Following a fresh incident of a face-off between army officers and jawans in Kashmir earlier this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister AK Antony had voiced acute concern over such incidents in Kashmir. While the PM termed the incident in Parliament as "small", Antony called for an inquiry and asked the army chief to submit a report to him regarding the incident triggered by the suicide of an Indian army soldier, V Arun.
Arun had allegedly shot himself dead using his service weapon after being denied leave. The issue was even raised in Jammu and Kashmir parliament. While the Centre tries to downplay the incident, it is indicative of the internal stress and tension the Indian army has to address.
Despite paying attention to the worries of the armed soldiers, PM Manmohan Singh, urged MPs not to have a discussion. He said: "This is a very small incident, which is being blown out of proportion. It is not good for the morale of our armed forces."
While his statement was clinical and accurate, the choice of words may not have been politically the most appropriate -- no death of a citizen can be dismissed as "small" by the leader of a democratic country. One presumes the PM was not keen on an open discussion on the subject since it pertains to an in-house matter - discipline within a military unit - that falls within the organisational purview of the Indian army.
Minister AK Antony in turn has cautioned the PM that if not redressed, this issue could take "a bad turn". In 2012, there were two cases of serious breakdown in officer-soldier relations in units tasked with low-intensity-conflict duties. These are matters the army needs to review in an objective and candid way. There may be a case for an independent commission to empathetically review as to what ails the Indian army.
Since 1947 the military as an institution has been kept outside of the formal structure of the state due to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's distaste for the profession of arms. Successive Prime Ministers kept the military aloof. Consequently the 'fauj' occupies a twilight zone, where it is neither fish nor fowl.
The progressive denigration of the armed forces by the state and society has led to a steady erosion of military morale - a danger the PM alluded in Parliament. The apathy of the Indian state is best illustrated by the manner in which the Centre has dealt with pay and allowances for the soldiers.
An objective review of the manner in which the pay, allowances and status of the military have been lowered over the last two decades reveals some startling facts. The military is the outcaste in the Indian state matrix, but lacks a Gandhi or an Ambedkar to take up their cause. The average 'fauji' retires at a much younger age than the civilian counterpart who serves up to age 60. An empathetic state would have ensured that the inter se fixing of pay, allowances and pension would be equitable. Alas, this is not the case. Many anomalies abound.
The UPA had a rare opportunity to address and redress the long festering inequities regarding the military and the larger issue of rewiring the security establishment. But Manmohan Singh and his cabinet chose not to pick up the gauntlet - till the last lap of UPA II when the Naresh Chandra Task Force was set up to review the post Kargil security sector reforms. Manmohan Singh's August 15 address will be closely monitored for the policy initiatives. He will hopefully unveil to assuage the bruised morale of the military and avoid the 'bad turn' which otherwise seems inevitable.