Beware the ‘Yes Man’

There are murmurs within the armed forces over the way the Army has been kept out of the COVID relief operations and the proposal to recruit short-term personnel who will be able to move on to other professions after three years in the Army.

Published : Jun 18, 2020 07:00 IST

Army personnel in disaster management operations in Kolkata on May 24 in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan. The Army was not called in to conduct relief operations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Army personnel in disaster management operations in Kolkata on May 24 in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan. The Army was not called in to conduct relief operations during the COVID-19 crisis.

FIELD Marshall Sam Manekshaw, considered one of the greatest military strategists India has produced, was also known for his piquant comments and biting repartees. One of his oft-repeated comments, indirectly referring to Army officers subservient to the political and administrative leadership, has been gone viral for more than two months now among serving and retired defence personnel. The quotation is as follows: “A Yes Man is a dangerous man. He is a menace. He will go very far. He can become a minister, a secretary or a Field Marshall, but he can never become a leader, nor ever be respected. He will be used by his superiors, disliked by his colleagues and despised by his subordinates. So, discard the Yes Man.”

The “Manekshaw quotation” is apparently part of a letter written by a former Lieutenant General of the Army, a much-decorated veteran, to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat. The letter, in the form in which it is being circulated among serving and retired defence personnel, expresses disappointment that the CDS instead of giving professional advice to the Defence Minister on behalf of the Armed Forces has started taking verbatim instructions from the political and bureaucratic leadership. According to a number of serving and retired Army officers who spoke to Frontline , the debate that the letter has generated on many closed virtual platforms relating to the defence sector signifies the wide resonance that these critical views have within the Army establishment. Speaking to Frontline , a retired senior officer said: “Put simply, the view that is gathering great momentum within serving and retired personnel is that the current political dispensation is using the CDS as a tool to further its agenda of undermining the armed forces. And that is exactly why the ‘Manekshaw quotation’ has become a toast of the times.”

The retired officer explained that according to the officer who wrote the letter and a number of his colleagues, “this perception had been building up right from the last two years of the National Democratic Alliance government’s first term but had risen in proportion over the first year of its second term”.

He said: “One central question they ask is why the Army and indeed the larger defence establishment was assiduously kept away from the COVID-19 relief operations. It is felt that the acute miseries inflicted on the country right from the early days of the pandemic should have made it imperative to call upon the services of the Army and other defence arms. Each unit of the Army gets specific and special training in different forms of operations, including biological warfare. There are very many elements of that training that are relevant to fighting a pandemic. In spite of all this the defence personnel were steadfastly kept out of the picture. So much so, even the top officers of many battalions and units were asked to comply with the lockdown.”

Retired officers point to the suggestion made by Admiral (retd) Ramdas in his letter to the Defence Minister. The perception is that the Army could have at least transported the lakhs of migrant workers who started trudging back to their homes right from the time the lockdown was first announced. Instead of being given concrete tasks that could have made a difference, the forces were employed to put up theatrical displays such as showering flowers or playing music in honour of “corona warriors”.

Brigadier (retd) B.K. Ponwar, who is also the Director of Counterinsurgency and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh, told Frontline : “With the network and resources at our disposal, we could have set up kitchens and field hospitals along the highways to feed and treat the migrants, within a time span of 12 hours. We could have transported them across the length and breadth of India.”

Officers ‘on tour’

In the middle of the COVID crisis and the sidelining of the armed forces, the government’s proposal to induct civilians into the armed forces for a three-year tenure as “tour on duty” was curious. It has been touted as something that would stir “keen young men” to serve the country for three years and experience the “thrill, adventure and pride in wearing the uniform”. “Given the fact that there is a visible spurt of patriotic and nationalistic fervour among the youth, the response is likely to be good,” the proposal reportedly says.

The proposal envisages a truncated basic Army training, after which there can be a “later movement to other occupations”. Those who finish the “tour” in the Army would depart with a lump sum, with no pension or any other retirement benefits and no ex-servicemen status. The plan seems to be that at the end of three years the government will issue advisories for these young people to be given preference in civilian jobs even in the private sector. “With their regimentatio n and discipline training in military style, they would be an asset for anyone,” the proposal argues.

Apparently, 100 officers and 1,000 personnel of other rank could be inducted into the forces every year. Only in the event of a casualty or disability during operations would these “on tour” personnel be given the benefits otherwise available to ex-servicemen. This will apparently mitigate the shortage of officers without causing pension liabilities to mount.

The proposal has touched a raw nerve among service personnel, who had apparently expected the CDS to reject it outright. But the CDS told the media that “this proposal is in the nascent stage and is being considered”.

Lt-Gen (retd) P.G. Kamath said: “We have tried and rejected such emergency recruitment provisions in the past. Immediately after the 1962 China war, we had Emergency Commission provision, which also was for a three-year tenure. This did not work. Then in 1966, we introduced the Short Service Commission for five years initially, which was extendable to another five years and then eventually another four years, in order to make it more lucrative and to make them eligible for pension and other benefits. The tour-on-duty proposal is nothing but old wine in a new bottle, lacking innovation.”

He said that a three-year tenure would involve a training period of six months or a year at the most. There would be no-post commission training. “This would make them only semi-trained officers and it would not be fair to send them into battle or command areas,” he said. According to him, a five-year tenure would work better. “Then they would come out with a more rounded personality, having served two tenures, one field and the other, peace tenure.”

Serving officers told Frontline said that if the proposal was implemented it would be difficult to justify the three to four years of training imparted at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA). One officer said: “After all, they would be doing the same work. This ‘cheapest labour available’ philosophy is not good for the Army.” Army officers feel that the “on tour” officers would be more interested in their post-army careers and fear that this would erode the Army’s professional capability. “You cannot turn the Army uniform into a tour badge,” one of them said.

That the corporate world has hailed the government proposal has not gone down well with service personnel. (ASSOCHAM has described it as a game changer and Anand Mahindra has said he will be happy to recruit youngsters with three years in the Army behind them.) “You cannot turn the Army uniform into a billboard to flaunt your patriotic fervour,” said one officer. Another said: “The Army uniform cannot be a tool to brush up your CV for a lucrative corporate job.”

Lt-Gen (retd) N.S. Brar viewed the scheme as part of a political agenda. Writing in several forums he pointed out that the “scheme appears to be part of politics built around ultra-nationalism and glorification of military service without actually addressing the concerns of the military”.

“The prevailing nationalistic fervour is expected to attract patriotic youth towards military service. Such patriotism is sought to be a substitute for a deep-rooted institutional and organisational problem,” he said.

Lt-Gen (retd) H.S. Panag has been quoted on a news website as saying that using nationalistic/patriotic zeal to bolster the strength of the Army for a short duration would only produce “political militia” and spawn a dangerous trend.

Army officers point out that not just the Army but even the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service suffer from staff shortage. Why not recruit personnel for these, too, for short terms?

Brigadier (retd) B.K. Ponwar, however, was of the view that this was a good idea for impressionable young people, especially those aspiring for the IAS and IPS jobs. “They would get to know their country before they get into administering it,” he said.

Other contentious issues

The decision to open roads in cantonment areas for civilian movement, made during Nirmala Sitharaman’s tenure as Defence Minister, has also given rise to unhappiness. When General Rawat was the Amy Chief, 99 roads across 62 cantonments were apparently opened to civilian traffic. Serving and retired officers say that this potentially exposes soft targets to terrorists and refer to the Kaluchak terrorist attack of 2002 to drive home their point. (There was a terror attack on May 14, 2002, near the town of Kaluchak in Jammu and Kashmir, leading to the death of over 30 people, including five Army personnel.)

It is also pointed out that the isolation of cantonments from civil areas is an operational requirement to keep the Army safe during a pandemic, when the first duty of the Army’s top brass is to preserve its “fighting force”. One officer said: “Keeping the cantonment areas sanitised is an operational necessity because the personnel living here are required to replace those on forward areas on a rotational basis. Besides, the families of those posted in forward areas live in cantonments and are soft targets. The CDS was aware of all this, and yet he allowed the opening up of the roads simply to please his political masters.”

Some of the officers who spoke to Frontline alleged that the CDS had approved a government proposal of giving ownership rights to civilians on property in cantonment areas.

Serving and retired officers speak of General Rawat’s silence on many other issues such as the denial of Non Functional Upgrade (allowing an officer to draw the pay and perks of the next grade if the officer cannot be promoted owing to a lack of vacancies) to service personnel (it is available to civil service officials and the Central Armed Police Force); the taxing of disability pensions; and the government’s backtracking on the grant of full OROP (one rank, one pension).

The murmurs within the defence structure in the background of a crippling pandemic do not bode well for the defence establishment. A widely prevalent view is that the CDS should stop alternating between the roles of a yes-man and a mute spectator.

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