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On the defensive

india Updated: Dec 12, 2010 02:21 IST
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The US ambassador's 'slow and lumbering' comment is only the latest in a series of criticisms that the Indian Army has faced this year. Land and housing scams, charges of graft and sexual misconduct paint a bleak picture of ethical erosion among the top brass and low morale within the ranks. How will the army fight back? Rahul Singh and Sanjib Kr Baruah write.

It's not been a good year for the government, reeling under a barrage of scandals. But the Indian army has fared only a little better. It was still recovering from the after-tremors of the shocking Adarsh Housing Society scam. Now, courtesy Wikileaks, comes the US view that its mobilisation process is "slow and lumbering".

The army has been quick to dismiss this assessment of its capabilities by US ambassador Timothy Roemer, contending that it is fighting fit for "when the time comes." And while the envoy's unflattering view can be seen as subjective, it couldn't have come at a worse time. The military has been in the line of fire all through the year (see box). The Indian army's hall of shame these days is a motley collection of senior officers who've hit the headlines on charges of bootlegging, fake encounters, sex crimes and bartering their honour for personal gains.

Rumblings in the ranks
Where the image suffers, morale within the ranks becomes a casualty. Naturally, this is a matter of concern. As former army chief General VP Malik says: "If a soldier thinks his seniors have become corrupt, he loses respect for them. It affects his loyalty and discipline."

Affirms former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash: "The rot starts at the top. Youngsters follow in their seniors' footsteps. The leadership has set a bad example." The worry is widespread, and perhaps rightly so. A serving army major under condition of anonymity says: "I would be lying if I say there is no sense of unease in the ranks."

However, many also believe that the corruption within the ranks hasn't become endemic. A senior officer said the army's ethical framework was too robust to be shaken by individual misdemeanours. The officer said: "For each aberration, the army performs hundreds of splendid tasks that go unnoticed."

A matter of honour
While most concede that corruption in the army is on the rise, those who take the more sympathetic view say that in a country where corruption is commonplace, expecting zero transgressions from a 1.4-million-strong force is asking for a miracle.

Lt Gen VK Singh (retd), chairman, Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, says: "Given the general decline in morals and ethics, there is bound to be an effect on some of the servicemen. But the majority of honest servicemen should not be judged by the sins of a few."

Admiral Prakash, while admitting that "incidents of corruption have gone up," adds that "we have a system of checks and balances. The guilty are punished within six to eight months." For instance, he asks, "How often do you hear of bureaucrats going to jail?"

Prakash points at a deeper malaise-a decline in values such as honour and decency. "If an officer was caught doing something wrong 20 years ago, he would have been asked to put in his papers and go. In today's scenario, he will fight it out in the court."

Operation redressal
The rise in malpractices within the military can be attributed to a number of reasons. Malik says it is because "soldiers were unfortunately not satisfied with 'cantonment culture', and wanted to copy the five-star culture." Others, pointing to the increase in litigation on issues of promotion and supercession, say that internal politics is a growing problem.

"The number of officers seeking redressal from courts on this has gone up," says Commodore RS Vasan (retd), head, strategy and security studies, Centre for Asia Studies. But Gen Singh, countering that supercession is inherent in the army's pyramidical structure, points out; "Above a colonel's rank, there are higher vacancies for only one in three - it is those among the two thirds left out who raise allegations of favouritism."

A popular view is that corruption in the forces has its genesis in the interface with their civilian components. Babus with inadequate military knowledge control decision-making. For instance, most ministerial recommendations after the 1999 Kargil conflict were not taken up. It took the 2008 attack in Mumbai to do it. Says Vasan: "The sooner the babus keep out, the better it would be." There is a case for an overhaul in the system. "What is really 'slow and lumbering' is the decision making process," says Singh.

Scam after scam | Dwindling numbers