It was in 1986 that I was drinking a glass of whisky with a naval friend living opposite me in the Raksha Bhavan. The Raksha Bhavan is not any kind of headquarters but merely the living accommodation of officers from all the services attending the National Defence College (ndc).
Unique in its own way, the ndc is the last phase of joint training of the services, where officers renew deep friendships made a quarter century earlier at the National Defence Academy. The occasion was the commissioning into the army of my friend's son, who had joined the elite parachute regiment and was home on a week's leave. Having 'almost' joined the army 30 years earlier it was refreshing, or so I thought, to talk to the youngster about the choices of joining one of the great fighting regiments. Surely there must be a scramble for the most decorated regiments—with only merit to force one's way in? But my world crashed when he said simply 'there are too many volunteers for the ordnance and supply corps'. He was confirming, first hand, what was up to then mess rumours that the youngster of 'today' was getting infected with the virus of cynicism as early as the military academy. But worse was to come. 'Surely', I said, 'You don't mean that the best officers are going into the ordnance corps?' 'No', he said, 'today we are subdivided into lots all the way down the list and in each lot an officer gets the regiment of his choice depending on where he stands in that lot'. So obviously, this had been going on for quite awhile.
Now that tehelka.com has exposed corruption in the uniformed services, one reads with amusement the reminiscences of some retired generals who bemoan the state of the army saying it is not what it was. Let us be clear that the seeds of this corruption we are witnessing was sown two or three decades ago and it is very much yesterday's generals, admirals and air marshals who are guilty. They stood by and watched this cancer grow. There is nothing going on in the services that is not known to the officers themselves. For years now, the uniformed fraternity have referred derisively to 'ordnance wallahs' and implied a number of things that should never have been implied of other officers. My good friend Chikki Talwar of the ordnance may forgive me, but everyone knows in the services that things have not been right with this corps (and a couple of others) for a quarter century or more.
Fortunately, the bulk of the armed forces have remained clean. This bulk is largely concerned with combat and the pursuit of a kind of life that constantly strives to build team spirit, fighting qualities and leadership over large bodies of men who are now better educated and, therefore, increasingly critical. Some of the administrative measures have also properly insulated the fighting officer and man from the temptations of purchases, acquisitions and contracts. The affected or infected corps have not been so lucky. Theirs is the daily boring business of dealing with suppliers with wads in their pockets and sub-standard cement in their godowns. But the corrupt uniformed officer is still relatively naive and not so cunning in his ways as not to get caught with a little determined effort. But it would appear that there are some problems which are partly psychological. Chiefly it is the reluctance of most career officers to get involved in snooping on brother officers.
Snooping on them to check on security is one thing but watching them to see that their whisky is not unaffordable is something else.But each service has its own internal intelligence sections. Not popular with their brethren, these intelligence units report more or less directly through just one or two intermediaries to the area commander. In each area command, ask any officer to list the organisations that are likely to be corrupt and the lists are likely to be identical.
What the service has going for it is the extremely fierce competition for the top ranks. No officer of any branch will chance getting caught in a corruption rap, even though he may feel that the money involved is large. What has caused the rot to grow is the view that the culprits don't often get caught and that the bribe involved may not actually affect combat efficiency. But against this there is the monumental disgrace of a court martial, the shame the family has to bear in a small closed community and the termination of a career many years ahead of time, accompanied by having to face a new world ill-equipped professionally. Then why hasn't this menace been stamped out completely? The answers lie with the command. Is it the fear that a sudden spate of 25 courts martial in a command may wreck the area commander's prospects of promotion? That instead of praising the area commander for weeding out long-standing corruption, the ignorant would merely say 'Did you hear? There are 25 courts martial for corruption in southern command. Whew! What a sorry bunch of b...s'. The hard truth is yes! This is the answer.
For retired officers like me, having dealt with tactics, weapons and strategy all one's life, it is abjectly humiliating to hear from friends, relatives and acquaintances that they went to such and such headquarters on business and paid some money to an officer at whose age one usually worked a bit, played games, sailed the oceans, partied and slept soundly. The services are routinely handling huge weapons platform acquisitions—and none involved so far have been suspected of wrongdoing. Such major acquisitions involving ships, submarines, aircraft and tanks are often fiddled with after the service headquarters have finished their selection process. The people involved in the tehelka scam are all in routine purchases; they can be isolated and made an example of quite easily. Will my colleagues among the seniors kindly take the first step?
(The author, a former naval officer, writes on strategic affairs)
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