Need to quickly redress officer-soldier discords in Indian Army

Over the past year, the ministry of defence and the three defence services have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Thus far, it was primarily a matter of them being ill-equipped for war because of corruption in acquisitions and lack of performance of indigenous development.

But during the past few months, focus has shifted to a deeper malaise, particularly in the Indian Army.

What was projected as a self-serving stand taken by Gen V K Singh in the matter of his retirement and the twist given to reported movement of troops towards Delhi, hogged much national attention.

This has been followed by reports of collective insubordination and serious officer- soldier discord in two major incidents and the latest standoff in Samba which have truly focused attention on matters of welfare, command responsibility and morale within one of the best professional standing armies in the world.

Add to it, over 100 soldier lives are lost annually to suicides and fratricide. That the Navy and the Air force have come out largely unscathed is attributable to their minimal deployment under stressful conditions. It is necessary and urgent to diagnose the malady that has inflicted this great institution which was, till recently, lauded as the last bastion of values in an otherwise polluted environment.

Courts of enquiry will certainly find out the exact causes in each case but the problem no longer appears to be in the nature of isolated incidents. The incident in Ladakh reportedly resulted from unfounded rumours. But why did soldiers believe rumours and why were their officers found wanting in reassurance? Obviously, mutual faith has been a casualty.

Faith and camaraderie no longer seem to be the legendary bonds that they once were. A discerning mind will indicate several possible reasons ranging from the immediate to the underlying.

First, the intimate and regular interaction between the soldier and his commander on the PT ground, a game of football in the afternoon and a frequent tot of rum shared in the company langar has weakened.

Is that because there is only one officer available in a company against the authorised strength of four or is it because the officer is now busy building his career with a pen and not with sweat on the field. Is it because emphasis has shifted from playing, eating and spending time to learn when his wife is due for a delivery or if his old mother is ill.

Blood in battle

 Traditionally platoon and company commanders were expected to know their men and their concerns to the last detail. Sweat on the play ground was an insurance against blood in battle. This relationship is all the more critical when troops are deployed away from their families for unduly prolonged periods. Stress levels are high and the emotional safety valve is non functional.

Second; Officers were known to stand for the rights, privilege and welfare of their men. They were expected to take risks for their men while pressing for leave, quality of food and promotions etc. There was complete sharing of privations and risks. The soldier did not need to go beyond his platoon or company commander for solving a problem.

 Today, he thinks nothing of going to the commanding officer and may quite often contemplate legal solutions. Does he find the officer disinterested about those issues or does he find the officer helpless in the matter?

In either case he would tend to seek redressal at higher levels, and may sometimes feel tempted or compelled to taking matters into his own hands. Is it that the tight command structure leaves little to the initiative and discretion of junior leaders?  Is it a case of the zero error syndrome prevalent these days?

Junior leaders are no longer encouraged to take decisions and risk making mistakes. A commanding officer now feels vulnerable to even silly little errors by bubbling young officers. All he needs is to project problems or represent with his superior and he is likely to end up with a 7 point report – enough to deny further promotion. So, it’s take no risk and make no mistake. The typical ‘Cover Your Ass Syndrome’.

Of course there are serious basic reasons underlying these behavioural changes. First and foremost, the officer has lost self esteem because he has been robbed of his due Izzat. He no longer perceives himself as an important person charged with a national responsibility. It is now seen as just another lower order employment opportunity.

No wonder that the quality of young men applying for a commission in the armed forces has come down several notches and many get selected for officer training on the strength of grace marks at the Services Selection Board.

And yet, a third of all vacancies go unfilled. Training courses, attachments and leave, result in units (already working with hard scales) being left with just 7 to 8 officers at any one time. Even they are required to spend much time on station duties like boards of officers and members of courts of enquiries etc.

On the other hand, the soldier today is better educated and his awareness levels and aspirations are much higher. It is natural for him to find fault and criticise the system - a tendency that is infectious and damaging to discipline in the absence of timely reassurance. It is time to take serious cognizance and provide the much needed healing balm before things get out of hand.The least that needs to be done is to take urgent steps to make the profession of soldiering a lot more attractive.

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