Sunday, November 14, 2010
The Unspoken Social Contract - Army and Civilians
By Vir Sanghvi
At the heart of the relationship between the Indian Army and the people of India lies a mystery. It is a mystery so deep that even though the most brilliant scholars have spent decades trying to find a solution, none of their answers has been entirely convincing. Here’s the mystery: the Indian Army, as we know it, was carved out of the army of pre-Partition, undivided India. Therefore, it has the same heritage and history (except for the last few decades) as the Pakistani and Bangladeshi armies, which were also set up by the British during the Raj. Until recently, officers in the Indian Army had even served with their counterparts in the Pakistani Army in the days before Partition. But while the Pakistani and Bangladeshi armies have demonstrated a thirst for political power, the Indian Army has remained resolutely apolitical. Generals have run both Bangladesh and Pakistan. But no Indian General has ever come close to accessing political power.
What’s more, no Indian General has seemed remotely interested in becoming this country’s military dictator. Why should this be so? Why should the Indian Army remain content to take orders from civilian politicians when its counterparts across the border are so eager to grab power for themselves? It can’t be that our soldiers are merely following the British tradition. In that case, the Pakistani Army should never have left its barracks. It isn’t that our soldiers have enormous respect for their civilian masters. Give an army officer two pegs of a good whiskey, and he will tell you, in colourful language, how much contempt he has for the politicians who run our country. Nor is it that we have kept the army out of domestic affairs. We use the army frequently to fight insurrections — in Nagaland, Mizoram, Punjab and Kashmir. Even when a riot rages out of control, the cry goes out: ‘Send in the army’.
It could be that Indian democracy is stronger than the kind of democracy practiced by our neighbours. But even when democratic rights have been suspended and an authoritarian regime has taken control of India — as happened with the Emergency — the Army has shown no interest in getting involved with the running of the country. I have no solutions of my own to offer and the Army’s unwillingness to leave its barracks must remain a mystery. But what I know is this: there exists an unspoken social contract between the Indian Army and the people. Basically, this consists of an agreement on our part to protect, indulge, admire, pamper and respect the Indian Army. In turn, the Army will do its own thing until we need it to save our bacon. Then, it will leave its barracks, clear out the Golden Temple, restore order to Bombay or Delhi, throw infiltrators and invaders out of Kargil, and guarantee the security and integrity of India.
Our part of the deal is that we will protect the Army from political interference. Except for a brief patch in the early ’60s, when Krishna Menon was defence minister, army promotions have not been unduly influenced by politicians. The chiefs are given free rein to do pretty much as they please. When the army forcefully expresses a demand (for pay revisions, better facilities etc) it usually gets its own way. Also part of the deal is that Indians will hold the Army in the highest esteem. We will treat it as the one institution that has not been affected by the moral decline of Indian society. We may be prepared to criticise the paramilitary forces, and to accept that their men have committed human rights violations. But we will never accept that this could be true of the Indian Army. Equally, we will never blame the Army for anything.
In 1962, we were thrashed by the Chinese but the consensus was that politicians had lost the war while our brave soldiers had done their best.
The 1965 war was at best a stalemate (the Pakistanis also claimed they had won) but we treated it as a glorious victory for the Indian Army.
Operation Blue Star was a fiasco. But even today, it is Blue Star we remember favourably rather than Black Thunder (conducted by the paramilitary forces to clean up the mess left behind by Blue Star), a bona fide success. By and large, the social contract has worked.
The Army has nearly always got us out of jams when we need its services. Whether it was Delhi in 1984, Bombay in 1993, or Gujarat in 2002, we needed the Army to restore order. And during the Kargil War, young officers led from the front, sacrificed their lives and displayed astonishing bravery in the service of their country. Consequently, the army sometimes appears to live in a state within a state. Visit a cantonment and you will be struck by the contrast with the civilian part of the town or city where it is located. The roads will be broad and well-maintained, the buildings will be freshly painted, the surroundings will be clean, and an air of good manners and civility will prevail.
Visit an army town (Wellington, for instance) and the contrast will be even more striking. The order and cleanliness of the cantonments serves as a contrast to the chaos and filth of modern India. There is, however, one important aspect of the social contract that now seems to be failing. As corruption has spread in modern India, we have reluctantly accepted that most parts of our society are tainted — civil servants, the schools and even the lower judiciary. But somehow, we have always believed that the army is different. Oh yes, we hear the stories. We hear about Generals who take kickbacks on arms deals and about officers involved in canteen purchase scandals. But because this corruption appears to be restricted to the Army itself and because we believe that it is not widespread, we are happy to look the other way.
The problem with the Adarsh scandal and controversies over other land deals that have erupted recently is that they encroach into the civilian space. Senior army officers are seen to be conniving with politicians, bureaucrats and contractors to make millions. Worse still, at least in the case of the Adarsh scandal, there is a cynical abuse of the social contract. When we say that we will respect and pamper the army, we do not expect senior officers to grab flats for themselves in the name of Kargil martyrs. Earlier this week, the Army chief spoke about his resolve to cleanse his force. I am not sure he fully grasps how serious the situation is. The problem is not just that there are ‘a few bad apples’ in the army.
It is that Army corruption has now spilled out into the civilian space and that Generals are making big bucks by exploiting the regard we have for the heroism of the Army and the sacrifices made by its soldiers. If more such instances come to light, then the press will begin looking critically at the Army. The politicians will have an excuse to delve deep into the workings of the officer corps. This will give them the opportunity they need to play favourites. And the public, regretfully recognising that the Army has breached the social contract itself, will reluctantly acquiesce in the muck-raking by the press and the interference by politicians.
Once this happens, the social contract will not survive. The image of the Army will not recover. And the perfect balance we have built between the Army and the Indian people will topple over. So, the Army must urgently look at itself. It must crack down on corruption, identify the guilty men and act swiftly against them. It must do so now. Because too much is at stake. And tomorrow will be too late.
Exclusive to TNSE. More at www.virsanghvi.com. Follow him at twitter.com / virsanghvi Topics: