August 03, 2020
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A Bit Too Combat-Ready

There must have been thoughtless abrasivness on the part of the ministry to bring matters to such a pass

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A Bit Too Combat-Ready

The last two months have witnessed the depressing phenomenon of the most vital of our institutions, the defence establishment, being affected by public controversies, culminating in the dismissal of chief of naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. The slanging match between Bhagwat and defence minister George Fernandes, the accusations about civilian and defence personnel being involved with arms dealers, the rash of representations and protests about postings, indicate a dismal and dangerous state into which our defence establishment has descended.

The controversies attending the posting of general officer commanding at the Eastern Command (Lt Gen. Kadiyan vs Lt Gen. Kalkat), the unseemly and indisciplined activities of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh, Fortress Commander, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the barely avoided crisis regarding the transfer of deputy chief of army staff, Gen. M.R. Sharma, manifest trends of ineptitude in defence management which should be of profound national concern.

One wonders whether the navy chief's dismissal could have been avoided. Regardless of the differences of opinion, could Harinder Singh not be given an appropriate post after he completed his tenure at Port Blair, not necessarily at naval headquarters? Would it not have been appropriate to advise both Singh and Bhagwat not to go to court? If the ministry found Bhagwat's recommendation for the post of deputy chief of naval staff unacceptable, could not the ministry have asked him to recommend another officer? Instead, the Cabinet Committee on Appointments, on the recommendations of the Defence Ministry, deliberately chose Bhagwat's bete noire, Harinder Singh, for the post.

The whole affair smacks of acrimony, intrigue and exercises in scoring points. The man-management and promotion policies affecting senior echelons of our defence forces are matters of national importance and should not have degenerated into a theatre of the absurd.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Harinder Singh's case, blatant insubordination against the chief of the service should not have been tolerated. Harinder Singh merited immediate disciplinary action. The latest act in this regrettable drama came when the chief of naval staff refused to implement the Cabinet Committee's order appointing Harinder Singh, quoting regulations stipulated by the Ministry of Defence that appointments of officers of all branches of the rank of Captains and above shall be made by the Government on the recommendations of the chief of naval staff. He questioned the authority of the Cabinet to appoint senior military officers, adding the critical dimension of a service chief questioning the authority of the supreme civil executive institution of the government the Cabinet Committee on appointments.

It is necessary to go beyond event-specific or personality-specific implications of these cases. The challenges affecting the cohesion and integrity of our defence establishments need to be spelt out specifically. First, that the harmonious and synergic interaction between civilian authorities and the armed forces headquarters stands disrupted is a matter of public knowledge. Second, there is an increasing tendency towards questioning the validity of civilian control over military authority publicly by the senior echelons of our armed forces for which the services headquarters alone cannot be blamed. There must have been thoughtless abrasiveness on the part of the Defence Ministry also which brought matters to this pass.

The Indian armed forces are a voluntary force there is no conscription or compulsion. It has remained completely apolitical despite functioning in a volatile political atmosphere for five decades. It is the most secular institution of the government and has managed to remain comparatively unaffected by factors of caste, religion, ethnicity. It has maintained high levels of professionalism despite the constant resource constraints from which it has suffered.

My personal interaction with colleagues in the armed forces has left me with the distinct impression that compared to the average member of the Indian Civil Service today, officers of the armed forces are more knowledgeable, more in tune with latest technologies and management procedures. Our armed forces have fought wars successfully and carried out peace-keeping tasks and other tasks even at short notice and without a clearly thought out set of objectives. They are perhaps the only institution in the government of India which have maintained their integrity in a situation where the rest of our institutions have frayed and deteriorated. Credit for this has to go primarily to the successive chiefs.

A clinical analysis of the critical decision to dismiss the navy chief and related developments clearly indicates that while Admiral Bhagwat tended to be mechanistically rigid though his stand might have been a principled one, the defence minister singularly failed in restoring communications between civilian and military wings. It is clear that defence secretary Ajit Kumar found himself unable to maintain necessarily levels of communications with the Forces Headquarters. It is strange that the prime minister, while visiting Andaman and Nicobar Islands, socialised with Harinder Singh, whose indisciplined behaviour sparked off the whole controversy. The prime minister could have kept aloof from this officer, regardless of his official position.

This whole episode clearly indicates an absence of initiative in political leadership in the Defence Ministry. At the end of the 50th year of Independence, we have much to worry about in terms of the quality of our politics, our economy and the negative quality of our life. We could have done without anxieties about one of the most important institutions of our polity, the defence establishment.

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