It's been a bad year for the Indian military. November 2010 finds two former army chiefs and a former navy chief being investigated for corruption in a land scam in Mumbai. The year had started in somewhat similar fashion.
In January, newspapers and TV channels were talking about a land scam involving the army in Sukna, West Bengal. Two officers of the rank of general were indicted in that case. The then army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, had used his position to prevent court martial of one of them, Lt General Avdesh Prakash, after a military inquiry found him guilty. Prakash was an advisor to the army chief. Now Kapoor himself is under the scanner for his real estate holdings.
Scams in the army come in all sizes, and the rot runs deep. The Adarsh scam in Mumbai is only one example. There's a scam in the daily ration, with army men selling eggs in the market, says Pravin Sawhney, who retired after 14 years as an officer in the Army and now edits Force, a news magazine on Indian defence. There's a scam in weapons; 41 officers faced administrative action in Rajasthan last year after they were found to have sold guns of prohibited bores in the black market. There's a scam in liquor; a court of inquiry indicted one Major General and four brigadiers for financial irregularities related to the sale of army liquor. And of course, there's a scam in land.
In the last decade or so, the number of high-ranking officers in uniforms who have been reported for corruption, nepotism, moral turpitude and outright fraud, has been on a steady increase. Perhaps indicative and symptomatic of the malaise deep within that all is not well in the services especially in departments like logistics, procurement and engineering.
Kaushik Roy, military historian, says "Financial corruption is rampant in the supply department. Another area of corruption is in DRDO and ordnance factories where there is a 'handshake' between corrupt bureaucrats, military officers and engineers." But, we treat defence as a holy cow, he says. "So none of the cases go for scrutiny and review. In the interest of 'national security', all these cases go under the rug."
Blame it on the civilians?
Army men, current or former, usually tend to blame the rampant corruption on civilians. "In the military, everything is done in accordance with the rule book. The rot starts when the files fall into the hands of babus," says a serving Major General. A senior officer in the Indian Air Force admits a lot of "unsavoury happenings and discrepancies" are taking place, but says, "We only intimate babus of our requirements, they do the rest. As far as financial transactions are concerned, most of the time we are in the dark".
This is largely true of big ticket defence acquisitions, says Sawhney. When it comes to purchasing military hardware, the soldiers themselves don't call the shots in the final purchase decision. They state their needs from a weapon system, and evaluate the bidders' weapons, but after that the bureaucracy and politicians take over. There is a lot of money at stake. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India was the biggest arms importer in 2009 having spent nearly $2.1 billion. Between 2005 and 2009, the country spent $8.4 billion, second only to China. In the decade following the 1999 Kargil conflict, India had already spent $50 billion in defence purchases.
An array of international arms dealers from the US, Russia, Israel and elsewhere operate in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Most of them employ locals, usually former officers of high rank, as agents or advisors. Serving officers too are often approached by these firms for information, in exchange for which the firms offer favours. Admiral R H Tahiliani, former navy chief and a former chairman of the India chapter of international corruption watchdog Transparency International, recalls a case when a US arms company offered to take care of his son Tarun's education in that country. Tahiliani declined.
Defence spending is divided under two heads, revenue and capital. The real corruption internally within the forces, Sawhney says, is in the 'revenue expenditure', which is used for salaries and running costs, not the 'capital expenditure', which is used for defence purchases. A lot of financial powers have been given to army commanders for revenue expenses, and there are not enough checks and balances, he says.
It is this insidious, daily corruption that he is more worried about.
Why is our military, long seen as the last bastion of honour in an otherwise corrupt country, now falling prey to the same malaise of corruption? Tahiliani says the corruption begins at the areas where military and civilian lives meet. There is, he says, a large civilian component in the military, that is responsible for looking after support functions. For example, "the military engineering services or MES is known as the 'money earning service'". Even in the navy, the percentage of civilians is more than that of uniformed personnel, says Tahiliani. "It is they who perpetuated this scourge".
Retired Lt General BK Bopanna and Force editor Sawhney also independently say that corruption has seeped in mainly from the civilian entities. Bopanna and Sawhney also say that the rising corruption in the military is only a reflection of the rising corruption in Indian society. "After all, how can the armed forces personnel remain isolated from the society and milieu at large, where corruption has increased manifold", says Bopanna.
Doing police work, becoming like police
The endless internal security duties are also taking their toll, says Sawhney. "At any given time, more than one-third of the army is in internal security. Another one-third is preparing for changeover. In internal security field areas, checks and balances are not so stringent. The commanders are tasked with providing the best for their troops. There is enormous scope for corruption." The long internal security duties have made the army more like a police force, says Sawhney.
The growing consumerism in society at large impacts soldiers quite heavily. A serving major asks about salaries in the private sector, and what people in different professions earn after 5 or 10 years in service. His "civilian" wife, who had to give up her job to be with him, suggests dinner at a five star hotel. She also voices her unhappiness about their car. She would like a new car.
Officers' wives can influence leaves, transfers and postings, says Sawhney. He says he himself managed to obtain leave on occasion by speaking to his boss's wife. The officers' wives have a very important role in their lives, and often, in their careers.
Given the overall scenario, it is unlikely that corruption in the forces can be stemmed. Historian Roy emphasises on the need to nip it in the bud. "Corruption in military has not reached a dangerous level yet. It has not impacted the political loyalty and military effectiveness."
It could get there yet. There's little to feel good about in the present situation, but some scant comfort can be had from looking at our neighbours. "In China, when Deng Xiaoping tried to curb these activities there were revolts. In Pakistan, even the chief of army staff cannot dream of curbing such activities by top officers", says Roy.
The word Adarsh, quite ironically, means 'ideal'. It would appear that the amassing of wealth, by fair means or foul, is the only universal ideal. It is the common ideal of the corrupt amid rival armies in a Communist state, an Islamic state, and a secular democracy. It is the one ring that rules us all, and in the darkness binds us.