Army in the throes of change

Updated on: Dec 16, 2013
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Indian army’s HR practices must address problems arising out of existing hierarchies.

The Indian Army has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Gen. V. K. Singh’s controversy-laden tenure, reports of officer-men clashes, corruption allegations and stories of soldiers sleeping while on operations along the Line of Control have all led to unwelcome media attention.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister chose to highlight the issue of officer-men relations, addressing his senior military commanders with uncharacteristic bluntness: “You are responsible for the lives and welfare of your men and women in uniform. As commanders, you also have to introspect over fidelity to inviolable principles and set an example. Where the institution has frayed, remedial policy initiatives are imperative.”

Indeed, as with most other institutions, the Indian Army is grappling with rapid societal change, but its current “zero tolerance” policy is a typical knee-jerk reaction to a complex problem.

It needs to break from some of its traditions and be more transparent and logical, incorporating different aspects of military sociology. It is not known, however, whether the army is alive to the challenge of embracing change, or if change will have to be forced upon it.

Incidents of clashes between officers and men have been described in the media, often in sensationalistic fashion. In the recent past, there have been “incidents” involving an artillery unit deployed for training in Leh, two armoured units deployed in Samba and Gurdaspur, and, just a few months ago, an infantry unit training in Meerut. Alarmingly, these incidents occurred in combat arms where officer-men relations are of utmost importance.

Also, all these units were deployed in peace stations, belying the opinions expressed by many who blamed the incidents on prolonged employment in stressful counter-insurgency or other operational duties.

Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Defence Minister A. K. Antony described these incidents as “aberrations” and said “commanders have been instructed to have zero tolerance towards such cases”.

It may be that these are “aberrations” but the problem is that we will never really know. At fault is the army’s “cover-up culture”.

Simply put, due to a misplaced sense of regimental pride and loyalty, a number of incidents are not honestly examined. More importantly, the findings of the Court of Inquiries that are inevitably ordered are not widely disseminated.

Litany of issues As a result, while zero tolerance may indeed be an appropriate post-incident policy, it does not address the structural problems arising out of an army in the middle of widespread societal and attitudinal change.

The most widely acknowledged problem is a debilitating shortage of officers. Currently, there is a shortage of approximately 11,000 officers , almost all of them below the rank of a Colonel.

Units have to function with very few officers who often hold multiple responsibilities. As a result, junior officers are unable to spend as much time as they did in the past with the men.

With official and social interaction – whether during training, on the sports field, or for everyday routines like roll-calls and activity parades –curtailed, the bonds between officers and men have weakened.

A senior Defence Ministry official, in a deposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, argued that due to a shortage of officers, “the type of interaction which we need at our junior officers’ level is lacking”.

One way of addressing this is to discourage, as far as is operationally feasible, junior officers below, say, three years of service from assuming any appointment at headquarters. Instead, they should be exclusively detailed for platoon-level activities so that they can spend as much time as possible with the men.

A shortage of officers leads to a high demand for careerist, and competent officers for staff duties and subsequently, few are available for battalion or regimental soldiering. As a result, there are not enough positive role models for young officers to emulate and their “grooming” suffers.

Unimaginative policies Unimaginative human resource development policies and the relentless pressure of peacetime soldiering has only compounded matters. A source of tension between officers and men is the archaic sahayak culture, or the use of soldiers to assist officers in their administrative duties.

Those who defend this practice usually say this is an extension of the buddy system in which soldiers look after each other.

Having a buddy in the field frees up the officer to concentrate on operational responsibilities. Problems however arise from the use of sahayaks in peace stations with its potential for misuse and clashes, regardless of who is at fault, with officer’s wives and family members. A sahayak is not supposed to do any menial work. But in practice, they are employed to do all sorts of jobs.

On this issue, when a representative of the Army was pressed by the Standing Committee on Defence with the observation that jawans were found working in the residences of officers, his answer was startling: “[He] would have been attending the work at home due to reverence.” Such convoluted justifications aside, officers who defend this practice should answer one question: If they were to join the army as combatant soldiers, how many of them would volunteer to serve as sahayaks in a peace station?

The answer to this question should thereafter be considered together with the first law of leadership: one cannot ask others to do what the leader would not do.

The policy prescription appears relatively simple: continue with the practice of sahayaks in field areas and discontinue it in peace stations. Indeed, a few years ago there was some discussion, based on an internal army study, of hiring civilians as Assistants; a measure that was apparently examined after A. K. Antony pressured the army to re-examine the use of sahayaks . Unfortunately, like with many of his other visions, the Defence Minister so far has been unable to implement this idea so far.

Need for change As Indian society changes, the old safety nets of joint families are slowly disappearing while discussions on television featuring feuding senior officers, corruption allegations, and smeared institutions, are being keenly followed in langars and barrack rooms. In addition, there are changes in the expectations of both officers and soldiers.

The army’s attitude towards gender, symbolised by its challenge to a High Court order recommending permanent commission for women, is indicative of misogyny. In this respect, the Navy and the Air Force have shown themselves to be far more progressive.

Over time, there will be more interest and hunger for information from civil society and politicians on such aspects of military administration. All these developments will force the army to change.

The best way forward is to allow the field of military sociology to develop and enlist the help of social scientists, mental health professionals and human resources specialists.

(The author is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.)

Published on March 12, 2018

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