Integrate the nation’s defenders, don’t alienate them (Comment: Special to IANS)

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies from one public-relations triumph to the next in foreign capitals, discerning people back home have an uneasy feeling that they are in a schizophrenic trap. For a nation so resistant to change, India seems to be prematurely donning a mantle that, in reality, remains a distant vision.

Our cities, including the capital, are still choked with slums, garbage, debris and pollution. As industry lags, skilling of youth and job creation remain a chimera. The ‘unorganized sector’ reigns supreme: with hawkers, casual labourers, beggars and the unemployed thronging our streets, seeking a living. Venality and corruption are still rampant – albeit in newer formats – and the powerful cling to their privileges, protected by Teflon-coated skins.

Many pundits say that the NDA government is in its early days and still has 43 months to fulfill its grand promises. Given India’s huge potential as a market and Modi’s assiduous international efforts to garner FDI, one should, perhaps, withhold judgment on the NDA, for now.

However, such indulgence may not be appropriate in the critical realm of the nation’s defence, which brooks no impediments or prevarication. It is here that the NDA government has scored several ‘self-goals’ that are bound to have a deleterious impact on India’s national security.

The first instance relates to the clumsy handling of the military veterans’ demand for restoration of One Rank One Pension or OROP – arbitrarily taken away in 1973. Adopting an ostrich-like attitude, the NDA misjudged the motivation, endurance and campaigning skills of the nation’s military veterans. The prolonged stand-off has embarrassed the nation and hurt the pride of the soldier. Having allowed this sensitive issue to fester, the NDA government has itself to blame if the canker of politicization has irretrievably entered our military.

On September 5, everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar, flanked by the three service chiefs, ceremoniously read out a prepared statement meant to provide closure to the OROP imbroglio. However, as soon as he had finished reading, the veterans realized that the government had unilaterally reneged on several issues – diluting the OROP concept.

Moreover, in his statement, Parikkar made a mention of VRS or Voluntary Retirement Scheme, a concept that has never existed in the Indian military. Obviously, a ‘red-herring’ inserted by a mischievous bureaucrat, this rang alarm bells throughout the armed forces; not only because it would affect many serving officers, but because it suggested that the service chiefs had concurred.

Since no government letter or clarification has followed this fiasco, the veterans are convinced that a ‘confidence trick’ was played upon them and the Jantar Mantar agitation continues into its fourth month. The veterans have alleged that a ‘gag-order’ has been placed on media reportage from Jantar Mantar. If true, it adds yet another unsavoury dimension to this confrontation.

The second issue of concern is the fallout of this unending ‘tamasha’ on serving military personnel, as is clearly evident in social media discussions. Mention of VRS is being interpreted as a warning that servicemen seeking ‘premature retirement’ or PR, an entirely different concept, will be denied the benefits of OROP. This retrograde step will affect many in uniform today and demolish all efforts to keep the armed forces youthful and motivated.

Justified or not, a sense of frustration is palpable amongst the younger generation of Internet-savvy servicemen. They are bewildered why the senior military leadership is so helpless in countering the bureaucracy’s malevolent ploys. A frequently cited example is that of ‘non-functional upgradation’ (NFU). This bounty, bestowed by the bureaucracy upon itself, but denied to the military, has led to awkward situations, wherein personnel of support organizations like Border Roads, Military Engineering and Naval Armament Services have overtaken their military superiors in terms of pay-grades.

Which brings us to the third issue of concern: the long-standing, civil-military dissonance that is undermining our national security. The root of this problem lies in the deliberate creation of an asymmetry to ensure that ‘civilian supremacy’, meant to be exercised by the political leadership, is replaced by bureaucratic control of the armed forces. Successive pay commissions, all of which excluded military representation, have been used to reinforce this asymmetry with the politician’s blessings.

Nations worldwide have de-fused civil-military tensions and retained firm ‘civilian control’ over their armed forces, by subsuming them within the edifice of the government. Given the reputation of the BJP as a ‘nationalist’ party, there were fond hopes that it would bring about a dramatic shift from the Nehruvian tradition of disparaging the military and neglecting national security. This government’s inertia, however, conveys an impression that it is either hostage to the bureaucracy or colluding with it, to ‘keep the soldier in his place’.

Whether it is Swachh Bharat, Make in India or Digital India, such dreams can prosper only within the paradigm of a ‘Secure India’ guaranteed by our patriotic and motivated armed forces. A sagacious leadership can kill many birds by grasping this opportunity to launch a bold initiative of undertaking national security reforms, as promised in the BJP’S election manifesto.

However, events of the recent past dictate the immediate implementation of two vital measures: (a) like other democracies, the adoption of an Armed Forces Covenant that recognizes the nation’s moral obligation to the armed forces, and establishes how they should be treated by the government; and (b) integration of civilian bureaucracy and military professionals so that the MoD functions harmoniously to promote national security, rather than working at cross-purposes with the armed forces.

(06-10-2015- Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) is a former Indian Navy chief. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at arunp2810@yahoo.com)

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