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Darkness at the corps
History's burden was heavy. A humiliating defeat in a war against China, a constant battle against some of the oldest and deadliest insurgencies in the world, and, above all, the pressure to remain apolitical and stay within the confines of democratic norms in a neighbourhood where ambitious generals have been wont to play money and power games. But to the credit of the Indian Army, it did rise to the challenges. From the humiliation of 1962 it has redeemed itself, and today it is a potent force along the border. Despite being engaged in counter-insurgency for over half a century it has largely remained a disciplined army, with human rights violations just the occasional blip on a by-and large clean record. But the narrative has taken an unexpected turn for the worse in recent years. And the last few weeks have only drawn more attention to the larger ills affecting the over 1. 1 million-strong army. So what has been going on? Are media reports an exaggerated interpretation of minor transgressions ? Or is the reality far worse? Has the rot set deep into its very core?
DOWNHILL AFTER KARGIL
From its glory days of Kargil, when a generation of soldiers earned a nation's gratitude fighting gritty battles, it hasn't taken the army much time to plunge to one of its worst phases.
Post-Kargil, a couple of things happened that probably contributed to this. One, India picked up the pace of military purchases to emerge as one of the world's biggest arms importers. This gave a fillip to corruption. The best evidence of this phenomenon is on display in many a city suburb where former officers have settled down. Many of their houses are opulent, far beyond their official means, reflecting the unexpected windfalls of their service.
The other factor has been the exalted position army officers enjoyed in public which gave them a far bigger sense of self. Many became victims of this myth, and slavery to this larger-than-life perception is visible in many of the present day problems.
PAY AND PROCURE
Exposing corruption in an arms deal is not easy. It is one of the most sophisticated global activities, with remittances covered behind several layers of secrecy. Still occasionally there have been glimpses of the epochal levels of corruption in arms deals. The Tehelka tapes captured the classic characteristics of the malaise.
Since then, the level of corruption in the army has regularly emerged through scams such as Adarsh and Sukna. Army chiefs like Gen NC Vij and Deepak Kapoor did not do any credit to their office by accepting apartments in Adarsh. A host of many others too were in the list. In Sukna, senior officers like Lt Gen Avdesh Prakash too didn't cover themselves in glory, by pushing for a private builder.
Across the country, several such shady deals involving army officers have emerged in recent days. Many senior officers are facing courts of inquiry or court-martials for several acts of omission and commission. From selling off weapons to rations, the levels of corruption are far beyond the pale of imagination.
Corruption in the ranks is a reality that the army now has to recognise. It may not be complete imagination when Gen V K Singh's supporters claim that his non-compromising position on a lot of issues has bought together vested interests, including corrupt arms lobbies. Gen V K Singh's claims about a just retired Lt General offering bribes for clearing the Tatra truck purchase have not really surprised many who know the real deals within the service.
One of the best-kept secrets of the army is the fault lines within based on caste, regionalism and regimental loyalties. One of the reasons cited behind Gen V K Singh's refusal to back down over the age issue is his frustration with a Sikh lobby that he believes has manipulated his date of birth. In 2006, when the discrepancy over his age was noticed in the records of army headquarters, the army chief was General J J Singh, the first Sikh chief of the army. V K Singh's lobby believes that Gen J J Singh insisted on 1950 as V K Singh's date of birth to ensure that Lt Gen Bikram Singh, another Sikh, becomes army chief after V K Singh. During J J Singh's tenure, there was a sudden increase in the number of Sikh officers at senior levels, which set many a tongue wagging.
V K Singh's frustrations with the Sikh lobby are on public display in the PIL that a group of his supporters, including former Navy chief Admiral L Ramdas, has filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the appointment of Lt Gen Bikram Singh as the next army chief. TOI-Crest has it on authority that the PIL places the blame for Bikram Singh's appointment at the doorstep of the Prime Minister, a Sikh himself, and blames him for giving his blessings to J J Singh's plans.
The whispers of caste considerations in many other instances are also audible, if you listen closely to the chatter in the army mess. When a group of Rajput/Thakur MPs met the Prime Minister to plead the age issue of Gen V K Singh, it wasn't lost on many that the army chief himself is a Rajput.
Equally pronounced within are the regimental loyalties of officers. Most army chiefs have preferred to appoint officers of their own arms and regiments to crucial positions. Even the present chief, Gen V K Singh, is accused of the same. Regimental loyalties, while they have their merits in the battlefield, prove adverse at the senior level.
DEALING WITH CIVILIANS
Adding to all the ills is the rather poor appreciation within the army of the complexities of democracy, the necessities of bureaucracy, and compulsions of politics. A new generation of officers is coming to occupy key positions within the army without the depth of appreciation necessary to steer an apolitical army in a democracy.
It is time that the army leadership looked at revising the training modules for young officers, to bring them up as rounded men capable of protecting the great traditions of the army for a complex tomorrow. Many see such a lack of appreciation for democracy and political ownership of government in the way Gen V K Singh fought the case over his age. The basic fact that he was appointed as the army chief at the pleasure of the elected government, and for whatever tenure it deemed fit, was lost somewhere in the debate over fixing his age and tenure and the way the entire case was fought.
The overall effect of these ills affecting the army has been felt most in its failure to become a modern, technologically cutting edge, military arm of the state. A large number of its modernisation projects are running far behind time. It hasn't got a new piece of artillery since the Bofors scandal broke. Contrast this with the navy's success in getting a new line of submarines despite the HDW scandal rocking the nation in the late 80s. In fact, some point out that almost 50 per cent of army tenders are cancelled before completion.
The army has also not been greatly successful in its indigenisation efforts as well. It continues to import while many prestigious projects lag behind. While the MBT Arjun tank project drags along, the army continues to induct Russian tanks into its fleet. Not just tanks, the army hasn't even succeeded in developing a successful indigenous personal weapon for its soldiers.
As the army fights unwanted battles ranging from the chief's age to caste divides, young officers are growing disillusioned. Many are doubtful of the commitments of their seniors. Are the seniors going by the dictum of placing the country and people they serve before self? Or is it all about self?
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