Dubious Honours



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.

10 thoughts on “Dubious Honours

  1. Time to stop giving Awards.They motivate the few blue eyed ones and demotivate the majority who may have worked equally heard

  2. Brilliant analysis indeed. Sad that things have come to such a pass. What was supposed to be a “calling” is now no different from a Sarkaari or Corporate job.

  3. Wonderful article. Very difficult to change this. Because along with these distinguished service awards come big bonanzas from various govt in terms of cash, plots etc. Which General is likely to let it go? As such most of them are used to the ‘Free’ dom fighter mode in the last few yrs of his service..where every thing is supposed to be free or nominally paid for. Would be wonderful if it happens..Hope it happens.

  4. Please don’t term all Field area medals as ‘Free ration medals’. That colloquial term is limited to the medal for serving in J&K. Please do not call medals for serving in Siachen, insurgency ridden North east areas or High Altitude areas or foreign service medals (given to personnel who served with IPKF etc) as Free Ration medals. It is demeaning to the service in difficult and demanding areas.

  5. @Hari – point conceded. The term ‘free ration medal’ essentially arose from the field service medal for J&K (also applicable to Marushtal).

  6. Like our penchant for prorate share in promotion and postings, awards should also be distributed on prorate bases in the rank structure, this will ensure greater representation at the lower ranks who actually perform at the ground level to make his commander’s service distinguished.

  7. Dear Author, you have written a good article to catch the glare…..I am just giving an insight into your Dubious Honours…which is really dubious and factually incorrect.

    Well in Indian Armed Forces all awards are based on a specified qualifying act which is hierarchical in nature. The PVSM is awarded during peacetime for “distinguished service of the most exceptional order”, similarly AVSM for “distinguished service of an exceptional order” and so on.

    Due to the level of contribution required the higher awards are generally awarded to higher functionaries in case of Administration and Leadership and for indl proficiency in Arts, Sports, Adventure etc. Eg: Sub Maj Vijay Kumar(Shooting) AVSM, Lt Col RVS Rathore(Shooting) AVSM, Col Narinder Kumar (Mountaineering) PVSM, AVSM.

    Each level of contribution is recognized by an appropriate award. Though contribution of every technician is invaluable in the success of an ISRO Mission the award is given to the higher leadership Eg: Dr K Kasthurirangan, Padma Vibhushan; Dr K Radhakrishnan Padma Bhushan etc. Similar is the case in Public Administration. Logically more people in higher hierarchy are likely to get higher awards as opportunity is more and level of qualifying act higher. Recognition by other means is given to lower functionaries. For JCOs and Other Rks, the fwg are awarded.

    (a) Hony Rks.
    (b) Commendation cards.
    (c) Distinguished Awards.

    To illustrate the above the summary of awardees in 2014 is appended below:-

    (a) PVSM -19
    (b) UYSM -3
    (c) AVSM -27
    (d) YSM -12
    (e) Bar to SM (Distinguished) -2
    (f) SM (Distinguished) -37
    (g) VSM -72
    (h) COAS Commendations -594
    (i) VCOAS Commendations -351
    (j) GOC-in-C Commendations -1713
    (k) Hony Capt -279
    (l) Hony Lt -1115
    (m) Hony Nb Sub -536
    (n) Hon NCO -3055

    As you have seen about 5000 Hony ranks are given to JCO’s and Other Ranks. these Hony Rank comes with a host of perks/ privileges for lifetime.

    Jai Hind

    Col (Retd) Ravi Prakash
    Follow me on https://twitter.com/ColRaviPrakash

  8. There are two issues here
    1. Awards being related to rank – Why should PBOR be limited to commendation cards and hony commissions. Also why should an act of exceptional service in peace time by say a Maj not be considered for an AVSM? The 3 examples quoted by Col Prakash are the exceptions rather than the rule. If wartime decorations are open to all ranks then shouldnt also peace time decorations ?
    2. If 63% of serving Lt Gens were awarded the PVSM/AVSM/UYSM, that means they delivered service of a “most exceptional/exceptional order”. Either the qualifying criteria for these awards is too low if over 60% were the exceptions (sic) or these awards are just being distributed as “retirement gongs” -the latter being the most likely. In fact today if by the time you retire as a Lt Gen and you don’t have a PVSM behind your name ,you in all probability would have rubbed up the COAS /Army Commander the wrong way somewhere down the line.

    We need a review of the whole system of peacetime decorations for all ranks.

  9. Honours and awards are an essential part of military life. However, there certainly is a need to be more judicious in dishing out some of these awards which seem to be given almost to all who achieve a certain rank. Further we need to give more recognition to our troops. Commendation cards are not adequate. I am wondering how does a Lt Gen get the UYSM? Most probably he would be a Corps Cdr whose only exposure to Yudh is visits to lower fmn Hqs and some units. Where does the Yudh seva come in? It should be given max upto Bde Cdr level.

  10. @Col Ravi Prakash,
    Thanks for your inputs and expansion on the total No of lower awards – I could not include this in my post as I could not locate this data on any website.
    Actually the examples cited by you serve to highlight the points that I was trying to make in my post, as explained below.
    1. Yes, Sub Maj Vijay Kumar, Col Rathore and Col Narinder Kumar were awarded these high honours. But look at the qualifying acts – two of them are Olympic medalists while the third climbed the Everest amongst his other achievements. I wonder what comparable feats the 51 Lt Gens had to perform in order to get the same or higher awards? Don’t you see a disparity here?
    2. The awards are indeed hierarchical. But then how come even the list of VSMs contains the names of 5 Lt Gens? Don’t you see an anomaly here?
    3. As regards summary of awardees, as per the figures provided by you, a total of 7643 PBOR have been awarded. On a rough calculation it works out to less than 1% of their strength (approximately 0.7%). Contrast this with 63% of Lt Gens!
    4. Since, unlike the gallantry awards, the details of qualifying acts are not available for public consumption in the case of distinguished service awards, I would tend to take them with a pinch of salt.
    Lastly, while you may not agree with my analysis or opinion of the facts, to the best of my knowledge the facts and figures quoted by me are correct as they are from authorized sources. I would request you therefore to point out which specific fact have I got incorrect, since you have labelled my article as ‘factually incorrect’.
    I look forward to your response.

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