A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon” Napoleon is said to have told the captain of HMS Bellerophon, which was transporting him to exile at St Helena in 1815. Much has changed in the world in the 200 years since – but the truth of this statement still holds as good today for soldiers across the world. The bit of coloured ribbon, with a metallic talisman attached at the end, is the ultimate reward a soldier gets for doing his utmost even while risking, and often losing, limb or life – a gallantry award as a token of appreciation and admiration by a grateful nation.
But not every commendable act or series of acts take place in the face of the enemy. Some acts of devotion to duty don’t involve physical courage or valour, but nevertheless exhibit extreme sense of selflessness – putting ‘Service Before Self’. And the corresponding rewards for such acts are medals for distinguished service. Like all awards, these are meant to highlight commendable acts, encourage the awardee, and motivate others to emulate.
Then there is a third category of ribbons and medals adorned by service personnel. These are not really ‘awards’, but given as a matter of routine to mark completion of a particular length of service (nine years, twenty years), or for serving in a qualifying area such as high altitude or specified operational areas. These are colloquially referred to as ‘free ration’ medals – a term originating in the fact that prior to the eighties, the entitlement of free rations for officer extended only to those serving in field areas, which were generally the same as the qualifying areas for such ribbons and medals.
With that in mind, consider the following rank-wise breakdown of recipients of the 184 distinguished service awards announced this Republic Day:-
- Lt Gens – 51
- Maj Gens – 37
- Brigs – 43
- Cols – 45
- Lt Cols – 05
- Majs – 03
- Capt / Lt – Nil
- Persons Below Officer Rank (PBOR) – Nil
The army is authorized a total of 81 Lt Gens, 274 Maj Gens, 1044 Brigs and 4013 Cols. Thus 63% of all serving Lt Gens, 13.5% of Maj Gens, 4.1% of Brigs and 1.1% of Cols have been recognized for distinguished service. And, ostensibly, not one out of the over 10,00,000 personnel below the rank of officer performed any act qualifying him to be recognized for devotion to duty.
In June last year, a terrible disaster struck Uttarakhand. A massive rescue and relief operation was launched, that involved thousands of soldiers. They worked tirelessly and selflessly to provide succor to the victims – the image below tell a small part of this great story of service before self.
The fact that not a single one of those thousand soldiers was chosen to be recognized on Republic Day with a distinguished service award doesn’t speak very highly of the entire system of awards. Agreed, that there are other, lower awards –Commendation Cards of the Chief and Army Commanders, which would have been awarded to quite a few of the PBOR including those involved in the rescue operations. But the non-inclusion of any of the lower ranks amongst the higher awards, and the explicit rank bias exhibited in the percentages above, suggests a clear co-relation between rank and recognition for distinguished service. This is something that negates the very purpose of such awards – viz, distinguishing the extraordinary from the ordinary. It undermines the significance and the value of such awards.
There is no denying the fact that any individual who rises to the upper echelons of the steep pyramid of army hierarchy does so based on outperforming his peers. The reward for such differential performance is the promotion, which is pretty elusive in itself. But duplication of such performance parameters with qualification for distinguished service awards cannot be justified. Thus, the bar for what can be considered as ‘distinguished service’ should be raised with the rise in ranks. This would ensure that at every level of rank and service, individuals who perceptibly differentiate themselves from their peers by performing outstanding service are duly recognized by such awards.
Otherwise, if we continue this trend unabated, distinguished service awards may soon be reduced to glorified ‘free ration’ medals for senior officers.