Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why the government needs to heed their anger

The Supreme Court order directing the Union government to constitute an Armed Forces Grievances Redressal Commission would have been an outrageous encroachment on the part of the judiciary into the sphere of the executive, were it not for the gross failure of our governmental system to do justice to the armed forces. Swamped with the corruption issue, there has been no comment from the government, but the Supreme Court “direction” sounds remarkably like an executive order.  It marks a new and somewhat unexpected turn in the shoddy history of the higher management of the armed forces of the union by our political and bureaucratic class.
The order states that there will be a commission headed by retired Supreme Court justice Kuldeep Singh, with retired high court judge S.S. Sodhi, former army chief V.P. Malik and former vice-chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi as members. The Union government has been asked to nominate its representative— a retired or serving civil servant as a fifth member. The panel will look at grievances like one-rank, one pension but also “other disparities and anomalies, without limiting the scope of reference.” In other words the entire gamut of military-civil relations. 
In a recent address at the National Defence College, former Army chief Ved Malik detailed how the committee system for higher management of defence degenerated to an hierarchical system where the civilians established themselves as a tier above the armed forces. “On the pretext of establishing civilian political supremacy over the military, the... system gave civilian bureaucracy stifling control over the armed forces, the like of which does not exist in any other country of the world.”
In the process, the military has been isolated from the national security policy, planning and decision-making process. This in turn has led to the present stand-off and the bitterness with which the Indian officer class views the civilians.
In my view, the enormous anger and frustration and sense of injustice of the armed forces officer class against the government is not so much in terms of salaries and pensions and the like—though that is not unimportant—  but more in the treatment that is meted out to the armed forces of the union in terms of their relationship to the Mother Government. The armed forces are treated like a step-child, while the biological or favoured children are the civil servants who constitute the ministry of defence. Actually, the problem resides in the very structure of the government, where —in government language— the biological progeny of the government is the ministry, and the armed forces have an adopted or attached status.
The sense of injustice felt by military personnel emerges from certain facts on the ground. A letter of a senior army officer to   Sonia Gandhi in 2007 pointed out that at that time, a Brigadier with 29 years’ service stood equated in terms of pay and precedence, with a police DIG and an IAS officer of Director rank with just 14 years of service. In terms of pay, at 17 years service an IAS officer gained an edge of 12.9 percent in terms of higher emoluments over an army officer with the same length of service, and at 25 the gap increased to 17.3 percent, and at 31 years, it was near 25 per cent.


In India reform comes after a military shock, and so it came after the Kargil war when after the report of the Kargil Review Committee, the government constituted a Group of Ministers which suggested a slew of far ranging reforms in the defence management of the country and in that of its police and intelligence services. The GOM has recommended that the step-child status of the Service Headquarters be changed and that they should be “integrated” with the ministry and the key Transaction of Business rules be modified to reflect this. But the empire struck back subtly. The babus decreed that the service headquarters would henceforth be called “Integrated  Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence” and tweaked the TB rules a bit, but everything else remained the same. In the words of one retired army chief, the officials went along with the letter of the GOM decision, but have resolutely defied it in spirit. 
The political class has been even more lackadaisical; it refused to make the key appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff who would integrate the strategic planning of the services and serve as the single-point military adviser to the government. Instead of creating modern institutions to cope with the politico-military challenges of the new era, the politicians have allowed the babu raj to continue. The result is that the country’s higher defence management system is, to put it simply, dysfunctional, awaiting the next military fiasco to trigger the reform.
Individual service headquarters remain aloof from government and run on the two file system. So files with the services plans and policies are given to the ministry which then creates its own files and moves it to the Cabinet for approval. The armed forces are not shown the file and its key notings; decisions are merely conveyed to them for execution.
The system that India needs is evident enough. It is being practised in UK and Australia. Essentially it has brought about a reform that ensures that higher defence management is a partnership between the civilians and the military. The highest defence decision-making body in the UK is the Defence Council, which is the legal body to think about defence issues in the UK where all the ministers of the Ministry of Defence, its top civilian bureaucrat, finance adviser, science adviser, the three service chiefs, the chief and vice-chief of defence staff and the chief of materials meet about thrice a year. But the practical work is done by the Defence Board, which is non-ministerial and meets once a month.
In India, there is no institutional set up. Yes, the Defence Minister has his seemingly impressive weekly meetings with the Secretaries of his ministry, the chiefs of staff and scientific adviser, Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and a monthly one with his own ministry officers. But neither of these meetings has the legal powers and status that their British counterparts enjoy. The rigour of the British process is apparent from the fact that the agenda of the meetings of the Defence Council between 2000 and 2007 are posted on the internet, available for you and me, and, obviously for the average British citizen, to see.  
But partnership cannot be created through institutional structures alone. It can only come through mutual respect between partners— a genuine acknowledgment of each other’s abilities and functional responsibilities. Anyone who deals with the armed forces and the bureaucracy knows that they view each other with thinly veiled contempt. In great measure this is because of the babus’ efforts to keep the armed forces in a subordinate status.  And unfortunately, the politicians have acquiesced in the process of mutating the Constitutional requirement of civilian supremacy over the armed forces into the supremacy of the bureaucracy.
The people returning their medals and burning their prosthetics are not cranks and trouble makers. They have had a history of dedicated and disciplined service. They do have their faults—they tend to privilege their patriotism over that of others. That’s irritating at times, but it is also part of the elan which makes them charge up the hill in the face of certain death.
They feel they have been short-changed, hence they are angry and frustrated. This is not a good state of affairs, it promotes cynicism, undermines the morale of the services and encourages a climate of corruption. This is bad for the country because of the functional role the armed forces play in the life of a nation state—they are the ultimate guarantor of its security.
It’s the government’s job to fix the problem, and it hasn’t being doing so; the Supreme Court’s intervention is another warning of the gravity of the situation.
This appeared in Mail Today November 18, 2010

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