Date: 16 Jun 2008


The Telegraph

Calcutta, Saturday, 14 Jun 08.



Brijesh D. Jayal
For a nation that has, since independence, fought five border wars, has to contend with live borders extending across the western, northern and eastern frontiers, has been combating insurgency in some north-eastern states for many years and a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir for well over a decade, April 27 of this year marked a watershed. On this day, army veterans assembled at the India Gate in New Delhi and at war memorials in other cities and towns to pay tribute to their fallen colleagues and to convey their anguish at the neglect they have suffered under successive governments of India. 

It is unfortunate that Indian leaders are always busy politicking and stumbling from one election to the other. They neither have the time to govern nor to spend worrying about the health of institutions that make for a vibrant nation. Playing favourites, debunking merit and resorting to the ‘divide and rule’ game have been the hallmarks of successive governments. They have never cared to nurture institutions such as the armed forces. It is significant that, unlike in other democracies, the army headquarters in this country are kept out of the government. This exclusion is symptomatic of the schism that is being promoted.

The once inspiring slogan of ‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ sounds hollow today and is on the verge of being forgotten. Regular suicide by farmers has, in any case, put paid to jai kisan.The nation is now set to witness the nadir of its its moral decline, as jai jawan loses its meaning too. 

Even critics of the armed forces will acknowledge that ever since independence, it is the army that has, through its hardship and sacrifice, ensured that the integrity of the nation is not compromised. The armymen have countered insurgencies in the North-east and, more recently, in Jammu and Kashmir and have faced external aggression on five occasions. The costly blunders of the Indian Peace Keeping Force resulted in over 1,200 men being killed and many thousands being maimed. That we still do not have a national memorial for our dead heroes speaks a lot about the indifference of the nation to the sacrifices made. 

There have been ample warnings in the last few years about vacancies in the defence services remaining unfilled, about officers leaving in large numbers and more recently, vacancies in top defence institutions like the National Defence Academy and in the Indian Military Academy have remained undersubscribed. But the government chose to ignore these signs. The government’s indifference was best reflected in its attitude towards the sixth pay commission. Those in the army had hoped that the government would set up a separate commission to look after the service conditions and salaries of armymen and that this commission would be composed of important personalities and military specialists who would objectively judge the problems faced by the defence forces. 

Alas, this was not to be. The government did not even heed the request of the army to appoint a serviceman as member of the commission. Now that we know that not just the armed forces, but even the police and para-military forces feel humiliated and let down by the treatment meted out to them by the sixth pay commission, one wonders what the committee of secretaries appointed recently by the prime minister hopes to achieve. Little wonder that veterans are already terming it an eyewash. Meanwhile, reports have started coming in that the number of army officers wanting to leave the service has increased after the sixth pay commission’s recommendations became known.

The nation today is faced with stark choices. The national security environment is at its most demanding since independence. The spectrum of warfare now has nuclear wars at one end and internal conflicts at the other. Decades of insurgency in the east and the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir are taking their toll on a professional army. We are losing hundreds of lives on active duty even during peace. Our borders with both Pakistan and China are live. The conditions here are as cruel, if not more than hostile action by the adversary. Revolutions in military affairs demand higher technological and training skills than what is available now. On the other hand, the opportunities of civil life, with fat salaries and a stable lifestyle, are alluring. The nation needs to decide whether it requires armed forces that are combatworthy to the core or it is content with forces that will be runners-up. If it is the former that the nation needs, then its actions belie its aims. The reasons for this gap between intention and action might be ignorance, or worse, willful neglect.

It is heartening to know that some army chiefs have expressed their disappointment about the pay commission to the defence minister. They have thus done their duty in the best traditions of service. The chiefs now have the Herculean task of boosting their morale and encouraging the men and women they command to continue in their service. The task is not made easy by an insensitive leadership. It is up to the prime minister to take the symbolism of this disappointment seriously. Responsive governance requires a far more sensitive reaction than the routine one of referring the matter to a committee of secretaries. No amount of fiddling with the sixth pay commission report will help. Its very approach to the uniformed fraternity has been thrown open to question. Bold leadership requires that a separate commission for the armed forces be set up to take a fair and balanced view.

A nation that compels its army veterans to express public anguish at the treatment meted out to them needs to introspect deeply. We have progressively robbed our servicemen and women of their izzat and iqbal. We have failed to see the writing on the wall even as the admission into the armed services has declined. We have failed to understand the sentiment behind requests for a separate pay commission or at least to have a service member in it. The result was inevitable and we have only ourselves to blame. 

To all those who have spent their entire working lives defending the territorial integrity of our country, April 27 was a sad day. It was a day when the slogan jai jawan resounded loudly in the psyche of the nation, all the more because it is fast becoming memory. Much like the grand loan waiver scheme to take care of the distressed kisan, the government may choose to please the disillusioned jawan with a few generous rupees. But if it does not give serious thought to those who guard its borders, ‘Jai Hind’ may just become the next casualty.