I remember meeting a veteran officer at his course reunion at the Indian Military Academy a few years ago. Let’s call him Colonel Not Happy Singh. Besides the normal complaints about his stay, for which he rang up everyone, from the garrison engineer to the commandant, he also recalled, with a lot of pain, his time at the academy.
He had joined the academy as a direct entry officer cadet and many senior cadets (especially graduates of the National Defence Academy) routinely stole his swimming trunks, socks, and PT jersey. Many of his veteran course mates tried to make him understand the way the universe worked in a military academy and what larger cosmic act had conspired behind those mischiefs. He failed to understand and, thus, refused get over it.
Military training is a social construct designed to break the civil routine of a recruit and re-mould him/her according to the requirements of the armed forces. It comes as a culture shock to most recruits. They adapt at their own pace. Some get on with it rapidly; others take a little longer. Some like Colonel Not Happy Singh never do.
Then, there are those who take their grievances public.
The recent spate of videos uploaded by grieving troops of BSF, CRPF, and the Indian Army have got the attention of the prime minister, the home minister, and the chief of the army staff, forcing them to react. It has also given our traditional adversaries a chance to feed their propaganda about the low morale of the Indian armed forces.
But is it such a huge cause for concern?
The ultimate role of the armed forces is to conduct and manage violence. Usually, combat takes place in extreme physical conditions. Everything else, including the peacetime activities, organisational structure (hierarchy), and the associated social structure (norms and privileges) revolve around this core truth.
This is how the forces have worked and this is how they have delivered. Mostly, they have succeeded.
A job in the armed forces is not a career, it is a “higher calling” to serve the society. Words such as “honour,” “duty,” and “service” mean much more than “pay and allowances,” “perks and privileges,” and “holidays.” Arguably, most officers understand credo well and join the army to meet those higher aspirations; most young sepoys join merely looking for some employment. However, the regimental ethos is such that the recruits grow up into able non-commissioned officers and junior commissioned officers, serving for the “Naam, Namak, and Nishaan” (reputation, loyalty, and standard) of their paltans (unit).
The armed forces are not welfare organisations. Welfare is only a facilitator of combat effectiveness, not the core issue. Yet, welfare is critical in keeping troop morale high. “Take care of the troops, and they will take care of the mission,” is an old adage.
In the armed forces there is a formal command structure, which follows a strict mechanism of a downward flow of orders and instructions, and an upward flow of feedback and reports. There is also an informal structure, guided by unwritten conventions of behaviour, where juniors come in contact with senior individuals within the unit and establish interpersonal relationships. These can be through informal interviews, get-togethers, company or platoon-level functions, where everyone interacts casually. Thus, multiple channels and procedures exist at the sub-unit level to address any administrative issues. Despite these channels, if the grievances are not heard, there are ways and means to escalate the level gradually—through Sainik Sammelans (a gathering of soldiers), commanding officer’s darbar and grievance boxes (which also allows the use of anonymous letters)—until these are resolved.
It is very rare that an individual ignores these basic structures and protocols and approaches higher authorities directly to settle his grievances. In literal as well as disciplinary terms, this is construed to be “out of order” and is dealt with accordingly. It is also perceived as a “command failure” of the commander as he has failed to look after his troops. Both deserve to be penalised. Such cases, however, are exceptions rather than the norm.
Yes, soldiers complain. Grievances in the armed forces are as old as the armed forces themselves and a popular dictum proclaims: “A cribbing trooper is a happy trooper.”
Sometimes it is a genuine issue which requires a certain amount of change. At other times, it is just another complaint, which only needs to be heard. It may not solicit an action. Any military leader worth his salt is quite capable of drawing a clear line between the two and dealing with it accordingly.
The bigger question is: Are we producing such honest and straightforward junior leaders? This is a not a novel issue. Manpower-intensive armed forces have faced this dilemma since early days. During the First World War, Sepoy Indar Singh of the Indian Army wrote a letter to his family back home, lamenting, “You have to take orders from men whom you would not think of employing as labourers in your own village.”
There is an issue with the quantity and quality of the junior leadership available in the armed forces. In all the videos that have surfaced, either there was no immediate commander available to discuss and resolve the concerns raised. Or, the commanders present were not professionally competent enough to resolve the concerns. Hence, the troops felt they had no choice but to reach out through the relatively unexplored medium of social media.
In the future, too, troops will find access to social media as and when they need it, even if their use is banned. Denying them this access is not the long-term solution. Training them in the proper and virtuous use of social media may be a more sensible thing to do.
Lastly, if obedience is expected, then the members of an institution must have unflinching trust in their leaders. Troops at the bottom of the hierarchy are expected to fight the real combat and risk losing their lives and limbs. This one thing is never going to change. If we expect our troops to go and fight obediently, whenever asked to do so, is it not fair that they should expect the institution to look after them and their families in return? In a hierarchic organisation such as the military, unflinching trust also demands impeccable institutional care. Providing them with able commanders would be a good starting point.
So, the next time a soldier appeals to the prime minister, before we react, some questions must be asked: has he already appealed to his company commander, his battalion commander and his brigade commander? If still his grievance is not settled, ask him to appeal to the formation commander. He can even appeal to the chief of the army staff.
Kamaldeep Singh Sandhu is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London and a former officer of the Indian Army’s Parachute Regiment. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.