India’s defence mechanism under attack

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Analysing why India’s defence mechanism is under attack Lt. Gen.(Dr.) D.B. Shekatkar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd.), says the most important challenge to the top leadership is and will always remain, how to keep the defence forces isolated, untouched, unpolluted and uninfluenced from overall national environment of corruption, lack of trust and faith in the government mechanism.

If not learnt, analysed and seriously acted upon, history has a ruthless tendency to repeat itself and punish the defaulters severely. The first decade after India’s independence witnessed a rather indifferent and lacklustre attitude towards India’s defence and security mechanism. This was probably due to the colonial hangover amongst the political, diplomatic and bureaucratic leadership which percolated to India’s higher leadership in defence and security mechanism. Even the Indian Army could not remain untouched. The entire nation and the Army had to pay a heavy price for the humilative defeat due to Pakistan’s aggression in Jammu and Kashmir and later China’s aggression in 1962. Loss of territory to both Pakistan and China not only changed the history but also the geography of India. Indian Army which was the pride of British Empire paid a heavy price in terms of loss of our brave soldiers. This was due to poor leadership in our defence mechanism. Pakistan felt so confident about India’s incapability that it even gave away almost 4800 sq km of India’s territory to China in 1963. India could do nothing about it and it is questionable if anything will be done in future to reacquire our Indian territory lost to China and Pakistan. Both, the politicians and bureaucracy passed the entire blame on to the Indian military leadership.

Higher leadership under attack

The last decade of 20th century and since the beginning of the first decade of 21st century, we have witnessed India’s defence and security mechanism, specially the higher leadership coming under increasing glare and criticism and also being in news for wrong reasons. The higher and executive level of leadership is repeatedly under attack. Charges of corruption, indiscipline, fight at unit levels, scandals, scams, moral turpitude personality clashes, personal ego and ambitions have been coming to light with alarming frequency and financial implications, thanks to our ever vigilant and competitive print and electronic media. The scams, scandals, irregular and fraudulent transactions range from procurement of helicopter, missiles, tanks, avionics and naval platforms to purchase of diesel, ration, clothing and meat!.

Is there any branch of government and governance, which remains untouched? The losses in terms of valuable national assets range from soldiers, sailors airman, young officers, to losses of weapons, helicopters, aircraft, and submarines.

The unacceptable excuses and justifications for the wrongs given are: “Oh these are only a few odd cases in such a large organisation, such things happen all over the world…. Is it not that our entire national mechanism, governance and government is suffering from corruption, inadequacies, inefficiency, scandals and scams?” Armed forces/defence forces and establishments are part of national systems. We get our human resources from the same population; how can we remain unaffected?

Some of us “old soldiers” though belonging to the old school of thought feel concerned, alarmed and ashamed when such things happen. All this is happening at a time when the nation is passing through a very difficult and challenging phase, what with increasing threats and challenges to national security and defence with every passing day and at a time when tensions between India – Pakistan, India – China show no signs of subsiding. It is happening at a time when naxalites, Maoists and their ideological as well as political supporters are dreaming of hoisting a red flag at the Red Fort and Parliament at New Delhi! The important question is, should India be caught unawares again as we were in 1947, 1962, 1965 and during the Kargil war? Should India allow history to repeat itself and punish our young generation who has no say in policy formulation and national governance?

Need strong leadership at the top

It is an undisputed fact of human life that the quality of leadership plays a crucial role in building up combat/war capability, endurance and effectiveness of defence mechanism. Therefore the leadership at all levels must be professionally sound, capable and highly motivated, to accomplish operational mission during open war or during conflict situation. It is the quality of leadership that makes defence mechanism an organisation and/or an institution different from the others.

Criminalisation of politics and politicisation of criminals have become the accepted way of national life and governance. These very people form policies, make rules, pass laws, appoint higher professional leaders and experts. They find positions in various committees of the Parliament and state assemblies. Such people expect the officials from the entire governing mechanism (defence forces is no exception) to accept substandard equipment and even sacrifice long term national interests for personal gains. I have experienced this enough during four decades of service and experience across India. The most important challenge to the leadership is and will always remain, “how to keep the defence forces isolated, untouched, unpolluted and uninfluenced from overall national environment of corruption, lack of trust and faith in the government mechanism?” It would be wrong to ignore the fact that people who are a part of defence mechanism are also individuals who have aspirations which are part of human nature.

Fortunately, the cutting edge of the defence forces — the officers of the rank of Captains to Brigadiers in the Army and their equivalents in Navy and Air Force are still untouched by “institutional decay”. It would also be absolutely incorrect to even assume that everyone in the higher echelons of leadership in the defence forces have questionable reputation and calibre.

In 1994 while serving at the Army Headquaters in New Delhi as Additional Director Military Operation, I had the honour of meeting the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) frequently. One morning, I got a call from him, asking me if I had read an article in India Today about the image of the Indian army. He told me to read the article and discuss with him during lunch break the same day. The issue covered an excellent analysis of people’s perception about defence forces, especially the Indian Army. A positive aspect was that 87 percent people felt the army to be highly trustworthy, dependable and an honest organisation. When the COAS asked me as to what I felt about the findings, I said, Sir, I am rather disturbed and worried that 13 percent people in India feel the other way! The Chief was taken aback at my comments. A week later, he called me to his chamber and told me that he was in agreement with my observations. I felt assured about my impression. The Chief probably was expecting a typical Delhicentric (Raag Darbari) answer that should reflect great satisfaction and pride.

A few black sheep ruining the image of the forces

Fortunately, the cutting edge of the defence forces — the officers of the rank of Captains to Brigadiers in the Army and their equivalents in Navy and Air Force are still untouched by “institutional decay”. It would also be absolutely incorrect to even assume that everyone in the higher echelons of leadership in the defence forces have questionable reputation and calibre. There are just few who ruin the image and perception about defence forces, due to their uncontrolled ambitions and greed. The majority is highly professional, upright, honest and trustworthy. They are still unaffected from the fast spreading “Cancer of the Soul.” Of course, we must never forget that just one lousy leader in any aspect of governance and government can bring disrepute to an organisation. Armed forces/ defence forces across the world are part of governance. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the leadership is passing through turbulent times and trends. Trends positive or negative don’t happen on their own. They are connected to people who are part of an organisation, institution and nation.

Why have we reached such a state?

An important aspect which needs examination and analysis is: why have we reached such a state where the higher leadership is under attack? Firstly a good number of high officials in all services have not experienced any war or war like situation, or a conflict resolution. This lack of practical experience makes a person adopt softer ways to prove his professional calibre. And this is best done in India by speaking good English and social visibility. Young officers up to the rank of Lt Colonel are made to serve in Kashmir and North East during the initial phase of their career. Thereafter many of the officers do manage to avoid being posted to challenging areas. This holds good for other services too. Selection to attend foreign courses, seminars, joint exercises etc., largely depends on “English speaking skills” and the grading obtained by officers on training courses and their annual confidential reports (ACRs). Thus there is a tendency to adopt short cuts to success which is always at the cost of combat experience and handling of difficult situation.

Since last 12 years or so there has been avoidable thrust and trend on quantification model for individual performance for career progress. In ACRs, the marks assume greater importance for combat oriented army. In computerised model even just one mark in critical quality can ruin the career prospects of an officer. This encourages the tendency to play safe and ‘take care’ of those who matter in evaluation of performance.

Decline of standards

In our desire to make up for the deficiency of young officers, there has been a systematic degradation of standards since the last 20 years. We tend to forget that these very officers climb up the professional ladder and some of them tend to do, what they should not be doing.

Many officers do “manage” to get posted on appointments, dealing with procurement, tendering and evaluation processes. Some are even deliberately brought to such appointments by vested interests, for obvious reasons. It would be an interesting study to find out where some of the officers who were dealing with procurement, supply, evaluation, tendering, price negotiations, etc., are employed post retirement. It would not be surprising to find a good number of them employed by the arms and equipment suppliers. Many of them know the system and perfect the art of ‘fixing’. The details for such a study can be obtained under Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Some of the organisations which deal with reasonably large funds, turnover, as well as asset management, are directly controlled by the Ministry of Defence. Service chiefs have no control whatsoever on the performance of such organisations like canteen store department (CSD), Department of Defence Land (one of the most questionable organisation) and Estate, Director General Quality Assurance, Defence Research & Development Organisation, Ordinance Factory Board and so on. These are directly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, which hardly care much about corruption and incompetency. No defence land scandal or scam can ever take place without the involvement from bottom to top functionaries of Department of Defence State. Very cleverly they attract and influence some of the serving officers to issue NOC and regularise land deals.

It is very difficult to find involvement of Air Force officers in such scams, as the Indian Air Force fortunately has a fool proof and refined system and the Force needs to be complimented for this.

The arms supplier- lobby and mafia are very influential. They manage to get suitable officers posted to key appointments and operate through them. I have had very sad experience of facing undue pressure to certify suitability of bullet proof jackets and bullet proof vehicles for the Indian Army, while I was serving as Major General and Lt General. When I stood the pressure, I know the price I had to pay. Of course those who were pressurising me did manage to get employment with manufacturers and suppliers after their retirement. They refuse to realise that “We were playing with the lives of our young soldiers and officers who use these jackets during operations.”

Can we say today as to which President, Prime Minister or any other VIP will be a victim of circumstances while travelling in these helicopters? If one of the most modern transport aircraft in the world can meet with an accident between Agra and Gwalior, what can happen to the helicopters while flying in the most difficult terrain and hostile environment of the world?

Fortunately Service Officers are not associated with or have a “major say” in price negotiations process. Price negotiations are dealt totally by bureaucrats and the so called financial experts. Armed forces should keep an eye on price negotiations but should never get involved in price negotiations process and decisions.

Upholding the pride of this unblemished institution

The question arises as to what should be done and what is the way to uphold and maintain the glory and pride of the unblemished institution of armed forces? It must be understood and accepted that defence forces are the last hope to face external and internal challenges both during peace and war. Politicians, bureaucrats must resist the temptation to tamper with the functioning of the system for personal loyalties and gains. Loyalty to the nation should be of utmost importance. “Death before Dishonour”, has always been the credo of warriors for centuries. The latest example is the resignation by Admiral D.K. Joshi, the Chief of Naval Staff. However, to mention credo like “Death before Self” in today’s Indian environment would be laughed off and criticised. Service before Self is another credo which needs to be upheld.

For the higher leadership the temptation to reverse the order of the honour code must be ruthlessly curbed. Only then will the higher leadership be able to inspire the rank and file to trust them. Senior officers who feel constrained to abide by the code of conduct must make way for others. There cannot be justification to ones own deed, greed, breed and temptation to remain on the seat of power by hook or by crook.

There is a need to reconsider undue importance given to quantification of performance of the officers of the rank of
Colonel and above and their equivalent in Navy and Airforce. Ground and practical experience in challenging command assignment must be given due importance.

The government must consider cooling off period for all retired (service, as well as civil) officials of the rank of Major General, Joint Secretary, equivalent and above posts from the date of retirement or after VRS.

Those who are confirmed guilty of scams, scandals, corruption must lose each and every perk including medical facilities. They must also be denied pension. Gains made through corrupt practices, scams, scandals must be confiscated and merged with government treasury and assets. Finally there is no point drawing false satisfaction from calling ourselves the second or third largest defence force in the world or strategic forces. Instead of branding ourself “Largest” let us try to be “effective and efficient” armed forces of the world. We should also remember that “Obesity of numbers can never win a war and ensure national security.” Obesity can never resolve conflict. The side effects of obesity are adverse be it in the body of an individual, organisation or nation. There is a need for trim, slim, agile and effective security and defence mechanism for India. Defence mechanism is totally different from security mechanism, though they are complimentary to each other. It is high time that instead of calling ourselves “Defence forces” we should be the “Armed Forces of India”. Armed forces under professionally competent, honest, upright leadership to protect and further India’s national interest!


Lt.-Gen.(Dr.)-D.B.-Shekatkar

Lt. Gen.(Dr.) D.B. Shekatkar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd.)

The writer has served in Indian Army for four decades. He has participated in Indo-Pak war in 1965 and 1971. During Kargil war in 1999 he was incharge of entire China front in Arunachal Pradesh. He has served extensively in North East combating insurgency in Assam, Nagland, Manipur and other areas.

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