It’s incredible the Prime Minister and Defence Minister did not attend Field Marshal Manekshaw’s funeral. Their presence wasn’t simply a duty, it was an obligation. And there was nothing else that could have claimed greater priority. But I’m even more amazed the President didn’t go. She is, after all, the Supreme Commander of the armed forces and Manekshaw was their greatest hero. Her absence is shocking.
Yet it’s not just India’s civilian leadership that failed. So too did the top brass of the armed forces. Whilst I can understand the Army Chief’s inability to attend, because he was out of the country, I cannot comprehend why the Air Force and Navy Chiefs were missing. They spent the day in their offices in Delhi! I’m curious to hear what excuse these gentleman offer, assuming, of course, they feel the need to do so. Did the government tell them not to go? Is that the explanation?
Sadly, the lapses in the official response to Manekshaw’s death don’t end with the absences at his funeral. How do you explain the fact that even one day of national mourning was not announced? And why weren’t flags flown at half-mast? Remember, as a field marshal, Manekshaw was still ‘in service’. Field Marshals don’t retire.
However, if you ask army officers — serving or retired — for an explanation they will point to the long-established distrust politicians exhibit for men in uniform. In countless ways, some small but many significant, politicians have contrived to reduce the stature of the armed forces.
Forty people have received the Bharat Ratna since it was first awarded in 1954. By my count at least 22 are politicians. A further 13 intellectuals or artists, two social workers and an industrialist. There are also two foreigners. But in 54 years not a single armed forces officer has qualified. Surely Manekshaw should have? Was he less deserving than M. G. Ramachandran, Rajiv Gandhi, Aruna Asaf Ali, Gulzarilal Nanda, VV Giri, Gopinath Bordoloi and Chidambaram Subramaniam?
Actually, the discrimination against the armed forces is yet more inexplicable if you analyze how service officers are ranked alongside civilian bureaucrats. For instance, in the states a brigadier and a district collector are treated as equals although it takes 28 years for an officer to become a brigadier and just 8 for a bureaucrat to become a DC. Worse, the central government ranks the Army Chief below the Cabinet Secretary. Yet the IAS comprises 4671 members and the army over a million. Even members of the Planning Commission, Chairmen of the UPSC, the CAG, the Attorney General and every single foreign ambassador have precedence.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. In the army promotions only happen against vacancies. In the civil service posts are created to provide promotions. Consequently state governments can have 10 or more permanent-secretary level posts, all of whom enjoy the same perks and salary.
Finally, to add insult to injury, where as practically every civil servant rises to be a joint secretary, only 3.5 per cent of army officers become major generals, the equivalent post. Therefore, when they retire, most civil servants at least get joint secretary level pensions. Very few army officers get major general level pensions.
And if you still doubt the services have legitimate reason to be upset, consider this — when the Cabinet Committee for Security discusses military procurement it invites civil servants to offer their opinion but the three chiefs, who are directly involved and clearly more knowledgeable, aren’t called.
Little wonder, then, that the armed services are aggrieved the Review Committee considering the 6th Pay Commission award for the military does not include a service officer, even though they had insisted on this. The government claims the Defence Secretary will represent them. The three chiefs — and all their predecessors — disagree. It’s not the incumbent they distrust so much as the attitude of civil servants. And when the government claims this is how civilian control manifests itself, they reply: this amounts to bureaucratic not political control.
So, through service eyes, the government’s response to Manekshaw’s death isn’t hard to explain. It’s part of a well-established pattern of political behaviour.