Recent cases of mutinous behaviour by troops, including increasing incidences of assault on their own officers, have caused much comment in the media and within the circle of observers of military affairs. Much has been written about the possible causes. Growing chasm between officers and troops, caused by a shortage of officers, has been pegged as a major reason. The growing aspirations of the Jawans in the changed socio-economic environment is another. While all that is quite true, it is ironic that the problem is not only the increasing gap between officers and the men they command. It is, interestingly, also the DECREASE in this gap. Let me explain how.
The army is a hierarchical organization out of necessity, with the clarity and rigidity of the chain of command being an essential functional parameter. The system mandates that an order given by a senior officer has to be followed. There is no scope for discussing or questioning orders – specially in operations, despite the fact that execution of an order in this case may more often than not imply putting one’s life and limbs at risk. For a soldier to act on such an order unhesitatingly, he needs to be sure of two things.
Firstly, he has to have implicit faith and trust in the officer’s intention and integrity. That the officer will act in the best interest of the cause as well as in the soldiers’ own best interest within the bounds of serving that cause. For example, this means that the officer will not expose them to unwarranted risk for the sake of personal glory and awards. Secondly, he has to have faith that the officer is more competent and better informed than him to take that decision. If he is not convinced of this, he is likely to question the prudence of the officer’s decisions and fear the possible outcome of acting on them.
Faith and trust is gained over a period of time in interaction with the men and admittedly the shortage of officers and associated issues has resulted in officers spending lesser time in direct interaction with troops. But in my opinion, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to time spent in building this trust. It is less about how much time, but more about what is done doing during this time. If a young officer is on small arms firing ranges with his troops, is he standing at the firing point coaching the firing details, running up to check targets with them every time? Or is he sitting under a fly tent or a tree and watching from a distance? Besides, it is not only the conduct during time spent with the troops. An officer’s conduct at all times contributes towards trust building – or loss of trust. How does he conduct himself on and off parade, or what is his attitude towards use (or abuse) of regimental and government property. A combat unit is not unlike a joint family, where nothing remains hidden for long.
The point is that shortage of officers resulting in less time being spent with troops is not necessarily the only or even primary reason of decline in the level trust between officers and men in some units. The overall standards of deportment of the officers possibly has a lot to do with it.
The second aspect is a little more complicated. Traditionally, there was a distinct difference between the backgrounds of officers and men – social, economic and educational. This gap led the soldiers to believe that the officer was “better” than them and therefore qualified to lead them. While it may sound elitist, it is indeed a hard fact. So, although the officers and men of those times shared a close bond which withstood tests of time and extreme dangers, there was always an unspoken but clearly recognized gap between them. It was the acknowledgement of this gap that formed the superstructure on which the chain of command is based.
But today the gap in backgrounds of officers and men has narrowed from both ends – the officers and men are coming from less dissimilar backgrounds socially as well as economically. Even in terms of levels of education and awareness, the Jawans are closer to the officers than ever before.
This proximity on one hand, and the difference in status, emoluments and quality of life, on the other hand, is not easily accepted by the new generation of soldiers. The unacceptability is compounded by the fact that officers do not necessarily display the desired degree of probity and trustworthiness in their dealings. Thus, in instances where Jawans perceive high handed behaviour or unfairness on the part of their officer, they resort to actions ‘prejudicial to good order and military discipline’.
Amongst the factors discussed above, shortage of officers and growing similarities in the backgrounds of officers and men are not likely to be altered in the foreseeable future. What can be changed is the manner in which the officers prove themselves both – worthy of trust, and more competent than the men they command.
There needs to be a concerted effort in the Academies, Young Officers courses and in the units, to sensitize budding and young officers about these aspects. Greater emphasis needs to be paid to developing key military competencies amongst junior officers, and all officers need to be ‘officer like’ in their deportment at all times. Else, if this slide continues, many more incidents like Samba and Leh are inevitable.