The past year has seen the Indian Army — a one-of-a-kind force with 1.5 million all-volunteer ground personnel — discussed in a light that it has never been before. As the age row around General VK Singh escalated, staying in the news for months on end (see box below), at the centre of the national interest debate has been this question: will this mudslinging in the top echelons of the Indian Army, unprecedented in independent India, affect the morale of the troops? The Indian soldier, undoubtedly aware of the very public battle between the generals, has been silent.As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. According to an exclusive survey by HT-C fore, the morale of the Indian Army is fighting fit. In a series of questions asked across ranks of the Indian Army — seeking to gauge the army’s morale, its self-image, the institution as an employer, among other things — 87% said that their morale is high or satisfactory. "I am not surprised that the morale is not seriously impacted. The Indian Army is an institution with inherent internal strengths that have been built over time," says Commodore (retd) C Uday Bhaskar, who is former director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and has 37 years of naval service behind him.
Is all well?
This does not mean that all is hunky dory. While defence experts welcome the results showing an intact morale, some do point out that other results in the survey give cause for concern — in particular, the issue of self image — and this could be the result of the series of recent controversies. Commenting on 21% of the officer class above the rank of major saying the army no longer commands its earlier level of prestige, founder-member of the Defence Planning Staff Major General (retd) Ashok K Major says, “It’s an indication of how the officer class views Delhi and the growing sense of victimisation — the idea that we are doing all the work and staying clean while the generals have to wait on the babus to get their papers signed. They are also watching how the present chief is treated. And the next one has also been dragged into the controversy.” Overall, 25% of serving personnel said there has been a drop in the prestige of the army.
While some like Mehta say 87% is “entirely normal” for satisfactory or high morale, some others do see even 13% with low morale as something to take note of. Colonel AK Sharma, a former cavalry officer and founder of South Asia Defence & Strategic Review magazine, says, “The figures are low though not alarming and indicate declining morale. Notwithstanding the figures, we need to delve into the causes.”
A serving cavalry officer within the army, when contacted, says the survey results of good morale are entirely expected, and any cause of concern would have been misplaced, despite the controversies hogging the headlines for months. “Morale in the army is not determined by what politicians do, or even what the uppermost echelons of the force do,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
Morale depends on various issues and they all need to be looked at separately, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies. “The morale of the combat forces is 100% fighting fit,” he says. “Morale is affected if allowances are not paid or are low, or if service conditions are poor. It is also affected if the political classes are not treating the army well, however in this case that is not applicable. The Sixth Pay Commission has taken care of the aspect of allowances. However, service conditions remain poor and these certainly need the attention of the leadership,” he adds.
Explaining the functioning of the army, the serving cavalry officer added, “Ours is a system built on a very clear chain of command and what determines the motivation of the jawaan is that he is well fed, treated well by his officers, he gets leave when he really needs it and has faith in his leaders. Ours is like a joint family where even if one of us might be at fault, we would like to view it with caution, see how much the other party is to blame. Like it or not, it’s what keeps the cohesion intact.” Reflective of this view, a jawan, also on the condition of anonymity, said, “That there is some corruption at higher levels was always known. But this won’t affect our morale.”
But this sort of cohesion is entirely based on how army personnel view the larger community and that’s why the issue of the self-image is far more concerning. Less than half (49%) of serving personnel said that the army commands the same level of prestige that it traditionally has.
“For an institution that one enters knowing full well that one could die while serving in, the findings on the low level of prestige are alarming. Around the world, it’s the prestige associated with their respective armies that men enlist and are willing to lay down their lives,” says Bhaskar.
Mehta too agrees that the prestige issue needs to be addressed. “If this question had been asked 10 years ago, the answer would have been very different. The army has always been as being different from other institutions and its apolitical, secular nature has been dear to its men. But when the chief, who is perceived as god among serving men, starts to commit human follies, the men start to feel that they too can. It’s an indication of the erosion of values,” says Mehta.
If it’s any indication of how serving personnel view the entire age row and how it played out, 62% respondents said all the arguing over the date of birth of the chief of army staff was unnecessary. From the ranks of lieutenant to major, 68%, and above major, 64% said the age row was pointless.
On the issue of the army as an employer, the survey reveals a level of dissatisfaction. “I’d be concerned if I was in a leadership position and one-third of my staff said that the organisation they worked for was not a good employer. Across human resource departments, a figure of 10-12% would be considered acceptable. But such a high number would warrant a drilldown to the causes,” says Bhaskar.
Just one of the indications that Lt Gen Bikram Singh might have his work cut out for him — as if other challenges were not enough.