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Officers and gentlemen?

The recent case involving two army officers accused of molesting women may be a consequence of suppressed sexuality among men in uniform, Pravin Sawhney writes.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2007 00:28 IST

Once tempers cooled down, both the army and the West Bengal government officials said that the recent fracas between the army and the police that took an undignified turn on New Year’s Eve in Kolkata was avoidable. The need is to understand why this unsavoury incident happened in the first place. Going by media reports, the story is that two officers of 3 Madras regiment, Major Chandra Pratap Singh and Captain Mahesh, allegedly misbehaved with women at a Park Street hotel, following which there was an altercation between the officers and the hotel staff.

The recent case involving two army officers accused of molesting women may be a consequence of suppressed sexuality among men in uniform

The supposedly inebriated army officers were handed over to the police who locked them up in the Park Street police station. The officers managed to convey their predicament to fellow men, 20 of whom armed with rifles and under the determined leadership of Lt Col Pratap Singh arrived to rescue their comrades just when the city was ringing in 2007. As the policemen on duty cowered, the officers were rescued, a few other criminals in the lock-up helped themselves to freedom... then, the army was gone.

The next day, senior police officers said that the army’s behaviour had demoralised their force, and that the arrested army officers should be handed back for trial under criminal charges. The army, in turn, asserted the officers would be tried under the Army Act for alleged misdemeanour. It was pointed out that once the officers’ identities were known, according to the established procedure, instead of depositing them in the police lock-up with criminals, the duty officer at Fort William (Army’s Eastern Command) should have been informed who would have ensured that the Military Police come and take charge of the errant army officers. The stand-off between the two sides did not last long. The state government threw in the towel and accepted that fair justice would be meted out under the army regulations.

Army-watchers have thrown up an interesting explanation for why the officers behaved the way they did. Could the uncivil conduct of alleged molestation be a consequence of suppressed sexuality? Having been associated with the army in various capacities for over three decades, my instant reaction was one of utter disbelief.

It is true that army men have long separations from their families. Worse, unless it is a metropolitan city, officers do not usually live with families in peace stations, as small towns do not offer good educational facilities to kids to prepare them for a highly competitive world. The army is probably the only vocation where officers and men have the longest separation from families.

But, on the other hand, leave every year is aplenty: 60 days annual and 30 days casual in addition to medical leave whenever applicable. Every quarter, troops are encouraged to go on some leave. The army is also educated about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STD). While troops are lectured regularly (at least once a month) on discriminate sexual behaviour, condoms are made available in most units posted in STD-prone regions. In the army, contracting STD is not an offence, hiding it is.

At a more fundamental level, the notion of suppressed sexuality is more applicable to troops on out-of-area missions, implying operations in far away countries. For example, US forces in the Middle East or Afghanistan may have to face this predicament, and would have dovetailed it into their troops’ turnaround strategies. For the Indian Army, the explanation of suppressed sexuality does not really hold water.

If the recent fracas in Kolkata is indicative of anything, it is how things can get blown out of proportion because of mishandling at the lowest level. Secondly, the armed forces, which were a holy cow till 16 years ago when insurgency started in Jammu and Kashmir, now find themselves under a microscope for the slightest error. Having said that, the fact remains that the army is overstretched, over-worked and lives dangerously for long durations when deployed in Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Northeast or on the Chinese front where innumerable posts are at altitudes of 16,000 feet and above.

When these troops come to a peace station, a certain buoyancy creeps in. Specific to the Park Street episode, the officers let themselves go after a few drinks, and probably ended up in a free-for-all exchange of invectives with the hotel staff that escalated matters. It is not certain whether molestation actually happened. From the army’s perspective, the officers should have behaved with dignity that reportedly they did not, and are almost certain to pay a heavy price. The ransacking of the police station was shameful. It is certain that the punishment meted out to erring officers will be swift and exemplary.

But there is another side to this story as well. And this is more alarming. There is a growing disconnect between the educated middle class and the armed forces. As fewer and fewer people from the middle classes prefer to join the armed forces, they fail to empathise with them. It is different to have a member of one’s family or even the extended family in the army and quite different to appreciate what the army is all about from a distance.

Consequently, one tends to be hypercritical of the forces. The armed forces is the only vocation where you join with open eyes knowing well that you may be required to lay down life should it be needed. One joins the defence services on one’s own will but one cannot resign and carry on like it is possible elsewhere.

Finally, the profile of officers and men in the army has changed drastically over the years. With rapid globalisation and the advent of multi-national companies in India, fewer middle and upper middle class boys opt for the army as a career. The majority of officers come from rural and semi-urban areas with weak educational background. Training and regimentation only goes a certain distance. Thus, however best the army may try, the ideal combination of an officer always being a gentleman is not always possible.

(The writer is the editor of Force, a monthly magazine on national security.)