‘Fighter pilot !’ Whenever I introduced myself that way, while in service and now out of it, I could always espy a sense of awe and admiration. Yet, I have forever regarded the infantry officer more than anyone else. For, I have been mesmerised by his mettle to command unquestioned obedience from the men he led into battle when everyone knew a likely death lurked round the bend. But the soldier also knew that his officer would do his utmost to ensure the soldier’s safety, and thus reposed unwavering faith in his leadership and followed him in the charge, hollering the war cry. Infantry officers are moulded out of an extraordinary metal and they form a rare breed. And warriors like them are the ones who make soldiering the noble profession that it is. Where else will you find subordinates ready to live and die for you?
Unlike this sod, the Union government does not apparently think in such mushy terms about the image of its soldiers, sailors and airmen. Otherwise, it would not have compelled the three services chiefs to petition the defence minister to restore the existing parity with those from other central services, with respect to the Sixth Central Pay Commission (SCPC) awards. (A section of the media regrettably painted this as whinging and blackmail by the defence forces. Far from the truth. More than pay, what they are actually pleading is for the restoration of status and honour trampled hitherto by successive governments.) In response, the government has constituted a panel of three top cabinet ministers to address the discordant subjects (upgrade lieutenant colonel to pay band 4, place lieutenant general in higher administrative grade plus and restore pensionary benefits of personnel below officer rank) highlighted by the chiefs.
The forces had earlier raised several disquieting anomalies in the SCPC recommendations, and sought equitable remuneration for the kind of toil they do day in, day out. The government tasked a committee of secretaries to fix it. Given the composition of IAS officers in the committee, only a nincompoop would have expected justice for the servicemen. The committee should have conjured up adequate pecuniary compensation for the posts in which the officers have to serve long, and also where the deficit of officers was most grave. But instead of smoothening ruffled feathers, its prescription made more hackles to rise. The fear of antagonists sabotaging the hope for obtaining a fair deal had come true.
The Indian Infantry : An Overview.
Worse, the government twisted the knife in at a time when the three services were fighting a rearguard battle to attract talented candidates and to stem the exit of middle-rung officers. Not a soul in the government, evidently, has grasped the acuteness of crisis hobbling the armed forces. Nor has anyone attempted to fathom the depth of their discontentment nor estimate the fallout of the peacetime attrition. Small wonder then that the services, which lumped the humiliation of its systematic downgrading all these years, were forced to tell the nation that they have had enough. The high and mighty clearly had not heard of the idiom even a worm will turn.
Military vis-à-vis civil service: two universes
Forget the primary role of defending our national territory, waters and air space. Forget fighting the armed inimical elements in Jammu & Kashmir, the Northeast and elsewhere. Now the services are requisitioned to do the salvage job, every day. When the deluge ravaged Bihar, Assam, UP and Orissa recently, the army, navy and air force had to be marshalled to mount rescue missions. The civil administration was conspicuous by its truancy, making one wonder why crores are spent on such slothful and corrupt bodies, as the army will be SOSed ultimately. Mind you, these bodies are headed by IAS officers, the lot mainly responsible for the rotten state of governance in this country.
Not just natural disasters; they are summoned when the police bungle too. When a party of the anti-Naxal force Greyhounds was ambushed at Chitrakonda in the hills of Malkangiri district of Orissa on June 29, while boating in a reservoir, as the escape routes were heavily mined, the rescue operations had to be supported by air in marginal weather. The air effort and the team of 30 divers were provided by Eastern Naval Command headquartered at Visakhapatnam. Let me recall a recent newsbrief in a mainstream English daily as a primer to give you a peek into the contrastive ethos of the military and civilian universes. The vice chief of naval staff lamented that when the navy was called in for rescue and relief in inundated parts of Bihar, formal orders did not come in immediately from the government, and the financial head of the ministry of defence refused to release funds, forcing the navy to use its non-public funds to rush relief teams.
For the babu, the written order dripping officialese is gospel, does not matter if such devotion leads to the drowning of hundreds of citizens! The serviceman could be excused if he thought that he was being used by the politicians and bureaucrats to conceal their incompetence and to clean up the accumulated mess excreted by their rank misrule. The army, given the emasculation of the state police, will continue to be employed for internal security — counter-terrorism, and before long it will be tasked to crush the subnationalist forces and insurrectionists like the Maoists. With body bags set to become an everyday sight, how many parents will be willing to send their sons to this death trap? Since the very idea of India is at stake, both the polity and policy mavens need to put heads together to pre-empt the portent. But who, ensconced in ivory towers, cares?
The holy warrant of precedence.
Why is the State unconscionably shoving its boots on the face of the military? What explains its downhill journey in the warrant of precedence? Lately, in an article, retired Lt Gen Harwant Singh cited why the defence officers were being hard-bone-by. The bureaucracy, taking advantage of the Congress party’s detestation of the military, kept the pot stirred by raising the odds of a military coup, and worked up this fear to emasculate the status of the top echelon, at the cost of the nation’s overall strategic disadvantage.
A committee of secretaries revises the warrant of precedence periodically. Gen Harwant Singh writes that as the chief of defence staff in 1981, Gen O P Malhotra raised the issue of downgrading of service officers in the warrant of precedence (this has direct bearing on the pay). In response, the committee of secretaries recorded, “Military officers were placed unduly high in the old warrant of precedence, presumably as it was considered essential for officers of an army of occupation to be given special status and authority.” Mind you, it is not Mirwaiz Umar Farooq but the bureaucrats that called the Indian Army as an army of occupation!
Of course, Gen Malhotra riposted that the pliant colonial bureaucracy (civil servants and police) was the tool of oppression wielded by the Raj to quell the freedom movement, not the army. In fact, the strike of naval ratings in Bombay on February 18, 1946, that spread to major cities was what signalled to the British that it was time to pack their bags and decamp. Gen Harwant Singh rightly concluded that it was highly malicious for anyone to decry the Indian Army as an army of occupation. Once the political class colluded with the bureaucracy, there was no stopping the descent down the warrant of precedence. Perhaps the mandarins still see the military as an army of occupation, which should explain why they are pulling out all the stops to belittle it. Hence their effort to further throttle the services through the SCPC.
Course of action.
When I was commissioned into the IAF in 1984, the air force pilot had the highest starting pay among the central government Class I officers. (That is history; the Book has been overwritten several times.) Smitten by aircraft, bewitched by flying, fascinated by the frisson of foiling gravity, I joined the IAF. The smell of adventure in the air, the prestige associated with the uniform and the decent quality of life it offered were simply inciting appetisers. Oddly, till I was handed my first pay packet, after prevailing three rigorous years at the National Defence Academy and another exacting year at the Air Force Academy, I did not know what my starting pay would be!
Will I embrace the IAF again? I doubt. Gone are those days of chasing quixotic idealism to quench an inner itch. Now lads want to know how much their sweat will swell the bank account. Unless military service is made attractive, few will want to join it. Period. A decade back, an IAS officer of Maharashtra cadre, a friend, told me he had brought out a paper on the need for officers both military and civilian to bury the hatchet, complement each other, and work together for the larger cause of nation-building instead of cutting the other down to size. Although his supremacist brethren laughed his treatise out of court, I ditto his standpoint. Though carved out of the same governmental womb, the professions of arms and file-pushing are as different, alas as cold to each other, as the Ambani brothers. So, in the long run, the answer lies in delinking both the pay and stature of the armed forces from their civilian counterparts.
As the nature of jobs, career prospects, hierarchy, attributes, hardships and workplaces are poles apart, the very precept of inter se parity sounds disjointed. Actually it is preposterous to liken a major general with 33 years of service to a joint secretary having 17 years under his belt. The pyramidal promotion-prospects of the forces and everyone-makes-it framework of the civil services are beyond comparison. Therefore, prudence suggests that instead of indulging in structural tinkering through pay commissions, it makes sense to have a separate pay commission for the defence forces. That is the only durable solution. As for now, the recently convened ministerial panel must heed the cry of the armed forces and reinstate its stolen status and benefits. It is their due. High morale is the best known force multiplier.
A nation neglects its soldiers at its peril.