Modi, RM Skip Armistice Day: Govt’s Pro-Military Claims are Hollow
Modi, RM Skip Armistice Day: Govt’s Pro-Military Claims are Hollow
(Photo: Aroop Mishra / The Quint)

Modi, RM Skip Armistice Day: Govt’s Pro-Military Claims are Hollow

The strains and tension in civil-military relations were visible again last week (9-11 November), surprisingly during the commemoration ceremonies of the centenary of the Armistice Day World War I.

This, even as India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (wish someone had briefed him on formal attire during ceremonial events) returned from France after commemorating Armistice Day and said the Indian youth must know the contribution of our soldiers in the long war (which was not ours).

Prime Minister Modi too tweeted endorsing this sentiment, adding he had been to Haifa and Neuve Chapelle, both World War I memorials to deceased Indians. Yet, our IAS bureaucracy, bereft of strategic culture but beaming with disdain for dignity and decorum of sacred military ceremonials (like their turning the Beating Retreat into a band baja baraat) kept the two planned and sanctioned functions, on tenterhooks: cancelling one and giving the go-ahead for the other at the 11th hour.

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MoD’s Unprofessional Conduct

The two solemn events were at India Gate – a joint Indo-British brass band concert being cancelled and the venue having to be shifted to the residence of the British High Commissioner; the second being the laying of wreaths at Delhi’s India Gate memorial of Indian soldiers killed in World War I by a British MP, a former RAF officer Tom Tugendhat, chairman Foreign Affairs Committee, and two British Generals for which permission was needlessly delayed.

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The unprofessional conduct of the MoD (and the Army abdicating its responsibility in ensuring military etiquette and punctiliousness) caused avoidable embarrassment to the joint hosts, the British High Commission and the United Services Institution of India, a tri-service think tank.

The elaborate function was virtually boycotted by MoD and MEA with the Army represented by its Ceremonials Division’s Maj Gen Kalita, though the Army Chief’s bungalow at Rajaji Marg is separated from the British High Commissioner’s by a wicker gate.

This is in sharp contrast to the 2014 centenary of the start of World War I, when the then UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, the then Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh attended identical functions with all the pomp and pageantry that accompanies such memorable occasions. This time, the Brigade of Gurkhas and Royal Engineers bands regaled the largely military gathering of retired soldiers, historians and researchers of World War I on the role played by Indian soldiers in the war which has remained unknown until recently.

“Shame, Shame”

The second part of the commemoration was the returning of war diaries of the British Indian Army regiments of that period to the Colonels of their regiments. These serving general officers were invited but not permitted to attend. Instead senior retired Generals took their place and received the war diaries from former Army Chief Gen VN Sharma who was the chief guest. Gen J J Singh, a former governor, was the other Army chief present. In his speech, Sharma thanked the British High Commissioner, Dominic Asquith, for organising the event and went on to introduce the youthful Tugendhat, who, he said, had an illustrious military background while bemoaning the fact that unlike in the UK, the political class in India did not send their wards to the military.

This attracted a chorus of ‘shame shame’ from the audience. One thing clearly stood out: the ire against the establishment for its cussedness and lack of cooperation in commemorating the centenary of Armistice Day – a war in which 1.4 million Indian soldiers participated, 74,000 were killed and 13,000 gallantry medals were earned including 11 Victoria Crosses.

Modi’s ‘Crown Jewel’ OROP, Yet to See Completion

Clearly the British mindset is changing by their belated recognition of the strategic contribution by the Indian Army in a war that was underplayed so far. Similarly there is now belated Indian official acknowledgement of its momentous role in the war (still not ‘our’ war).

The Teen Murti Chowk which honours princely states armies has been renamed Teen Murti-Haifa Chowk in a ceremony attended in 2017 by Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. For the first time in Britain, the Flanders poppy, which is worn on Remembrance Day, was made also in khadi. In India, the marigold has been chosen to signify “India Remembers”, because saffron is often seen as the colour of sacrifice, and the flower too is easily available in the country.

In UK there is an Armed Forces Covenant of 2011 through which there is a moral obligation between nation, government and armed forces solemnly recognising the sacrifices the last make.

This has become law, and embraces particularly the veterans so that they should suffer no disadvantage and be given special consideration. In India, many veterans are still protesting the incomplete implementation of Modi’s crown jewel achievement of OROP.

MoD’s Callousness is Sadly, Unsurprising

The government’s claim that it has done for the armed forces unlike any other government is hollow: four defence ministers in one government, the lowest defence budgets, no CDS as promised, and the cumulative anomalies of Pay Commissions including the 7th Pay Commission are some deficiencies that dog the exceptionally tolerant and obedient armed forces.

So we should not be surprised about the callous behaviour of MoD officials. Former Defence Minister George Fernandes fixed some of the offending babus by sending them to Siachen.

But to ensure that there is no repeat of the faux pas one witnessed last week, there is need for institutional change in culture and conduct of the bureaucracy. It is also time the Army made itself count. And all of India wore the marigold at least for one day.

(Retd Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of Defence Planning Staff reconstituted as Integrated Defence Staff. 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.)

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