P V Indiresan

Defence forces need a makeover

P.V.INDIRESAN | Updated on September 07, 2012

Only the very best should be promoted to the top of the Defence forces. — Sampath Kumar G.P.

The armed forces have been laid low by stories of corruption and rebellion. To arrest this decline, we need a younger army, assured, however, of well-paid, prestigious civilian jobs after they reach 35 years of age.

Former Chief Vigilance Commissioner N. Vittal is one of the top experts on corruption in India. He has recently written a book, Ending Corruption? How to Clean Up India. This article is not a review of that book (that will follow), but a reaction to a chapter on how most wars in India were lost not because of paucity of forces but because of corruption. Even casual students of Indian history are aware of it, but at present, nobody either in the defence forces or in the civilian authority is aware that, decades hence, India may lose her independence because of corruption and disloyalty due to disaffection in its armed forces.

For instance, Golconda, which had managed to hold on against a siege for many months, was taken over by Aurangzeb who bribed an official to keep one of its doors open. Robert Clive, with an army of barely 3,000, defeated a ten times stronger enemy by bribing Mir Jafar.

The Vijaynagar Empire floundered because its Muslim generals were persuaded to forsake their responsibility and be loyal to their faith. It must be added that one of the kings who ransacked Vijayanagar was a Brahmin Maratha ruler.

Buying loyalty

The East India Company managed to take over far larger armies by earning the loyalty of its soldiers. They did so by paying those soldiers a regular wage — instead of making them earn money by loot. The wages they paid was Rs 3 a month, which then, could buy three-four thousand kg of rice.

I recollect asking a policeman who was barricading our small student protest in pre-Independent India why he was doing so. He replied, “ Nuvvu buvva isthava?”(Will you give me food?) I had no answer. Regular income is crucial; it buys loyalty.

Till World War II, the British army recruited its soldiers from villages and retired almost all of them by the time they reached the age of 35. That was a popular move.

The farmers and landowners did not want their sons to interfere and preferred them to learn discipline by serving in the army.

When their sons had reached the age of 35, the parents were tired and wanted their sons to take over. The sons, too, were happy. They had the double prestige of having served in the army and that of land ownership — a vital factor in rural India.

New army culture

After World War II, the Indian Government took away lands from the larger farmers. Hereditary caste-based authority gave way to political clout. Thus, traditional rural life lost much of its charm. Further, the army needed more brains than brawn. Such persons were found more in towns and cities than in the villages. For urban people, the desired goal was not a short-term assignment but a lifelong career. That radical change in the social milieu of the armed forces has produced an entirely new culture. The Government has not, as yet, learnt to manage it.

So, the armed forces have lost much of their pride. There are stories of corrupt generals, and of ordinary soldiers rebelling. Can such an army of disaffected people be relied upon to protect our country and do so forever?

Our Government has peculiar values. In the name of equality, the Government cut down recruitment from traditional areas such as Punjab. At the same time, they introduced strong preferences in recruitment for what they called as “lower castes”. And, now, they have initiated — with dubious results — a process to extend the law from caste-based preferences in selection to promotions, too.

Tearing social fabric

In consequence, India is a far worse divided society than what it was at the time of Independence. No doubt, in several respects, it is now more egalitarian but legal preferences based on caste have started tearing the social fabric. On top of it, the modern generation seeks larger and larger levels of social prestige — for which it seeks more and more money. Thus, we have now a rapidly divided and sub-divided polity which is also becoming more and more ambitious. The armed forces need only youth, but recruits want a prestigious lifelong career. The Government has increased promotional opportunities and the ages of retirement for many beyond the age of 35. That has made our defence forces old but has not really made our armed forces any happier.

In short, we need a young army but a lifelong career for the army men with increasing emoluments and prestige. Then, there is no alternative but to make a two-part career for anyone who opts to fight for the country: a service in armed forces till about 35 and a guaranteed employment outside beyond that age. The second part is naturally civilian and could be both in administration and in the professions.

That is, every cadet who joins the National Defence Academy or any of the junior ranks should be assured of a lifelong prestigious career. What is more, future promotions should be based on transparent and objective evaluation. One and all should know that they will get and have got whatever is their due.

The defence forces also need a few persons in the highest ranks. That causes a dilemma. If the most competent officers are diverted towards more lucrative civilian careers, the country’s defence will suffer. Hence, the very best (but a relatively small number) should be retained as senior officers of the armed forces. Moreover, their perquisites, their emoluments and most important, their authority should be higher than what they may enjoy in civilian service.

A wise government only can devise such an arrangement that will ensure that the armed forces are incorruptible, and are content to lay down their lives for the country.

This is 337th in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on August 25.

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Responses to >indiresan@gmail.com and >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on September 07, 2012

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