The Indian Soldier and his struggle with change

On 10 October 2013, when soldiers of 10 Sikh Light Infantry beat up a couple of officers in the wake of an internal boxing competition, eyebrows were raised over the incident  across the Army. The incident acquired further salience because the current Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh also belongs to the same regiment, although to be fair to him it would be gross exaggaration and overreach to emboil him in the post-mortem of the event. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what was done by a section of the media. 

But blaming the media is akin to shooting the messenger. The fact is: the Indian Army is going through a churn and there have been at least four incidents of gross indiscipline and mini revolt within different battalions in the past two years, an inconvenient truth that cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet.

As I wrote in a longish paper for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses(IDSA) in March this year: “Although from disaster relief in floods, tsunami, and earthquakes to rescuing 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, as an instrument of the state the Army’s effectiveness is being blunted through a series of ill-advised and ill-thought out decisions.”

The Army remains rooted in an outdated, British-inherited system that is struggling to cope with the combination of challenges posed by demands of modern warfare and a society that is undergoing a great churn. 

This has posed a great challenge to the famous officer-men relationship in the Indian Armed Forces. In the past decade, the armed forces are faced with a new problem: increasing incidents of indiscipline, suicides and fratricide. Are these incidents happening because the traditional bond between officers and men, the bedrock on which the military functions, is fraying at the edges? Are there other external factors that are impinging upon the armed forces functioning and eroding some of its admirable values?

Some studies have been initiated to get to the root of the problem after it was noticed that more than 90 soldiers were committing suicide every year since 2003, going up to an alarming 150 in 2008. Adding to the worry is the growing cases of indiscipline and intolerance. In 2012 alone, there were at least three cases showdown between men and officers. At least 50-60 soldiers of an artillery unit clashed with a group of officers after a young officer allegedly beat up a jawan leading to near-mutiny among the soldiers. 

There were a couple of other instances where tension between jawans and officers boiled over, both the incidents happening in two different armoured regiments, one following suicide by a soldier. This set the alarm bells ringing in the Amy headquarters and although the top brass publicly maintained the issue wasn’t as serious as made out to be, Defence minister AK Antony n a written answer to the Lok Sabha, said: “The
incident of suicide by an army personnel on 8th August 2012 in the Samba sector of Jammu and Kashmir led to unrest.”

A former Vice-chief of the Army Staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi also says it’s a matter of concern and it’s time to take note. In a recent article General Oberoi says: “Three incidents of collective indiscipline by jawans in the last few months, reflecting a breakdown in the traditionally close officer-man relationship, are a cause for concern, especially as all three of them are related to combat units, where a stable and healthy officer-man relationship is an article of faith.”

Some others however maintain that these are isolated incidents and they should not be taken as an indication of a trend in as large an army as India’s with 1.1 million soldiers. But for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, these incidents should certainly serve as timely warnings. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of these acts of indiscipline: It’s time to ask the question– Is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers’ stress levels peaking dangerously? Making them prone to acts of indiscriminate violence?

There are no straight answers.

Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is an outcome of a combination of factors: Erosion in the soldiers’ status in the society, prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs, crippling shortage of officers’ in combat units and ironically easier communication between families and soldiers!

A psychiatric study by army doctors a couple of years ago on ‘Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts’ revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront, contradictions between war and low intensity conflict situations and particularly the concepts of ‘enemy’, ‘objective’ and ‘minimum force’. 

Some other findings were:

• In general war the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.

• A hostile vernacular press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.

• Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.

• Monotony, the lure of the number-game and low manning strength of units lead to over-use and fast burn-out.

Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors. The main worry are the problems back home — land disputes — tensions within the family, rising aspirations, lack of good pay and allowances, and also the falling standards of supervision from some officers, all these factors have led to major stress.

But there are many non-combat reasons that lead to stress.

During my travels in counter-insurgency areas, I have often come across company commanders telling me how, for many soldiers, tensions at home create unbearable stress. Often a land dispute back home or a family feud weighs heavy on the soldier’s mind.

For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Again, I have frequently come across a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation.

Add to it the fact that the society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. A local politician, a thanedar seem to command more clout in the society today. This has often led to loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie Paan Singh Tomar depicted, in some measure the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

As a former army commander had once pointed out to me: “You see he (soldier) comes from a society where he compares himself with others and when he realises that he is at a disadvantage since acceptance wise, the kind of respect that his predecessors had is no longer there.” 

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. It is precisely this concern that had prompted Defence Minister A K Antony to write to all chief ministers some years ago asking them to sensitise district administrations in their states to the needs of the soldiers. State governments were asked to set up a mechanism at district and state levels to address soldiers’ grievances.

And yet, the army must look within too.

Soldiers these days are better educated and consequently better aware of their rights. This, coupled with falling standards of command and control among some of the undeserving officers who have risen to command units, is becoming a major cause for worry.

As the armed forces are in themselves a microcosm of India, the rising education and awareness levels in recruits are easily perceived. A sea change from yesteryears is now visible in the hordes of young men who crowd recruitment rallies across the country. Most hopefuls are the educated unemployed youth who turn towards Military for acquiring early financial and social security. Educational qualification is Class XII on the average, many being graduates too. The stereotype of an innocent, less educated but hardy soldier is now a thing of the past. The officer base has also shifted predominantly to the middle class. This has further narrowed the gap between the ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’.

An acute shortage of officers at the cutting edge level is the other big factor contributing to an increasing gap between soldiers and officers. Against an authorised strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best 8 or 9 officers available to the Commanding Officer these days.

Very often young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.

So what is the way forward?

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. 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. The new fashion to dismiss them as outdated ideas
must be arrested. Military ethoses are not developed overnight and are certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in the society.

What however must be done is to eliminate the overwhelming trend to be a ‘careerist.’ The desire to advance career at any cost, to strive for promotion even by cutting corners and crave for awards as a means to boost chances of attaining the next rank has become a rampant practice amongst the officer class. Preservation of self has exaggerated that protection and advancement of career at all levels seems to have become a sine qua non for most officers. 

That must change. And that change must come from the top.

Finally, if the led are to believe the leader, the leader must walk the talk. Officers must believe in themselves and the system that they work in. They must take pride in the fact that the military is essentially different in its work culture, ethos, traditions and values from any other entity.

The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To remain relevant and effective, it must however embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership.

(This is an abridged version of my earlier piece for IDSA in March 2013)
  1. October 12, 2013 -

    Why these problems are more in Army than in Navy & AF ?? These people have also same problem at home, the rot lies in the British era attitude of Army Offrs, which they are not giving up. They must change now, see the other modern Armies across the world.

  2. October 13, 2013 -

    well in d case of navy or d AF offr men interaction is very limited.. u meet over work n dats it.. whereas in d army u r wid your boys 24*7.. u live wid them, eat wid them b out on ambushes n patrols wid dem.. wen u spend so much time together sometimes difference of opinion is bound 2 b there… but overall d offr n men relation is great.. in fact this is something wich AF and navy offrs r even jealous of 🙂

  3. October 18, 2013 -

    The gap between the led and those who lead is reducing. The officers who lead come from a part of society where finding that they can order around men and get any work done gets them to be ruthless while dealing with the men and demanding menial work from them. They want to project a higher level as officers in the society however the men are not so far behind in status. Also officers now are more pushy to get the next rank or appointment at any cost for which they are ready to sacrifice the welfare of there men, in fact they see the manpower as a source to please the higher ups. This is basically due to lack in training of officers how to deal with the men, how to look after welfare etc., this was somehow overcome by earlier children of officers joining the services and passing there experiences of what they saw to other newcomers. With children of service officer now choosing other lucrative jobs or not reaching higher position in service the guidance is lacking in the new breed of officers. It is like the saying if you give a knife to a monkey he is going to shave your head, that's what exactly majority of the new breed of officers are doing. Suddenly they have large men under them and authority to order them to do everything obediently like a slave. A slave also looks for a chance to get free or strike back, thats what the men are doing when treated like one.

  4. October 19, 2013 -

    After independence Army has not changed ,it is following old British customs and traditions we need to transform our Army to a national army imbibing our culture and our values.With the explosion of human consciousness ,Jawans are more aware and enlightened. Thr calibre of officers is steadily going down,they are career oriented, materialistic and nurse a feeling that they are shoddily treated by government as compared to bureaucrats .Yes, the family problems of officers and Jawans are the same now, Jaeans by virtue of being posted away are handicapped in protecting their rights back at home . Life styles have undergone a change too, all these factors create a feeling of inadequacy among Jwans which result in such behavior . Plight of veterans too is disheartening factor for the serving soldiers.

  5. October 19, 2013 -

    Duniya mein yaa to paisa bolta hai ya izzat (clout) bolti hai.Unfortunately, fauj mein paisa bhi nahi hai aur izzat bhi khatam ho rahi hai.Governors banao, aur fauj ko lutao.The new mantra.Everything percolates from the top, so does rot.

  6. October 19, 2013 -

    Media in consultation with Army can play a big role in restoring respect for the soldier in the society as they have to pick the blame for spoiling it due to their “breaking news” hungry attitude which has damaged both the social and emotional aspects of a soldiers life.This must be controlled even if it means taming the media under the rule of law.

  7. October 19, 2013 -

    Media in consultation with Army can play a big role in restoring respect for the soldier in the society as they have to pick the blame for spoiling it due to their “breaking news” hungry attitude which has damaged both the social and emotional aspects of a soldiers life.This must be controlled even if it means taming the media under the rule of law.

  8. October 19, 2013 -

    Thanks Gokhale saheb,Have taken liberty of not only Tweeting the total passage but have tweeted your selected portions also.A very good article & army/Min of dense can Learn some Imp lessons from here. samarjeet narayan

  9. October 19, 2013 -

    to say that ther is a lack in trainin wud b incorrect however the fact is dat wid d society changing ther is bound to b a change in the army as well.. n this is taking place.. give it some time… but the core values of the army r still emphasised on during trainin n even after dat… that is d main reason army still gets d job done even under harsh conditions and high pressure situations…..

  10. October 20, 2013 -

    An old soldier once quipped “I am comfortable with Fore-Sight and Backsight of my gun………so do not bother me with Insight and Hindsight….!”The genesis of these turn of events lie in three issues – none of which are being given more than lip service . The first is following laid down and traditional Unit Routine & Trg. The sys as a whole has got so used to attempting to impress everyone by doing Abnormal Things (…and rewarding those who do everything other than their job!) that it has forgotten that True Professionalism is “Doing Normal Things…. Abnormally Well”. What is probably more worrying is that the trend continues………The second issue is the shortage of `Good' Officers. We are so engrossed with the issue of shortage of Officers that we have chosen to side-step the core issue – the shortage of `Good' Officers. So systemic changes and actions which would ensure that atleast the existing officers get groomed & trained to be `Good' has been consistently been overlooked. What we have instead done is outsourced the task to the CO – who w/o adequate offrs of the requisite seniority and capability (remember all the competent, qualified offrs of worthwhile seniority are sitting in fmns pushing files) can actually do little. Imagine our plight where we feel a competent offr is by Qr more essential in the fmn then in the unit. What is surprising is that systemically it has been covered up by stating that it is for optimum career growth of offrs. Can one think of another org that places indl growth above Org well being? …..and would it not be right if this message that indl growth is more imp that Org well being is absorbed & Digested by all offrs in the sys! …..Then why blame them if the thirst after coveted appts and promotions…..that is what you taught them is'nt it!The third is the inability to select and train Junior Leaders – and then to instill responsibility and accountability in them – to make up for the shortfall of Offrs. It would not require rocket science to understand that QR and Seniority (the present mode of selecting Junior leaders) only leads to re-inforcing mediocrity. The failure to change to Merit-cum-seniority at least at the point of selection to JCO rank is most intriguing. How could you have a bulk of your Jr Ldrs selected on such mediocre criterea and expect them to suddenly become responsible and accountable – once again leaving the CO to do the grooming?Unfortunately these things require 'real work' to get done – who has the time or the inclination when i am only interested in my tenure…..?