17 September 2015

Civil-military divide: Mind the gap

The OROP crisis highlights the long-simmering distrust between the government and the defence services. This is dangerous. Seemingly little things can trigger disaffection because the world view of the civilians is opposed to that of the defence personnel.

THE Pakistan Army originated in the Indian Army, their bureaucrats and politicians were once ours. And yet, a breakdown of relations between them has led to terrible consequences. Virtually the same thing happened in Myanmar. Servicemen, of all nationalities, believe that politicians are driven by a hunger for power; bureaucrats by a thirst for the privileges of tenure in office. Similarly, netas and babus, worldwide, are convinced that Servicemen are uniformed dolts, fit only to carry out orders and become cannon fodder. The OROP imbroglio is the result of these skewed perceptions.
This is not a new problem. Warriors of many societies, throughout history, tended to associate with other like-minded people. They were the artisans of war as others were specialists in construction, copper crafting, medicine or worship. Professionals tended to cluster together, share technical secrets, intermarry and form themselves into guilds. In the late Vedic period in our land, these professional guilds coalesced into exclusive castes. This proud exclusivity is the source of the problem.

Defence personnel have evolved into an exclusive guild, a jati. Their cohesion is insured by self-contained, sequestered, environments, adherence to revered customs and traditions, and unquestioning loyalty to their comrades. When your life depends on others, trust is obligatory. It cannot be bought because no one will put a price on his or her life. This was brought into sharp focus during one of the annual cruises organised for Members of Parliament by the Indian Navy. An MP asked one of our officers, “For a poor country like ours, don't you think you are being paid too much?” The Lieutenant smiled at the politician “What price do you put on your life, sir?” The neta was taken aback. “How can I put a price on my life? How can anyone?” The young officer nodded, “Exactly. When your life is threatened by an enemy, we put our lives on the line to protect you. My salary is your life insurance, sir”. The MP smiled wanly and waddled away.

Service personnel face frequent transfers, retire young and are unable to put down their roots long enough to acquire the wealth of their peers in other professions. They have had to find another ballast to give purpose to their lives: honour. They are sustained by the driving power of honour. The Japanese samurai had their bushido code, “the way of the warrior”, valuing honour more than life. Rajputs had a similar code. When Rajput warriors faced certain defeat, their women and children immolated themselves, while the men rushed out armed and naked welcoming the glory of death on the battlefield as a matter of martial honour. They were not paid to die: they were inspired to die. Such traditions gave rise to guilds of professional fighters, eventually forming the Kshatriya caste of hereditary warriors. 

The OROP imbroglio is an auto-immune affliction born out of the guild-caste stratification of our society. The British structured their Indian Army on such variations. The mores of our Armed Forces glorify these distinctions, while widening the gap between servicemen and civilians. This has also given rise to a conflict of perceptions. 

The Defence Services tend to see the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong. There is no time for doubts on the battlefield. Their civilian counterparts, however, spend their lives adjusting and compromising. It is difficult for one to understand the other, or not to have a mutual contempt for each other. Nevertheless, this dichotomy is hazardous and must not be allowed to grow. Seemingly little things can trigger disaffection. The British officers of the East India Company's Army thought that the grease used on their bullets was an insignificant thing. This “misunderstanding” festered and led to the trauma of 1857 and the eventual crash of the British Empire. 

As a couple that has experienced life on both sides of the gap, we don't believe that things have reached that impasse. But we do see disturbing signs of disaffection. When service personnel put up a complaint to their seniors, they never use the word “we”. We implies collective action and, unlike in civilian organisations, collective action is anathema in the Defence Services. Clearly, ex-servicemen, brought up in this tradition, must have been hard pressed to stage a public protest. Their conduct is being watched with anguish by their sons and daughters who are serving personnel. 

In particular, the decision to pit one uniformed service against another, to use young policemen to manhandle grey-haired, retired soldiers engaged in a peaceful, permitted protest was one of the most ill-advised actions taken by any state. It was our Tiananmen moment. It was the reprehensible act of a cowardly state masquerading in a masculine image. Its subsequent silence on this shameful event has not been interpreted as toughness but as the shame of a guilty mind. This disgraceful incident has been discussed and dissected wherever servicemen and their families meet and, naturally, in the absence of a sincere apology or explanation, it is growing in size and gravity. When this burgeoning chimera eventually emerges to confront its presumed tormentors, the consequences could be very ugly.

Any attempt at appeasement by offering incentives to one section of ex-servicemen and not the other, jawans vs officers for instance, will be seen as the divisive tactic of netas and babus who feather their own nests at every opportunity but throw crumbs to the Services. The offer may be accepted by some, but the tactic will be viewed with contempt. The only way to douse this smouldering discontent is to meet the veterans head-on, discuss things with them, arrive at unequivocal terms, and stick to those conditions. Don't depend on smarmy doublespeak and prevarications, or diktat and fiat to ride roughshod over their objections. Other governments have tried such ill-advised tactics and failed. And if these lessons are forgotten, look across our western border.

The writers are Mussoorie-based freelance writers. Hugh was the first Judge Advocate of the Southern Naval Command.

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