Monday, 26 February 2007

Feeling for the frontlines

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Feb 07

While the United Kingdom scales down its forces in Iraq to just 6400 soldiers, Second Lieutenant Henry Wales, otherwise known as Prince Harry, will proceed with his regiment to command four Scimitar tanks in southern Iraq. Third in line to the throne, Prince Harry was granted permission only after a two-hour interview with British army chief, Sir Richard Dannatt. The prince, better known for partying than patriotism, told his chief what he had pithily said in an interview on his 21st birthday. “There is no way I am going to put myself through Sandhurst (military academy) and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.”

Pertinent questions are often raised about the relevance of the British monarchy and the prince’s insistence on military service in a dangerous war zone will be dismissed by many as a PR gimmick to encourage the British taxpayer to continue paying millions of pounds each year to support the royalty. But Prince Harry is going ahead anyway, exactly as the British elite has since the crusades: by stepping forward at a time of war. Royalty, aristocracy, and the landed gentry traditionally formed the kernel around which the British built up armies in times of crisis, like when Napoleon rose in Europe. When the storm passed, the armies were disbanded and the upper classes went back to the good life, their credibility burnished. The Royal Navy stayed intact, ruling the waves in both war and peace.

India’s royal families had some of that √©lan, but this fading tradition seems to have ended with Captain Amarinder Singh of Patiala. The closest royals come to the military today is in polo matches with the army. If one were to scan the houses of parliament, military tradition would be even harder to find. Amongst the old guard, there are BJP ministers Jaswant Singh and BC Khanduri. The young are anything but Turks; only Barmer MP, Manvendra Singh, who served two tenures in J&K in the Territorial Army, has done his bit to beat back the barbarians at the barricades.

Military service may sit well with royal tradition, one might observe; is there any virtue in military service by the representatives of the people in a democracy? Is the grassroots activist who has devoted his or her life to serving the masses any less equipped for making legislative decisions in parliament? Despite the many with criminal convictions, parliament can boast of eminent social workers, academics and industrialists, doctors, lawyers and economists. Nobody seriously suggests that sitting in parliament should entail a pre-condition of military or other national service. But there is cause for concern when practically nobody who sits in parliament has ever served or been closely associated with national defence.

The result is a military that is utterly isolated from the power elite and a ruling class that knows only second-hand about the hard issues of defence and security. This disconnect will be starkly evident in parliament house when the annual budget is discussed later this week. If half a century of experience is anything to go by, the one ministry allocation that will pass without debate will be the largest that Mr Chidambaram will make on the 28th of February: almost 100,000 crores to the defence of the realm. With little institutional knowledge in the House of strategy, force structuring, manpower utilisation and equipment options, the possibility of a vibrant and interrogative defence debate is dead on arrival.

Paradoxically, this unquestioned windfall provides no joy to a military that increasingly believes that, with little personal stake in the health of the armed forces, the powerful merely allot them money and turn away. Chain emails are circulating widely amongst junior and middle-ranking officers, complaining of widespread indifference to soldiers and to their harassed families at home. When military officers approach the state and district administration for redress or assistance, there is little response. Rising suicides in the military are wrongly ascribed to difficult working conditions. The biggest killer is jawans’ rising frustration at being unable to do anything for their families back home. Seeing itself as “special”, different from other professions, the military feels terribly let down by mere lip service from parliament.

The shortfall of personal connects with the leadership is compounded by a new tendency within right-of-centre political parties like the BJP to view the military as a possible vote bank. But the BJP has run up against the cold reality that serving and retired soldiers do not constitute a significant vote bank in any constituency. For a polity that increasingly thinks in vote-bank terms, defence is disqualified even on that account. Taking the enormous trouble to acquire a defence background, therefore, carries little premium in Indian politics.

In contrast, Prince Harry’s decision has reminded British soldiery that their country’s elite is not entirely disconnected from the boys in the trenches. For the rest of his cosseted life, Prince Harry will have a clear sense of what is involved in sending soldiers to war, and a first hand experience of the feelings and thoughts that drive the men and women of his armed forces. These are important issues that those on Raisina Hill know little about.

13 comments:

chacko said...

God! He is still talking of Royals in India! Who cares about them except in their own constituency.

Anil said...

Ajay,
An excellent article. I hope we have more media people like you in this country who can bring out various issues relating to men in uniform to which our Political Masters have no clue & have been neglecting them for so long.
Anil Dutta

bobby said...

Excellent Ajai. You have said it all. I hope realisation dawns on those who matter, before the situation acquires unacceptable and unmanageable dimensions!
Bobby B

Sonia Shukla said...

We need more debate, definitely.... anybody who heard the one-line speech of the FM on the 96,000 crore defence budget cannot agree more.

Also, i wonder what the DRDO (or is it DODO?)allocation is?

Shiv Aroor said...

hi sonia, Total increase: 8 per cent overall DRDO budget (from Rs 5456 crore to Rs 5888 crore). DRDO's capital outlay is up 10 per cent from Rs 2445 crore last year to Rs 2700 crore this year. The revenue allocation has been pegged at around Rs 3,188 crore, 5.8 per cent over last year's revised allocation of Rs 3,011 crore.

Doctor Bruno said...

My reply is at
http://bruno.penandscale.com/2007/03/is-collector-responsible-for-jawans.html

And you may also read
http://rural-doctors.blogspot.com/search/label/Pandaravillai

to know that even though the collector or SP may be personally interested, the ground reality is something else

Even if the officer wants to help the Army Officer, one point to stress is that No Officer can control his subordinate fully. There are incidents where officers were insulted by subordinates and the district administration did nothing...

It is unlike Military or the Higher echelons of service where there is a high obedience level....

See http://rural-doctors.blogspot.com/search/label/Pandaravillai The Army officers should understand that there are situations like this when doctors (of the pay scale 8000-275-13500) have to come to street to have a Multipurpose Health Worker punished for physically attacking and using bad words against a medical

Doctor Bruno said...

Many a times it is the moral support that a family needs (by the presence of the "head of the family" rather than "muscle" power or "money" and for that they need the jawan at home…..

And for this the jawan needs leave... Isn't it so simple

chacko said...

So Ajai,

How many croonies and family members you have begged for support? No matter how many fake id's you create or bring cheerleaders for yourself, we are your jury.

chacko said...

Alternatively, why don't you take out a newsletters for your cheerleaders, that way you will get happy readers. It will help rest of the world and DRDO, they can do without your army mess talks.

Ajai said...

Hi Dr Bruno, checked out your blog... must say it's very impressive compared to my own modest webspace!
The leave suggestion you make has been examined in the army in serious detail. Today, there are orders with units in CI ops that jawans WILL go on leave at least once in three months. If a jawan has not been granted leave after serving continuously for three months or more, the CO is pulled up.
It has been found in internal army studies that a high percentage of jawans who commit suicide do so shortly after returning from leave. The reason: he went home, tried to fix things for his family, failed to do so because of an unresponsive administration, came back to work, received a phone call (many now carry mobiles, even in J&K) from his crying wife, and became suicidal.
It's a genuine problem. Good communications with the family have actually increased the frustration amongst jawans. It was a lot better in the old days when snail mail took a long while to reach and families were looked after in a joint family structure. The jawan was comparatively insulated then.
But thanks for your comment and come again!!

Abhiman said...

Hello Mr. Shukla. Sir I would like to request you to use the resources at your disposal i.e. a wide-reach of readers/viewers of your articles, to espouse the candidature of Tejas as MRCA.

Sir, in my view if an exactly congruent fighter, the Gripen can qualify to recieve the RFP for the MRCA tender by the IAF, then so can Tejas.

I may reply to the visitor "Sonia", that the slang of "DODO" is used at Pakistani discussion forums.
In my view, it may be ironical that a nation, which has yet to design an assault rifle (their ballistic missiles/tanks are all Chinese/N. Korean) may conjure such ideas for DRDO.

It may be apparent that the English (and self-consciously "elite") media may have apprehension, or contempt of State-run Scientific Institutions.

Although not alluding to you Mr. Shukla, but in my view there does appear to be a "media lobby" whose only aim is to criticize Indian products & praise imported ones.

Thank you.

Rohit said...

Ajai Sir,

Unfortunately, it is not only the progenty Political elite or the vestiges of Royalty who are no longer interested in military service. What about the second / third (or beyond) generation faujis?? How many of the serving senior officer's sons / daughters (now that this opportunity is also availalbe) are have followed their footsteps?? Very few that I can think of.

Mihir Shah said...

@ Sonia Shukla>>

DODO? Really? After seeing how the most exalted Mr. Shuklaji was pwned on BR when he tried to bash DRDO, I thought you people wouldn't touch that word with a barge pole.

Some people will never learn...