The irrepressible and inimitable ‘Sam Bahadur’ or late Field Marshall SHJ Manekshaw was known for his acerbic wit barely veiling his dim opinion of those who were not from the profession-of-arms. “I wonder whether those of our political masters who have been put in charge of the defence of the country can distinguish a mortar from a motor, a gun from a howitzer, guerilla from a gorilla, although great many resemble the latter.”
However, under this larger-than-life persona was a thoroughbred professional who drew the line on functional advice, especially when it came from non-combatant quarters, as it did then, from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanting to rush into the Indo-Pak war. ‘Sam Bahadur’ had spoken his mind to Indira Gandhi with the sort of clarity, domain insight and fearlessness that not only delivered ‘Bangladesh’ in 1971, but behoved Generalship.
Military Leaders Must Brief Politicians Fearlessly
The institution of the Indian Armed Forces had many before and after ‘Sam Bahadur’, like Field Marshal KM Cariappa, Generals Thimayya, Harbaksh, Sagat, Inder, Bhagat, Hanut—deserving legends whilst still in service, all with one commonality, each spoke their professional mind to the powers-that-be, fearlessly. The institution was better for their service and retains that famed kinetic ability that shone through a ‘Kargil’ and other trials, owing to these giants.
Each had fought the ‘system’ of their times, won some and lost some, but never forgot that the institution was infinitely greater than them as individuals, or even their contrarian opinions. The inevitable truth of a Military-Civilian relation in a democracy, where the civilian leadership has the ‘right to be wrong’ must not be forgotten. Samuel Huntington suggested in 'The Soldier and the State', “When the Military man receives a legal order from an authorized superior, he does not hesitate, he does not substitute his own views; he obeys instantly”.
The ‘Uniformed’ fraternity accepts ‘orders’ with the inherent faith and trust that its senior leadership has shared its own professional input and opinion, just as fearlessly and professionally, as would have been done by a Manekshaw or a Hanut.
Why Dissent on Agnipath Scheme is a Healthy Thing
Today, the institution is deeply divided on the recently announced policy of Tour of Duty, or its more martial sounding nomenclatures—Agnipath with Agniveers. It would not be out of place to state that the division of opinions is unmistakably on partisan lines instead of functional deliberations. Those in support of the same insist on the lines of the need to ‘experiment’, ‘give it time to shape, let’s at least try’, ‘those who serve, know best’ etc., whereas those on the other side rattle out functional/experiential concerns.
Disagreement of opinion within ‘ranks’ in not necessarily unhealthy as the military thrives on the maxim that professional dissent does not tantamount to disloyalty as it will only save the institution in times of war/crisis. Therefore, issues like Tour of Duty deserve the sort of deliberation and dissonance, as generated.
But the fact is, Tour of Duty is now fait accompli! We can only hope that those in the relevant ranks and positions had deliberated the idea before its formal announcement, and did so, fearlessly and professionally. I have my own opinion on the Tour of Duty, but that it is now frankly irrelevant, and now the ‘order’ must be honoured.
When Military Leadership Follows Politics, It Doesn't End Well
It is true that sometimes military policies and orders imposed by the civilian powers, do end up with negative consequences as feared by many, and the same do get reneged or at least modified, suitably. Inherently, the Armed Forces ought not be a playground for ‘experimentation’ given the sheer stakes involved. Therefore, the modern management saying, ‘If you have to fail, fail fast’ is relevant to the situation, as the institution must cut its losses immediately, when an idea isn’t working and needs alternative readjustment ie, pivoting!
An old example is the one of the many reckless blunders inflicted by the then Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon, in using serving troops as labour for construction of housing quarters. A senior officer (who was to earn infamy subsequently in the 1962 war) gleefully accepted what seemed terribly awry at the face of it, and he did earn the highest peace time decoration for this hare-brained initiative. When the same acquiescing officer was faced with real time combat situation, he came a cropper.
Thankfully, lessons were soon learnt, and it was not just the Nehru-Menon combine who came out politically inglorious in the Military conscience, but also—as Jairam Ramesh’s latest book reveals—some within the ‘Uniformed’ fraternity, who didn’t retain the ramrod posture of a Manekshaw, Harbaksh or Hanut.
Course Correction Should Not be Seen as Embarrassment
There is still time for weaving in some changes in the policy as already pronounced, as there is a plethora of well-meant and well-reasoned pointers and literature by various experienced professionals. Importantly, these changes would not diminish the luster of the dispensation, as it would only reflect the humility of ensuring only the best imperatives for the sword-arm of the nation ie, the Armed Forces.
Legendary US General Omar Bradley, of WWII fame, institutionalised the military leadership style of putting soldiers’ welfare, constitutional values and strategic combat theory into his thoughts and insistences. In the preface to his book, A Soldier’s Story, he wrote, “To explain how war is waged on the field from the field command post. For, it is there, midway between the conference table and the foxhole, that strategy is translated into battlefield tactics; there the field commander must calculate the cost of rivers, roads, and hills in terms of guns, tanks, tonnage — and most importantly in terms of the lives and limbs of his soldiers. How, then, did we reach our critical decisions? Why and how did we go where we did? These are the questions I have been asked most often….’.
Little Margin of Error in Military Matters
On matters pertaining to security and to the Armed Forces, it is this sort of constant introspection, correction, and—indeed—evolution, that must be continuously ensured, beyond the prism of partisan lens. The Armed Forces are the sword-arm of the nation that must remain blunt, sharp and kinetic. Contrary to some views, military is not a national training institute for building nationalism, place for ‘Touring’, or even addressing the employment crisis in a country, as there are enough governmental agencies and platforms to do so.
There is, frankly, little scope to go wrong in the security realm. This is exemplified by the spirit of the inscription in the firing-ranges of Military areas, ‘ek goli, ek nishana’ (one bullet, one target), and that target should always be the ‘enemy’, and not some partisan agenda.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)