Crisis of Confidence

When I joined my Regiment in 1989, amongst the first few mandatory requirements as part of my initiation, as instructed by my senior subaltern, was memorising the names of all the Commandants and Risaldar Majors of the Regiment since it’s raising. Once I could rattle off these names even in my sleep, I was handed the list of every officer who had been commissioned into the regiment before me to memorise as well. Fortunately for me, my regiment was just 17 years old when I had joined, so the tasks were not as difficult as it was of those of my coursemates who had joined outfits over 200 years old. Because, as I found out when we exchanged notes a few months later during our Young Officers course, similar orders had been passed to all of us youngsters. Over the course of the next few years, I had the privilege of personally meeting almost all the officers and most of the Risaldar Majors who’s names were now an indelible part of my rote memory. The importance accorded to its veterans is the mark of a good Regiment, is something I learnt as I grew in service. Regimental traditions and linkages with the past are an important ingredient of espirit de corps of the forces, and veterans of any unit are the living link between its present and past. And what is true for a unit as a microcosm, is also true for the army as a whole too.

Given the inherent discipline and ethos of the armed forces, coupled with a recent downward trend for tolerance of professional dissent of any kind, the availability of feedback to those at the apex is restricted to that received from a limited circle of close advisors on his personal staff. More often than not, these filter unpalatable inputs, no matter how relevant and significant. Subordinates down the chain of command have very limited formalised means to express their opinions on issues affecting them directly. The archaic system of expressing them formally via Sainik Sammelan points, Quarterly Staff Intelligence Report (QSIR) points, points for the Army Commanders Conference, or, in extreme case, through Demi Official letters or the Redressal of Grievances (ROG) mechanism, are not only unsuited for the current day and age, but have also proved ineffective in terms of any results achieved. Serving officers cannot, of course, take to social media to air their grievances publicly – at least not without serious repercussions. In such an environment, the veteran community serves as a vital feedback mechanism. Given their continued integration in the social fabric of the armed forces even after retirement, veterans are in a suitable position to gauge the pulse of the rank and file.They are not constrained by service rules, nor tied down by fear of consequences of voicing their opinion on their professional progression. They do not, therefore, hesitate in calling a spade a spade.

In the recent past, a large number of decisions by the service headquarters have been extremely unpopular with the serving as well as veteran community. Initially, it was a general belief that these decisions were being forced upon the army, with the service headquarters being guilty, at most, of not taking a vehement stand against them. Being inimical to service conditions and morale of serving soldiers, and in some cases also the veterans, each of these received a lot of negative coverage on social media. Yet, the criticism was mainly aimed at the government / bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence. But it slowly began to emerge that it was the Army headquarters, and more specifically the COAS, who was behind some of these decisions. For example, there was an embargo on army officers travelling on temporary duty, even to cities like Delhi or Mumbai, from staying in hotels – something that all government officers including the forces are authorised to do. Ostensibly this was to “avoid officers meeting contractors and exchanging brief cases in hotels” as the COAS was reported to have said. The ceiling on purchase of cars from the CSD was another move initiated by the COAS, which was widely criticised as unnecessary and regressive. The latest in such decisions is the removal of income tax exemption to veterans in receipt of disability pension. This came to light through an announcement via a CBDT circular, and immediately caused an uproar. When the Finance Ministry came under criticism for this senseless decision, the minister Mrs Sitharaman revealed in a tweet that the decision was taken on the recommendation of the Army headquarters. The senselessness of this decision has been talked about in detail by Gen Cardozo and Gen Oberoi, both distinguished disabled veterans, and bears no repetition here. As the criticism against the Army headquarters and the COAS reached a crescendo post this decision, they reacted in a characteristically knee-jerk manner by ordering all serving officers to leave social media groups that included any non-serving personnel including veterans.

These instructions were initially met with a sense of disbelief, with majority of those affected preferring to wait for official instructions instead of going by media reports. But as the order appears to have trickled down, we see serving officers sheepishly exiting regimental and coursemate groups wherever they include veterans, in compliance with the unequivocal firman. The Army headquarters, through articles by friendly journalists, have attributed this crackdown to incidents of security breaches (including a reported case where an officer clicked the photograph of a marked map and sent it via WhatsApp to another officer). Yet, this lame explanation is cutting no ice with either the serving or veteran community, who are convinced that the aim of this is to isolate the former from the outspoken criticism by the latter in such groups.

There is no question in anybody’s mind that security concerns are paramount for the armed forces, and that social media apps, and large groups which include unknown members, could pose a potential threat if sensitive information is posted on them. But there is already a comprehensive policy regulating social media usage by service officers in force and being complied with for years, which is also periodically revised to cater for technological changes. Besides,   WhatsApp groups are possibly the least likely platforms for leaks – deliberate or inadvertent – as compared to one to one messages. Any information of security value inadvertently posted on a group would be noticed and pointed out by others, while someone planning a deliberate leak would be stupid to do so on a group. So no right minded individual would buy the explanation as this being the reason behind the banning of groups. It has been done with the express purpose of separating serving personnel from veterans. Which is sad, given the role of veterans in the social fabric of the organisation described earlier.

The series of decisions and accompanying comments / reasons point to an alarming crisis of confidence between the COAS and his command – “officers accepting suitcases from contractors in hotels”, “how can officers afford expensive vehicles” or “large number of undeserving cases are getting disability pensions by faking”. Either the thought is that the bulk of serving and retired personnel in the army are thieves and liars, or the organisation has fallen back to the juvenile practice of collective punishments – withdrawing the benefits and facilities of the entire force to punish a few black sheep who could be indulging in corruption or fraud.

Sadly, the trust deficit is working both ways, with the actions of the COAS being suspect in the eyes of those affected as being motivated out of a desire to please the government in order to seek benefits after his impending retirement in December 2019. Given the circumstances under which he was appointed in the first place – after superseding two senior Army Commanders who were widely viewed as equally deserving – there is also an appearance of his now being eager please the government in return.

In such a scenario, there is an urgent need to re-establish an environment of trust from both sides. The idea way of doing this is for the COAS to actually identify and penalise any individuals actually indulging in malpractices mentioned by him. He should also come out with a categorial statement renouncing any post retirement benefit from the government in order to retain or regain the confidence of his command. Failure to do so, or worse, accepting any such position post retirement, would permanently corrode his personal reputation as well as the faith in the august office of the COAS.