‘There is no sensitivity in the system’

Print edition : March 07, 2014

General (retd) V.K. Singh. Photo: PTI

Interview with General (retd) V.K. Singh.

GENERAL (RETIRED) V.K. SINGH, former Chief of the Army Staff, confronted the political leadership while in service. He took the government to court on the issue of his age. “The political leadership of the day does not look beyond its nose,” he told Frontline in an interview. The root cause of all the problems facing the forces today, he said, was the lack of sensitivity and the apathy of both the political leadership and the bureaucratic machinery. Excerpts:

There seems to be a great deal of disenchantment among the forces because a large number of issues concerning them, such as salary dues, pension, better health facilities, and redress of their grievances, have remained unaddressed. Why have matters come to such a sorry state? Did you try to address the issues when you were the Army chief?

It is true that there is a great deal of disenchantment among the soldiers because the government has not paid heed to our problems, which have been pending for years. All these issues that you mentioned have been taken up with the Ministry of Defence from time to time, to the extent possible within the existing protocol. But the frustrating part is that nothing happens in the Ministry of Defence. As the Army chief, I tried to improve matters but could not do much. To give you an example, even small things like changing the system through which uniforms are provided to soldiers or harmonising the ration given to jawans vis-a-vis the officers took months on end. But the real problem is that the political leadership has failed to listen to us.

Do you think there is a lack of political will?

The political leadership does not look beyond its nose. Maybe the political will is there but it fails to assert itself on the face of bureaucratic hurdles. The bureaucracy, for some reason, is in the habit of not keeping the forces happy; otherwise, it thinks, we will revolt. Bureaucrats tend to create a smokescreen around the most trivial issues so that they are not called to account for decisions, not asked questions about deals, and so on. But the political leadership should be able to see through this.

Is that the reason why you have donned a public role? You are the first Army chief to take to the streets. Are not generals supposed to walk into the sunset once they retire?

I have been disturbed by the way things are going on in our country. Farmers, youth, and other marginalised sections are all suffering and the government of the day has failed to mitigate their sufferings. When Anna Hazare started the anti-corruption movement I supported that, but the movement dissipated. Then I decided to take the plunge. Somebody has to take the initiative to change the system, change the way the country is run. And I am more than happy with the people’s response. We are the ones who produce results, people look up to us. Soldiers are trained to be leaders and yet they get ignored by the government in the matter of their very basic demands. This must change, and I am going to ensure that this change comes about. The political class ignores us because we are nobody’s vote bank. We would have ideally wanted it to be like that but that has resulted in a situation where we are being denied our dues, even fundamental rights like the right to vote. Once we organise ourselves into a strong block, the governments will listen to us.

Do you think it is possible for the government to allow soldiers the right to vote at their place of posting? Have the Services chiefs taken up the matter with the government or the Election Commission?

We have taken it up many times, but nothing has happened. Of course, it is possible to allow soldiers the right to vote at the place of posting and the Supreme Court has ordered the government to do that. Can you imagine the extent of government apathy that they have denied us the fundamental right to franchise. Why? The options available to us, postal ballot and proxy voting, are useless, not practical at all. Since serving personnel of the forces cannot be seen as airing their demands, it is our duty as veterans to ensure that the just demands of the forces are met.

There are long-pending issues of salary dues since the Fourth Pay Commission. The Seventh Pay Commission has been announced and once again the Services have not been given representation in it.

The only solution is to have military representation in the pay commission. I cannot understand why the government keeps us out of this exercise. The bureaucrats from the Ministry of Defence, who claim to be representing us, have no idea about the military ethos; they don’t understand that for a soldier, salary is not only about money, it is a matter of honour, too. Their lack of understanding has resulted in anomalies, which to date remain unresolved. The government should handle issues relating to the forces with a little sensitivity. There is no problem which cannot be addressed, but there is no sensitivity in the system to do that.