52nd Army Day, the anniversary of the first Indian to take command of the army of independent India, General, later Field Marshal K.C. Cariappa. As days go, there is nothing unusual about it. There will be the traditional parade in the cantonment and the reception at the chief’s house later in the evening. But this Army Day, it will be difficult to avoid a dark sense of foreboding caused, not by the weather, but certain developments related to the discipline and good order of the force.
On Monday, the Army chief General Deepak Kapoor ordered the issuance of show cause notices to four of its senior generals. This would have been seen as an act of condign disciplinary action, were it not for the fact that the general has been visibly reluctant to act on the issue which involves his Military Secretary Lt Gen Avdesh Prakash, one-time Deputy Chief of Army Staff designate, Lt Gen P.K. Rath, Lt Gen Ramesh Halgali and Maj Gen P. Sen.
The four generals named above have been found to have crossed the red lines by a court of inquiry which has recommended that Prakash be dismissed, Rath and Sen tried by a court martial and administrative action be taken against Halgali.
This recommendation, relating to actions they took in relation to some land in Sukhna cantonment, has been upheld by the vigilance wing of the army headquarters. Such a recommendation is unprecedented in the annals of the army. As Military Secretary, Prakash heads all the promotion boards of the army and handles the postings of all officers above the rank of colonel and decides on the foreign postings of officers. The lack of an ethical compass in an officer at that level may have inflicted longer term damage.
Unfortunately, the scandal is only the latest in a line of revelations that have besmirched the image of the Indian Army. Last year, the army dismissed Major General A.K. Lal found guilty of molesting a woman officer. Responding to a question in the Lok Sabha in early 2007, Defence Minister A.K. Antony gave a list of 25 senior armed forces officers facing charges of corruption and financial irregularities. Among them were several general-level officers as well as people like ex-Maj Gen P.S.K. Choudhry and ex-Brigadier Iqbal Singh who were caught taking bribes in the Tehelka episode.
In the past and in a sense even now, it is not uncommon to have officers in the Army Supply Corps or the Army Ordnance Corps to be found with their hand in the till. However the recent trend, more alarming because of it, is that officers in the combat arms are being found guilty of moral turpitude and corruption. There was the 2004 case where an ex-major general, G.I. Singh Multani, was found to be selling military liquor by the truckload in the civil market.
Since British times, the Indian Army has owed its operational efficiency to the fact that it is deliberately separated from society at large. The military live in special cantonments, have their own canteens to buy things, their own schools to educate their children and so on. This ensures that the many divisions and tensions of Indian society are not reflected in military units which have long been rightly advertised as the best example of India’s secular nationalism.
In common with the military forces of many countries, the Indian Army is governed by a special statute, the Army Act of 1950 whose aim is to ensure swift and drastic action for any infringement of discipline and good order. To civilian eyes, military justice is too swift to be fair. That is not the case, but it is certainly draconian, something seen as desirable if the military is to be able to function at its best.
Military law and the summary powers, which are often devolved to unit commanders, emerged from the compulsions of organising armies and ensuring that they were able to be battle-ready at all times. For this reason, even in democratic societies, military law has a distinct draconian touch. But this is what has provided the army its unique ethos which evokes considerable respect from all sections of society in the country.
In earlier times, officers could be court-martialed and punished for “conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman” which could be anything from indecency and dishonesty to cruelty. In 2000, a Lieutenant General in charge of the Leh Corps was asked to put in his papers for being involved with another officer’s wife.
There may be a view that such matters are private and what happens between consenting adults is no one’s concern. But, and this should not surprise, people hold their leaders to a higher level of accountability than they would themselves. This is what accounts for the righteous indignation over the conduct of, say, erstwhile Governor of Andhra Pradesh, N.D. Tiwari.
Therefore, the government needs to do everything to ensure that the military leadership does not back away from the task of maintaining discipline and good order in its ranks. The government has created an armed forces tribunal to act as a civil court while adjudicating service matters and a criminal court when looking at appeals against courts martial.
But there is something more that can and needs to be done. The sense of honour is an important component of the ethos and esprit de corps of the military. That is why G.I. Singh Multani of the booze scandal and P.S.K. Chaudhry of the Tehelka fame were stripped of their rank as major-general. The government must now follow it up with stripping officers convicted of serious crime and moral turpitude of their decorations and distinguished service awards.
This has been done in the case of former DGP S.P.S. Rathore of the Ruchika molestation case almost as an afterthought. Public outrage pushed the Union Home Ministry to act swiftly on the matter. There is no reason why military officers convicted of various crimes and misdemeanours are also not stripped of their honours and medals.
To the civilian, a medal is a piece of metal with a bright ribbon. But it means a great deal to the person who wears it on his chest. The disgrace of being stripped of rank and decorations will add some teeth to the failing deterrent of military justice. Indeed, in the early 1990s, the then Defence Secretary not only ensured that a corrupt general was forced to leave the army, but his decorations were withdrawn. However, the sympathy of his brother officers led to their restitution later. Unfortunately, the response of many senior army officers to the Sukhna scam is that the Army can only be as good as the society it springs from.
The problem with the military of today is that instead of maintaining a tradition of zero tolerance, there is misplaced solidarity with brother officers. This is what has enabled Rathore to escape justice for so long, and this is what seems to have persuaded Kapoor to drag his feet in the Sukhna case.
What has happened in the police forces could well happen to the army if its officers start believing that they must stick together through the thick and the thin as a corporate entity. This attitude will hollow out the army’s discipline, good order and ethos, and eventually the whole country would pay the price.
The army has a great reputation as a national institution and instead of allowing it to “catch up” with civilian institutions in its failings, an effort should be made to show it as an exemplar of ethical conduct.
This appeared in Mail Today January 13, 2010