Thursday, October 18, 2012

The 'General' Post Office

By G D Singh,

Army officers must realise that the jawan has moved on. Soldiering is no longer a way of life but a chosen profession

The face-offs between officers and jawans at Samba, Amritsar, Leh and other locations and the evident anger amongst jawans and mid-level officers have come as serious blows to the Indian Army. The inspiring army slogan of ‘naam, namak, nishan’, which roughly translates into ‘reputation, loyalty, flag’, can no longer obscure the disconnect between officers and men, and a growing leadership vacuum. The biggest casualty is the morale of an army that has always believed in the primacy of the man behind the gun.

The army jawan carries impeccable credentials. But in peacetime today, by rising up against his officers, the jawan has raised serious questions about the army’s leadership. These incidents cannot be blamed on the army’s traditional whipping boys: the netas and the babus. Shortages of equipment or outdated weaponry have had no role to play. Nor were these soldiers driven by grievances over pay and perks. The generals are brushing these incidents off as ‘local command failures’. This shortsighted policy of denial cannot hold back the wellsprings of grievance.

Instead, the generals owe it to the nation to introspect. They must create an operating environment and ethos that would satisfy the aspirations of a new generation of soldiers and young officers very different from the one that fought in 1962 or 1971. This new generation is drawn from a society undergoing rapid economic and social transformation. Urbanisation of rural areas and values and unprecedented economic growth have profoundly reshaped the common Indian’s self-perception and expectations. And there is a widening gap between this demanding new generation and status-quoist generals.

Numerous studies on the ‘drivers of engagement’ have established that today’s young Indians value job content more than pay and perks. This is equally true for the Indian jawan. When my generation of officers joined our units, a jawan took pride in being selected as an officer’s helper. Today, jawans avoid being detailed as a ‘batman’ or as a ‘sahayak’. The change has come about because jawans’ expectations have fundamentally altered. But the generals have failed to respond to this change.

With officers increasingly drawn from the lower middle class, the social gap between officers and jawans is rapidly diminishing. Instead of welcoming this healthy development, the generals continue to embrace the past, propagating a top-down feudalism that rests on the belief that a jawan’s greatest privilege is to serve the domestic, administrative and personal needs of his officers. The generals must realise that India has moved on; soldiering is no longer a ‘way of life’, but a chosen profession, something that would be welcomed by any professional army.

Also driving change is the electronic media, which batters the jawans with a mix of news, rumours and outright lies. Reaching the soldier in real time, this has melted the distance between Siachen and South Block. The ongoing coverage of graft and discipline cases involving top generals is eroding the fundamental compact between soldier and general, which rests on mutual trust. For decades, soldiers on the front lines motivated themselves in the belief that their leaders were men of honour; corruption, if any, was limited to logistical and support services. Today, this myth stands exploded. The chaos in soldiers’ minds is exacerbated by a proliferation of retired generals, air marshals and admirals on television, super experts on matters they singularly failed to solve or address whilst in service.

With corruption in senior ranks out in the open, the generals are in denial. They, in turn, blame the value systems of the present generation, the MoD’s incompetence and the indifference of the political class. While all these issues must be addressed, a key question remains: what have the generals done inside their own organisations to engender a culture of professional and financial honesty, and to manage and motivate their men? Is it just convenient for them to function as post offices, passing the buck to the defence minister, writing letters to the prime minister, and mouthing platitudes on TV?

To use a common military exhortation, ‘Generals, wake up!’ The problems that bedevil the army cannot be solved by liberal leave regulations, opening holiday homes for jawans at hill stations, or by commissioning yet another leadership study. The jawan is claiming his right for change, for a more professional and equal relationship with his officers, based on mutual trust and respect, rather than the feudal, patrimonial parent-child relationship of old. We can no longer deny that to our fighting men.

With the jawans having already spoken, this change must come from the top, from the army chief and seven army commanders. Without entirely dumping tradition, they must innovatively adopt the realities and flavours of soldiering to the new generation of soldiers. Two successive chiefs have spoken about the army’s internal health. It is time to do something about it.

The writer retired as Deputy Chief of The Army (DCOAS)


  1. It is a pity that the high command of the armed forces of India has deteriorated to virtual post offices as observed by the author very rightly. The world has changed and there is a need to change the manner in which the army officers treat their jawans. We got our army legacy from the royal british army. Why not attempt some learning from other countries like the US ? There are discussions in the public now that India and its traditional enemies would not attempt any war now as that would be a suicidal attempt for both sides! It is time to do some thing innovatively now !

  2. Sad but true everyone from General to Rifleman to Common man all salute the same man; The Loot man.