There is a growing concern over flaunting of ranks by senior defence officers. The issue has come into focus due to the ever-increasing reach of the media and preponderance of social networking sites. The controversy is both trivial and alarming, when viewed through the prism of realism.
A military rank is more than just ‘who salutes whom?’ It is a badge of leadership. Responsibility for personnel, equipment, and mission grows with each increase in the rank. Military ranks are a system of hierarchical relationships in armed forces, police, intelligence services or other institutions organised along military lines. Usually, uniform denotes the bearer’s rank by particular insignia affixed to it.
Ranking systems have been known for most of the military history to be advantageous for military operations, in particular with regards to logistics, command, and coordination. Within modern armed forces, the use of ranks is almost universal. Communist states have sometimes abolished rank (for eg, the Soviet Red Army 1918–1935, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army1965–1988, and the Albanian Army 1966–1991), only to re-establish it after encountering operational difficulties of command and control. Therefore, displaying ranks is fully justified by those authorised to do so.
Having said that, there is a subtle difference between display and flaunt. Whereas the former is a right, the latter is an act of going overboard. The recent instance of displaying ranks on a boat during solemn and personal event of ashes immersion is definitely flaunting. Similarly, displaying ranks by golfers and their caddies is an act of going overboard and is thus best avoided.
The rostrum used by the chief of army was affixed with a four-star plate while addressing all ranks during his visit to a formation. The picture that went viral elicited negative comments, some of these from the uniformed fraternity. I was surprised since I felt there was nothing wrong in displaying the stars; after all there exists only one four-star General in the Indian Army. The stars substitute for his name on the rostrum. In fact, I liked the innovative idea.
Affixing army, press, advocate and police stickers on windscreens of our cars, displaying stars on casual caps, private cars or blatant display of huge brass plates indicating councillors, chairmen, sarpanch, lambardar, residents’ welfare association president and such appointments on personal cars, though incorrect, is a malaise that afflicts our celebrity-centric psyche.
The law has taken unauthorised use of red beacons seriously. It is time when similar strictures are passed for stickers, plates, flags, use of prohibitive horns and pennants, though such routine matters of civic discipline need to be adhered to by citizens without fear of law. Yes, being an example setting institution, the armed forces must take the lead to stop the malaise.
Armed forces are largely insulated from the mainstream society due to the nature of their job and security requirements. However, all soldiers have to fall back upon the mainstream after retirement. Their personal conduct among public has to be of high order to maintain the flawless image of discipline and austerity. Carrying forward of ‘in service’ perks and entitlements to their retired life is unacceptable and thus will invite flak from society. Senior officers set examples in this regard because they know ‘being rooted’, both in letter and spirit, is the only way to keep the ‘powder dry’. An odd case of heady senior officer can however not be discounted. As they say there is no smoke without fire. If instances of misdemeanour have come to public notice, it is incumbent on the forces to put their house in order.
(The writer is a retired armoured corps colonel)