Date: 08 Feb 2009


 Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi
 An unprecedented eleven Ashoka Chakras were presented by the Rashtrapati on the 60th anniversary of the Republic. That the numbers are exceptionally high may not be an issue, as bravery of the most exceptional order cannot and must not be constrained by numbers. However, the highest peace-time award must only be bestowed for exceptional bravery and for no other reason. There is a question mark on whether the awards this year were given only to the exceptionally brave.
In writing this piece I am aware that I am touching a sensitive issue, especially as it is about the death of four highly regarded police officers. To that extent, I am guilty of being politically incorrect, but there are times when one has to speak one’s mind, however unpalatable it may be. This is one of those exceptional occasions. My aim in doing so is not to denigrate the sacrifices made by these officers but to caution the national leadership not to succumb to political expediency when considering such weighty issues as conferring of the highest bravery awards. 
We Indians are highly emotional when it comes to death, but emotions have no place when it is a question of recognising valour. The highest recognition for exceptional bravery is the award of Ashoka Chakra in peace time and that of the Param Vir Chakra in the face of the enemy during war. These are the only two awards that are bestowed publicly at the Republic Day Parade and for good reason, so that the bravery of the awardees is fully appreciated by the entire nation. All other awards, for bravery as well as for distinguished service, are presented by the Rashtrapati on investiture parades held at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In accordance with the official website, Ashoka Chakra is awarded for most conspicuous bravery, or some act of daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice otherwise than in the face of the enemy. All ranks of the army, the navy and the air force, members of the nursing services of the armed forces or of any of the reserve forces, the territorial army, militia and of any other lawfully constituted forces are eligible to receive this medal. Civilian citizens of either sex in all walks of life, other than members of police forces and of recognised fire services are also eligible. 
Soon after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, where a number of senior police officers had lost their lives within a few hours of the terrorist strike, an analyst had termed them “Innocent Casualties”. In amplification he had stated that these three officers, along with a few policemen had been surprised, waylaid and butchered without getting a chance to use their weapons. Perhaps their lack of training did not permit them to anticipate and react with operational swiftness. Their dear ones do deserve our deep sympathy and heartfelt condolences, as well as care and compassion, but do they meet the criteria of “the most conspicuous bravery”? The same applies to another police officer who was unfortunately killed in an earlier incident in Delhi.
By all accounts, all four police officers were highly efficient, dedicated and exemplary officers. Their devotion to duty needs to be recognised and honoured, but this is not the way of doing so. There is a vast difference between gallantry awards and awards for distinguished service. A large number of military personnel, especially from the army, lay down their lives or lose limbs fighting terrorists in various parts of the country, nearly on a daily basis. Their sacrifices are for the country. Yet most of them do not qualify for earning gallantry awards, even of a lesser category. Let me cite my own example. I lost my leg during the 1965 Indo-Pak War and became permanently disabled, but I did not get any award. Neither did I ever think that I should have been given one. The same is the case with the large number of soldiers and officers who are killed or disabled in wars or warlike situations. That is how it should be.
In the army, grant of gallantry awards is an elaborate process, where commanders at successive levels give their recommendations after evaluating all facts. Eventually, a committee presided over by the Vice Chief takes the final decision. During this process, the operational staff briefs the committee about all facets of the relevant operations. It is only when all members of the committee are fully satisfied that the award is approved. In the case of higher level of awards, the cases also need the Chief’s approval and later that of the Minister of Defence.  

The trend of bestowing gallantry awards merely because officers had lost their lives in terror-related incidents goes back to the death of two senior officers in Afghanistan in a terrorist incident, who were awarded Kirti Chakras, the second highest gallantry award not in the face of the enemy. The two, one a brigadier from the army and the other an officer of the foreign service, lost their lives as they were driving in when an explosive device was exploded by terrorists at the embassy gate. Surely there was no bravery there. The government must take all actions to help the next of kin monetarily and for subsequent rehabilitation, but it must not be done by bestowing high level gallantry awards. Such hasty and irrational decisions taken by the Government devalue the awards, besides creating embarrassment. 
My concern in this piece is that if we persist in this type of populous largesse, the sanctity and aura attached to these highest level gallantry awards that the nation bestows on the bravest of the brave would disappear. Surely, the nation does not want this, even if some political leaders desire it for extraneous reasons.
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Former Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS)
Former Director Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)