by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 15th January 2008
That junior army officers are an unhappy lot is well known; there are more than 11,000 empty officer slots, a staggering 25% deficiency that nobody wants to fill. This shortfall is entirely at the junior level, since posts are filled top down. But the discontent seems to be uniform; on the 5th of January, Lt Gen HS Panag, heading the army’s operationally crucial Northern Command, met with Defence Minister AK Antony to protest an order from the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Deepak Kapoor, transferring him to the operationally insignificant Central Command after just a year at the head of operations in J&K. This revolt by a top commander highlights the need for major changes in the army’s style of functioning.
This is not the first time an army commander has stood up to the chief; there is an inherent ambivalence in the relationship between Army Headquarters and the six operational commands (Northern, Western, South Western, Central, Eastern and Southern). The bosses of these “field armies” (General Officers Commanding in Chief, or GOsC-in-C), scoff that the COAS is only a Chief of Staff, while they are the senior most commanders. In the 1965 war, the Western Army Commander, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, refused to obey verbal orders from the COAS, General JN Chaudhary, to withdraw in the face of a Pakistani attack. General Harbaksh’s conviction prevented a large chunk of Punjab from being captured by Pakistan. Similarly, in the 1962 war, the Western Army Commander, Lt Gen Daulet Singh, resisted tactically unwise pressure from his COAS, General Thapar, thus saving Ladakh from being overrun by the Chinese.
In the current confrontation, again, the army commander is right; there are several reasons why Lt Gen Panag should not be transferred. The prime amongst them is the need for continuity in an army where command tenures are becoming shorter and shorter. Today, a brigadier commands his brigade for just eighteen months, barely long enough to unpack, tour his operational area, and get familiar with his job. Almost as soon as he masters what he is expected to do, it is time to start packing again. His bosses, the major generals and lieutenant generals who command divisions and corps, provide even less continuity. They remain in the saddle for just fourteen months or so. In this command merry-go-round, it is only the army commanders who stay in the saddle for something more than a brief visit.
The army officially recognises this need; only a general with more than two years of residual service can be appointed an army commander. General Panag’s posting, therefore, cannot logically be passed off, as the COAS is doing, as a “routine reshuffle”. He has been in command in Udhampur for just a year, and has another year before he retires. The J&K elections this year, for which the army will be called upon to generate security, only reinforce the need for continuity.
Vitiating this transfer further, with a more sinister colour, is its timing. General Panag is being moved out after he initiated a series of inquiries against questionable financial transactions, many of them dating back to when the current Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, occupied his chair in Udhampur. The six operational army commanders are granted special financial powers for buying urgently needed operational equipment. Purchases made by General Deepak Kapoor are now under the scanner; transferring General Panag after he initiated the inquiries violates the principles of natural justice.
Army Headquarters, predictably, has argued that transferring an army commander is “the Chief’s prerogative”. But senior serving officers argue that “prerogative” is not a feudal privilege; the vitality of the system demands that it be based on logic, transparency and communication.
Defence Minister Antony is a cautious man and he is treating this case with caution. Apparently, civil investigative agencies are examining General Panag’s allegations, and he will only be moved out of Northern Command if there are concrete assurances that the cases he initiated will be followed up after he leaves.
But there are larger lessons to be learned from this unseemly confrontation; the most important of them is the need for the army to clearly define rules that will govern promotions and transfers. Unlike other central services, like the IAS and the IFS, where rules and criteria are clearly defined in a rulebook, the defence services are bound by no such constraints.
While this gives the service chiefs the feeling of autonomy, the absence of criteria has, in fact, undermined them. Each successive chief initiates changes in promotion criteria (usually to benefit their regiments or branches) that wash away their predecessors’ reforms. The result is a spate of representations and court cases, which allows the judiciary and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to adjudicate over what should be the military’s internal human resource management.
Finally, this episode highlights the need to clarify the relationship between the service chiefs and their theatre (army, navy and air) commands. The current ambiguity has been heightened by the creation of tri-service commands like the Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command, and the impending Aerospace Command. Should India follow a US-style model, where the theatre commanders report independently to the US President? Or should India have its own model? These are questions that need to be resolved quickly.