Brig R S Chhikara, Veteran
Every third day one hears or reads about morale of the defence forces being on the line. Every one gives his or her twist. Be it an incident of alleged excess by a soldier in Kashmir, An army officer commenting on the way Babus and politicians have systematically promoted their own interests over those of the soldier or for that matter the desirability of AFSPA being debated in Kashmir or Manipur, without actually having any idea about what constitutes a soldier’ morale and what impinges on it , national security and morale of the armed forces is cited as being under stress. Do our worthy commentators indeed have an idea of why and under what circumstance, will a soldier get seriously concerned or worried about himself / herself or the nation? That is when his morale can be said to be at risk.
Morale of the soldier is a function of two major factors. One, his level of confidence in his ability to fight and defeat the enemy in battle. A soldier deserves and demands a fair chance to face the enemy on comparable footing and not be exposed to unfair disadvantage in the matter of arms, ammunition and logistics. Given such superiority or even parity, he will attain an edge over his adversary through training and will power. This vital component was missing in 1962 when he was told that he is only a burden on national resource and was called upon to make himself more productive as farm labour or construction force. When he was deprived of a good rifle to shoot the enemy with or warm clothing to survive at Tawang and in Ladakh. When Air support was denied to him and he was ordered to move from Ambala to Sela without an idea of where he is going to be deployed and what odds he may be called upon to face.
The second major factor is his confidence in his leaders, commanders and countrymen. A soldier has every right to expect that his platoon, company or battalion commander will lead him from the front. He is entitled to expect that his commanders at higher levels will speak up and act to ensure that he has what it takes to win a battle. He rightfully expects the leadership of the nation to think carefully before putting his life on the line and that his countrymen will take care of his family and not leave them to fend for themselves; should he not come back.
The nation’s leadership and senior commanders did not give him that confidence or support in 1962. True; his countrymen came to his aid when the chips were down. That sustained him through 1965 and he fought well in spite of heavy odds but the political leadership let him down once again by returning what he had won with blood. In 1971, his senior commanders ensured that he had adequate resources and time to prepare for war. Mercifully, the Prime Minister of the day listened to their professional advice. In the case of Srilanka, he was, once again, at the receiving end of bad political and possibly a more than pliant higher military leadership. In this episode even his own countrymen did not stand by him. Tamilnadu, his launch pad and logistic base was overtly hostile to his well being. During the Kargill war, he was once again compelled to ‘fight with whatever he had’. His immediate military leaders, however, saved the day.
Over the past two decades or more, there has been palpable sense of concern at the way the nation’s civilian leadership has been conducting affairs of state security. There has been an even greater concern on how political and bureaucratic meddling had impacted the process of selection and appointments in higher echelons of military hierarchy. Senior officers started placing their personal career prospects above national or institutional interests. They would prefer to keep quiet rather than speak up for the service, lest the masters get upset. They would like to be seen as being more concerned about savings in defence spending overlooking non availability of essential armaments, housing and training infrastructure. They started know towing with the bureaucrats in matters of deployment in aid to civil authority at the expense of training for war. All this, to cover up serious political- bureaucratic mismanagement. Whenever there was a conflict of opinion, CYA (Cover Your Ass) became the preferred option. Senior defense officers ceased to be professionals and became careerists.
Over time, they had recognized the wisdom of obfuscation, seeking political patronage, even backstabbing colleagues if there was a chance to garner a smile from the bureaucrat or politician. Inter service and inter departmental rivalries were encouraged by the masters and were enthusiastically lapped up. Healthy inter service and peer rivalry yielded to outright hostility. Individual service interest started overshadowing national interest. They forgot that a weaker Army or Air force will not contribute to victory of the other. They forgot that their spaces were not mutually exclusive. They also forgot that the defence forces needed to fight war as a composite mutually supporting force. Promoting interests of Artillery over Armoured corps or of fighter pilots over technical services can only be self defeating.
They were now used to playing games at each other’s cost leaving the political bureaucratic combine to promote their sectional interests at the cost of those of the Forces or of the nation itself. They started to be seen as abdicating responsibility towards the nation’s defence and the soldier’ well being. Chiefs shied away from protecting post retirement interest of the soldier. They were told it was not their business and they fell silent. They forgot that a serving soldier today is an ex- serviceman of tomorrow and with today’s awareness levels he is not blind to these issues.
This phenomenon has been going on for over two decades. No wonder, senior officers were now looking at a flat in Adarsh, or a little bribe at Sukhna or a gubernatorial post on retirement. No wonder they left the matter of defence preparedness to politicians and bureaucrats. No wonder they allowed a soldier to be placed below a peon in governmental hierarchy. This is what has indeed affected the morale of the soldier, sailor and airman very adversely.
After a long time V K Singh came along. He fought against corruption and the corrupt in service. He brought out skeletons in bureaucratic cupboards. He exposed the skullduggery in the matter of promotions and placements of senior officers. He started speaking of voids in defence preparedness. He started speaking of India’s Strategic interests. He began to be seen as being favourably inclined towards legitimate interests of the soldier and of war widows, war wounded and the veteran. Worried as the soldiery was at sheer neglect of their interests they started to see hope. He is indeed popular and respected by the men in uniform and those who have hung their uniforms. But, he has created many enemies both within and outside the services whose toes he threatens to tread on.
Morale of the armed forces had recently started to look up. Hope is gaining ground. But, will it be allowed to fructify. Vested interests will give an arm to see these nascent efforts scuttled by fair means or foul. We know where the political establishment stands on this. We know that the Nehruvian suspicions of a strong Military still persist in spite of ample demonstrated proof to the contrary. Nehru died a heart broken man when he realized the folly of putting his faith in Chinese professions of Bhai Bhai and not in his own Generals. It is evident that his successors have not learnt that lesson. We know that for our bureaucracy, the only thing that matters is self preservation and self service. That leaves the Countrymen. Where will they stand or will they stand up at all? Armed forces morale does in fact have a serious bearing on national security and integrity.