India, Respect the Soldier

If you ever wanted an example of how high education – Western education, that highly valued, albeit inflated, commodity in India – does not bring wisdom, one just has to read architect Gautam Bhatia’s downright disparaging and insensitive article on the National War Memorial in a leading newspaper early this week, titled: ‘Don’t battle over new war memorial; settle for old.’


The author is supposedly educated in the United States and has also executed several projects in that country. He should know how the Americans honour the men and women in uniform, both dead and serving. ‘Thank You for serving,” is a common refrain in public spaces there when common citizens come across soldiers. First Class Passengers and service personnel board planes on priority in the US. Across Europe, nations as diverse as Belgium, the UK and even Turkey are commemorating and remembering the sacrifices made by millions of soldiers who died in World War I.

More than 70,000 Indian soldiers died fighting that war in distant lands, a memory better preserved in Europe than in our own country. Sample what French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch said about Indian soldiers in 1927 while inaugurating a War Memorial in Paris: “Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way; they made the first steps towards the final victory.”

But people like Gautam Bhatia will never bother to learn or understand what soldiering means. Despite his Western education, he is no better than the uncouth and uneducated minister from Bihar who had remarked last year, “Soldiers join the army to die.” At least we can give benefit of the doubt to the minister but when elites like Mr Bhatia write, ‘Aren’t soldiers who join the army, aware of the dangers of their tasks? Isn’t death the unfortunate but inevitable by product of war?’ All that we can do is pity his intellect. Or is Mr Bhatia driven to criticize the war memorial because he is not likely to be part of the project? Because twice in his article he laments the fact that an international consortium/a foreign architect might undertake this project. Is this the main issue?

Society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. They may pay lip service in times of crisis but that’s it. Bihar politician Bhim Singh’s utterly tasteless remark that “people join armed forces to die,” in the wake of the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control is symptomatic of the bitter reality. Although forced to withdraw his remark, the Bihar politician symbolizes how a large section of Indian society view soldiering. Mr Bhatia, sadly, is also of the same ilk.

And yet, from disaster relief in floods, tsunamis and earthquakes, to rescuing an infant prince from a deep tube well, and from quelling rioters in communal strife to being the last resort in internal counter-insurgency operations, the Indian Army is omnipresent. It is India’s Brahmaastra – an ultimate weapon.

The versatility, adaptability, selfless attitude and resourcefulness of the Indian Army have allowed it to be what it is today: nation builders. Viewed in the context of India’s immediate and extended neighborhood, the Indian Army’s stellar role stands out in stark contrast to its counterparts in other countries.

Remember, Indian and Pakistani armies originated from the same source: the British Army. And yet, six decades since they parted ways, there couldn’t be a bigger dissimilarity in the way the two have evolved. As they say, India has an army while the Pakistani Army has a nation.

Despite India’s increasing dependence on the army to pull its chestnuts out of the fire time and again, the Indian Army has scrupulously remained apolitical. It has put down fissiparous and secessionist forces within India with great cost to itself over these 66 years. It has protected India from within and without.

The Indian army also has a unique distinction of helping create a nation (Bangladesh) in the neighborhood and then quietly walking away to let the people take charge. By contrast, the Pakistani Army has never really allowed democracy to flourish in its country. Instead, it has created a military-industrial complex that has spread its tentacles in every aspect of governance. Even today, the Pakistani Army does not let go of any opportunity to undercut democracy; it nurtures and treats jihadi elements as its strategic asset against India and the United States.

So who or what makes the Indian Army so distinct? Simply put, its leaders and its men and their ethos of “service before self.” From the early days of independence, Indian military leaders – stalwarts like KM Cariappa, Rajendra Singhji, KS Thimayya and later Sam Manekshaw – led the forces from the front and provided a strong moral center that has remained more or less intact; some very regrettable instances of moral and monetary corruption notwithstanding.

Since independence, one institution that has remained absolutely free of communalism and divisive tendencies is the Indian Army. When caste and religious differences have beset the country’s politics and society at large, the army has stood firm against these divisive forces. It has thus stood the test of time and has consistently upheld and protected the nation’s constitution with unflinching loyalty, making a major contribution in nation building in the first six decades of India’s existence as an independent, sovereign nation.

However, as India marks its 68th Independence Day, I am not so sure if this great institution can withstand the buffeting it receives both from within the Ministry of Defense and beyond.

Why has this happened? Mainly because in India, civilian control of the military has become synonymous with bureaucratic control. The political executive, barring a handful, neither has the knowledge nor any interest in military matters, and therefore, it depends completely on inputs from the bureaucrats who continue to mould the political leadership’s thought process according to their own perceptions on governance and administration.

The effort to cut defense services down to size had begun immediately after independence. Before 1947, the status of the Commander in Chief (C-in-C) in India was second only to that of the Viceroy. As a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, he was also the de facto Defense Minister. The role of the Defense Department was not to examine proposals, or to sit in judgment over the Army Headquarters, but was restricted to issuing orders in the name of the Government of India.

67 years after Independence, it is no secret that the political-military interface is all but absent in India’s institutional set up. The armed forces are completely under the day-to-day as well as policy control of the MoD. The desirable politico-military interface is now reduced to weekly, sometimes fortnightly meetings chaired by the defence minister. According to several former chiefs I have spoken to, these meetings are informal, without any agendas or note taking and have no official status – although in theory, the defence minister is deemed to have given policy directions in these meetings.

Over these six decades, the bureaucracy continued to acquire disproportionate powers vis-a-vis the service chiefs and now it’s a given that the defense secretary and not the service chiefs, is the single-point adviser to the Cabinet on military matters. The defense and Cabinet secretaries have a consistent interface with the political leadership, as the service chiefs attend the meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) only if invited.

So the defence secretary, a generalist IAS officer and not the military brass, is responsible for national defense as well as conduct of war. Under the current rules, the service chiefs have neither been accorded a status, nor granted any powers in the government edifice. In the process, it is the service chiefs who were marginalized from the decision-making bodies.

So is there a way out of this logjam? Can the status quo ever be broken?

It is here that the leaders – the officers – will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. But we must reset the ties between the average citizen and the Indian soldier, because without the soldier and without the army (and I mean all the three armed forces here), the Indian State cannot hope to survive.