Sunday, July 18, 2010, Chandigarh, India A Tribune Special: It’s time to give our defence forces their due, says Maj-Gen Pushpendra Singh (retd)Illustration: SANDEEP JOSHI
India faces the gravest external and internal security threats today. Pakistan and China are colluding in besieging the nation from all land and sea frontiers and the Af-Pak end-game will, certainly, aggravate the situation.
Internally in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiya, aided by anti-national elements, including some political parties, has unleashed a virulent psychological war to curtail the operational freedom of our security forces. In central India, China-sponsored Maoists have inflicted demoralising setbacks on the CRPF.
However, their prime target is the defence forces, which in people’s eyes epitomise the best in India by virtue of proven valour, self-sacrifice, character and national commitment. Pakistan and China regard it the only obstacle to their proclaimed intentions of dismembering the country. Yet, the Centre and the states, politicians, peaceniks and Maovadis continue merrily playing into their hands.
Foremost is the government itself which has kept the defence forces precariously short of critical weaponry. Ships, submarines, aircraft, artillery, infantry modernisation and strategic weapons — all remain dangerously deficient even 25 to 30 years after these requirements were first projected. While some procurement preliminaries have commenced, their induction and assimilation would still take many years. Can India afford to lower its guard for close to half a century? Yet, responsibilities in the Ministry of Defence are deliberately diffused. No Defence Minister or bureaucrat can ever be held accountable. Some field commanders may get the sack, a la Kargil!
Some days ago, a Parliamentary Committee ‘reviewed’ preparations on our frontiers. Our infrastructure is woefully short, they stated, China is way ahead of us. Did it really take a Parliamentary Committee to discover what has been articulated by the Army for decades? The Chinese railway to Lhasa took a quarter century, but babustan seems to have just woken up to its game-changing reality.
The campaign to dilute the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has the militants and their sponsors salivating at the mouth. To get a perspective, we need only compare current counter-insurgency conflicts. The US uses artillery, aircraft and other heavy weapons against insurgents. Collateral damage is accepted – after all, making an omelette entails breaking eggs!
To avoid incurring heavy army casualties, even Pakistan employs such stand-off strikes against its citizens in the Afpak region — disregarding civilian lives. In contrast, our Army endeavours to avoid any civilian casualties, consciously uses only small-arms, necessitating face-to-face fire-fights — a high-risk, high-casualty option. Hence, militants often use civilian shields to engage the army.
As regards civilian deaths, over 95 per cent have been found baseless. In all proven cases, exemplary punishments have been expeditiously awarded by the Army’s justice system. Despite such commendable restraint, the life-and-death AFSPA decision will be taken by people who have never handled the butt of a rifle, leave alone fancied its business end. The Army will thus be forced to fight with both hands tied. Will it result in another partition? Only time will tell.
While all democracies ensure that servicemen’s sacrifices are nationally recognised and rewarded, India is unique in cheating them of their dues and attempting to undermine their prestige. The mandarins in the Ministry of Defence are perceived to be in the forefront of this unequal ‘corporate war’ against the defence forces. The rank-pay case is illustrative.
The Fourth Pay Commission (1986-1995) unambiguously awarded rank-pay in addition to basic pay. But babustan deceitfully deducted it while fixing the basic pay. Thirty-odd years afterwards, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the affected personnel. However, the Ministry of Defence has filed a review petition, despite having paid these very dues to Major Dhanapalan for 12 years. Is Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily listening?
A Right to Information (RTI) application sought to know how many Supreme Court judgments had been honoured by the Ministry of Defence without facing contempt of court? The MoD sections for Army and Navy gave evasive replies, but the one for Air Force replied, ‘Not One!’ No wonder in Sidhu vs Union of India, Supreme Court Judges Justice Markandeya Katju and Justice A.K. Patnaik made scathing comments against the government in admitting defence personnel’s emoluments and pensions.
The apex court asked the MoD counsel, “Is this the way you treat our army officers who are bravely defending the country’s borders? It is unfortunate that you are treating them worse than beggars.” Only, after much grovelling by the counsel did the court consent to keep some, even more incisive, comments off-record.
No wonder, despite Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence having repeatedly asked the government to grant one-rank-one-pension, babustan constantly cites its inability to do so. Ninety-five per cent of IAS and IPS officers, all judges and scores of other categories already have this pension, yet it is found impractical for defence forces!
On July 7, 2008, a blast in Kabul killed Brig. Mehta and IFS officer V.V. Rao. The Ministry of Defence awarded family pension and other routine benefits for Mrs Mehta. However, for Mrs Rao, the MEA specially sanctioned lifetime full pay and retention of the official bungalow. Clearly, discrimination dogs defence forces even beyond the grave.
Officer shortages have been endemic now for so many decades that the issue has been killed by bureaucratic strangulation. The figures are alarming except for a don’t-care government. Some 30 per cent officers are deficient overall. However, in battalions and regiments in combat zone, the shortage of young officers soars above 55 per cent! With the government taking pains to deny honour to our heroes, to treat them as ‘beggars’ for every crumb of ‘largesse’ which is the norm for other services, is it any wonder that suitable youth no longer opt for the ‘honour’ of defending the nation – a sea-change in just a few years? Yet, even as officer-shortage is a severe handicap in the current proxy war, it may well result in reverses should there be a border war.
Consider the plight of ex-servicemen (ESM). Nearly 20,000 medals and awards have been handed over to Rashtrapati Bhavan in several batches. But the Supreme Commander has neither met the ESM surrendering their precious medals — emblems of sacrifice for the nation she symbolises — nor even acknowledged their concerns.
Soldiering is still a tradition in India. Even today, sons (and daughters) follow their fathers into the Army. Naturally, when their elders are treated shabbily by the government, it impacts their serving kith and kin. The forces cannot be isolated from their forebears, but the blind babustan fails to see. Its ESM Welfare Department, modelled on the US Veterans’ Department, has no defence officer. The USA’s is headed by a combat-experienced Lt-General, a Cabinet member.
Simultaneously, a sinister campaign to malign the forces has been launched by our enemies. The media, obsessed by circulation or TRPs, has willingly or unwittingly become their cat’s paw. Take the so-called Sukna scam involving the No Objection Certificate (NOC) for a school on private land — No money changed hands. Yet this non-issue was used to tarnish the Army image in reams of newspapers and hours of TV bulletins.
Now compare these column-acres and TV-hours, with the minuscule coverage of braveheart Colonel Neeraj Sud, martyred on June 23, 2010, while personally leading his troops fighting militants. Also compare the homage paid to CRPF casualties by the Union Home Minister, Chief Ministers and high dignitaries, with the military-only national honours for Colonel Sud.
An eminent journalist, while being appointed to a reputed national daily, was told by top management, “circulation is our sole dharma; national interest is not our concern!” So true! While covering the Kandahar hostage crisis, newspapers and TV channels unleashed competitive emotional reports with footages of hysterical relatives. Finally, the government was compelled to swap JeM chief Masood Azhar plus two terrorists for the hostages. The rest is history!
We need to emulate the American media after 9/11. It stood solidly behind the US government and inspired the patriotic fervour and fortitude that swept the country after it.
In our context, recalling Kautilya’s wisdom is pertinent: “Pataliputra reposes peacefully each night... thanks only to the Mauryan Army’s vigil ...While citizens enable the nation to prosper, the soldier guarantees that it continues to exist.”
Governments can function (or not), the media can ignore national interest and politicians can shut down the nation, only so long as the nation exists. Therefore, some self-regulation, if only in selfish interest, becomes vital.
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