It is unfortunate that of late the armed forces have begun to be perceived as fair game by a section of the media, which seems to take vicarious pleasure in taking pot shots at them without even bothering to do their due diligence. Perhaps the shenanigans of some senior officers in the recent past is responsible for this attitude, whereby they feel that they can trash the services including their chiefs with impunity, with little or no organizational repartee. The editorial ‘Soldierly Silence’ in Indian Express is the latest example.
The content of the editorial range from flippant (“Where’s India’s Navy Chief? …. Surely Admiral Verma is letting his service down by keeping them out of it) to ridiculous (“…. insensitive statement to make of another force, still bereaved and grieving”). Gist of the opinions expressed is that service chiefs are making points to the political class in full public glare through the media. It has gone on to draw parallels with the Sixth Pay Commission issue. The piece seems to gloss over facts, relies heavily on appearances and assumptions, and, to my mind, is wrong in its basic premise expressed in the title – that the soldiers must remain silent sentinels, to be seen only in grave emergencies, and not to be heard at all.
Firstly the Army Chief’s statement in question. As reported in Indian Express itself, the Chief spoke of the “internal deficiencies in training and other things” which were being analysed. He also spoke of the performance of the Army being better in the context of the training being carried out with the units and subunits as an entity being the reason behind it. Compare this with the statement of the Home Minister, quoted in the same article – “Our role from day one is to only assist the state governments …. we will provide paramilitary forces to the state governments to regain territory lost to the Maoists so that the state governments can restore the democratic process…”. It’s interesting that the newspaper feels the Army Chief is trying to “evade blame”, while the Home Minister’s remarks do not evoke similar reaction.
About the veracity of the Chief’s statement – another newspaper, which took the trouble of sending reporters to the site rather than relying on sound bites in the corridors of South Block and preachy pieces from air conditioned offices, filed this report from ‘Ground Zero’. As per this report, “CRPF jawans at the camp report that they had not been imparted any jungle warfare training …. were new to the area and had received only normal CRPF training..” So it is not understood whether Express wanted the Chief to lie about the standards of training in keeping with the ‘sensitivities of the bereaved force’, or to evade the questions altogether. Remember, the remarks of the chief were in response to a direct question asked, and not a statement issued in a press conference.
The projection of CRPF as a force “still bereaved and grieving” is hopefully a ridiculous figment of the newspaper’s imagination. A professional force cannot be likened to a mourning widow, too caught up in grief to be able to take immediate corrective actions through dispassionate analysis of the shortcomings leading to the martyring of its men. By that analogy, an army should be numbed by grief into complete inaction after the losses in the first few days of any war. Such a suggestion therefore is a far greater insensitivity and an insult to the professional credentials of a force than the remarks about shortfalls in training, which could be due to exigencies of service.
A reputed newspaper must be more sagacious about expressing its opinions. Why must it assume that in a matter of such great national importance, the Army and other forces need to indulge in one-upmanship? Why does it display lack of confidence in the Army Chief to act out of anything but best national interest? Or question the authority of one in whom the nation reposes its trust to guard it against external and internal threats, to talk about issues concerning such threats. Irrespective of the extent of the involvement of Army in countering Naxalism at this particular stage, it cannot but continue to remain an active participant in the decision making process as the ultimate tool of the state on which the onus to react would fall if all else fails.
The editorial, in the end, also brings up the issue of the Sixth Pay Commission, drawing parallels. Indian Express, it may be remembered, was vociferously critical when a stand was taken by the three service chiefs about implementing the recommendations after the anomalies were addressed. A widely circulated editorial castigated the chiefs for “defying the cabinet’s authority”, a creative obfuscation blurring the lines between the prerogatives of the cabinet with the diktats of the bureaucrats. The Chief’s stance was in keeping with the age old Chetwodeian Credo of placing one’s command before any considerations of personal interests, and was ultimately vindicated. In what was probably a completely unrelated turn of events, the editor was shortly thereafter awarded the Padma Bhushan. The relevance of linking that episode with the current context is not understood, unless the newspaper wishes the armed forces to maintain ‘silence of the lambs’ whether it is on matters of national interest or of injustice to the ranks.