You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Features
Business Standard

Out of line: An army under fire

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

A barrage of damning revelations have raised troubling questions about India’s best-respected institution. But is there even a semblance of an effort to confront or acknowledge, let alone fix the problem

On April 27, 2007, while a dazed United States military was being battered by the resurgent insurgency in Iraq, a mid-ranking US Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, published a brutally frank assessment of the failures in American generalship that had led to the bloodying of the world’s most powerful military machine. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal, a private magazine focused on defence, Yingling urged the US Congress to fix accountability for the debacle in Iraq, lamenting that, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Yingling’s article raced across army chat rooms, combat bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military seminar halls. Hard-hitting, incisive, and loaded with statements like, “The intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship,” the analysis pushed America’s senior military leadership towards acknowledging, confronting and acting to fix the problem.

India’s armed forces, alas, have neither a Paul Yingling nor a culture of interrogating and addressing serious internal problems. With revelation after damaging revelation — including financial misappropriation, sexual misconduct, fake encounters and influence-peddling — placing troubling question marks over the internal health of India’s best-respected institution, not a single serving officer has thrown out a Yingling-style challenge.

Rot at the top?
This silence has endured even through the recent revelations about the improper allocation of multi-crore apartments in Mumbai’s tony Colaba area to a bevy of generals and admirals. The Adarsh Housing Society affair, which has riveted the country’s attention, is not just about the apparent abandonment of ethics by three service chiefs and five officers of three-star rank. Worse, it is about the alleged subversion of army postings to keep Major General Tej Kishen Kaul in Mumbai so that he could keep the file moving while a succession of key military commanders in Mumbai and Pune were handed out flats, allegedly in exchange for their silence.

“Corruption exists mainly within the senior ranks,” avers Major General Afsir Karim, a retired paratrooper with a reputation for probity. “Bad apples manage to get into the organisation… after all, the (military’s) selection system has no psychological check for integrity. As the officers rise and start getting opportunities to make money, they surround themselves with a coterie of staff officers and subordinates who are quickly subverted… the corrupt pull each other up within the system. And from them the rot spreads to other parts of the military.”

Echoing this assessment is a former army commander, well-known for his honesty, who ran afoul of his boss after instituting an inquiry into evidently corrupt purchases of equipment. He describes the insidious disillusionment of idealistic young officers who gradually realise that the values that were catechised during their training are hardly reflected in day-to-day unit life.

In their training academies, officer cadets are indoctrinated with Field Marshal Chetwode’s motto: “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.”

On being commissioned into their units, however, these young lieutenants often encounter a different reality. An increasing number of units in peace stations focus less on training than on “career-enhancing” activities like officers’ mess parties and ladies’ club functions, which commanding officers believe would please their bosses or, even better, their bosses’ wives. Meanwhile, youngsters who are posted to the field, or to counter-insurgency operations, come up against a pressure-cooker insistence on success at all costs; after all, the promotions of bosses all the way up the line hinge on operational accomplishment. With so much at stake, fake encounters and false reports are desperate options for creating an illusory world of success.

‘Five-star’ culture
Old-school generals say that this new environment of flexible morals and professional dishonesty has inevitably spilled over into the handling of money. Traditionally indifferent, even disdainful, towards money, senior officers are now developing a yen for what the military has always disparaged as the “five-star culture”.

“The military had a culture of its own and never felt the need to imitate civilian lifestyles,” says General Karim. “You met civilians, even socialised with them, but you always came back to your mess life. Today, many senior officers want a lifestyle that cannot be supported by military pay and allowances.”

Rising alongside the appetite for money, has been the opportunity to gather it illegally.

“The money that an officer handles rises exponentially as he is promoted up the chain,” explains a former army commander who prefers to remain unnamed. “With defence budgets boosted by a growing economy, each of the six field army commanders oversees budgets today that are in the hundreds of crores.

Take the example of the Udhampur-headquartered Northern Command, where the commander, a lieutenant general, controls an annual budget of Rs 2,500-2,700 crore. Large chunks of this are spent at his sole discretion, including “special financial powers” for Rs 100 crore, and another Rs 15-16 crore for obtaining intelligence about militants.

“I could simply order my staff to give me Rs 20 lakh to pay a political source for important intelligence,” says the former army commander. “I wouldn’t need to provide proof that I had handed over the money to anyone. I could justify the expenditure simply by stating that I needed a political perspective.”

Such opportunities for corruption abound. Northern Command’s budget for rations is about Rs 700 crore per year, with another Rs 100 crore allocated for hiring civil transport. The budget for operational works, i.e., constructing bunkers, lighting and temporary housing, is over Rs 250 crore. And, inexplicably, Northern Command has retained with itself — despite several attempts to transfer this responsibility to New Delhi — the job of buying rations for troops deployed on the Siachen Glacier, an annual expenditure of some Rs 40 crore.

Other formations handle smaller budgets. But all these contracts come loaded with the potential to explode into public scandals.

Lieutenant General R K Nanavatty, who headed Northern Command at the start of this decade and was feared and respected for his unwavering rectitude, says that he could see the current crisis coming: “I have always said that the biggest danger for our army was the gradual degradation of moral values. I could see morality eroding and this worried me because trust is the basis of military functioning.”

Time for action
A key concern among soldiers, serving and retired, has been the military’s lame defence in the face of credible allegations of wrongdoing like those around the Sukhna Land allocation and the Adarsh Housing Society scam. Many believe that frankly acknowledging the problem and taking exemplary action against corruption would protect, perhaps even enhance, the military’s public image.

“Why should we wait for the civilian agencies to prove criminal guilt?” asks former army deputy chief, Lieutenant General G D Singh, widely respected for his integrity. “We have our own code of conduct, which does not rest on court orders or judgements. When an officer is clearly corrupt, we should ostracise him from our community; none of his peers should even speak to him; he should be treated as a pariah.”

Considering that officers who were commissioned in the mid-1970s are generals, admirals and air marshals today, it is a paradox that the military often blames the changed background of those who now join as officers for the decline in values and standards. Far more likely, say the more discerning observers, is the “osmosis of values” that stems from increased interaction —across all ranks — with society in general. This takes place in many ways: cantonments, earlier located well outside towns and cities, are now almost indistinguishable from the rapidly expanding civilian colonies that have surrounded them. The army’s growing counter-insurgency commitments bring soldiers into close contact with civilians, and with the institutions of governance. Meanwhile, the growing reach and intensity of the electronic media beams the civilian world into the remotest military outposts.

Most officers today are keenly aware of the world outside the barracks and are deeply cynical about the declining mores of civilian institutions. Officers, and even soldiers, ask: With the political class, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police and even the media deeply compromised, how can they point a finger at the military, an institution synonymous with honour and sacrifice? But underlying that question is a more troubling one: With corruption everywhere, is it possible for the military to remain unaffected?

The current army chief, General V K Singh, publicly declared while assuming office last April that restoring the army’s “internal health” would be his focus. The general has his task cut out for him.

First Published: Sat, December 11 2010. 00:17 IST