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Indian Army ripe for reform

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Given the recent uproar over the videos posted by soldiers on social media, it was expected that the news that SS Chauhan, a second lieutenant in Indian Army who was court marshaled in 1991, being acquitted would make a lot of noise.

However, it didn’t. This news quietly got buried among the avalanche of news about the coming UP elections. Even as an avid news reader/watcher, you are not to be blamed for muttering who SS Chauhan?

To sum up the case briefly, Second Lieutenant  Shatrugan Singh Chauhan, who was  on his first posting in Srinagar – just 12 days on the job in the Indian Army’s Sixth Rajput Battalion was wrongfully court marshaled.

The young officer‘s entire world came tumbling down when during a search operation wherein he recovered 147 gold biscuits weighing around 27.5 kgs in April 1990. Though the gold biscuits were recovered in the presence of other soldiers and surrendered to the then Colonel KRS Pawar and then Lt General Zaki Mohammad Ahmad. Instead of being applauded for successfully completing his mission, Chauhan was court-marshaled on false charges and branded a deserter. To top it off he was awarded a seven year punishment. All this while, the gold was “allegedly” siphoned off by the senior army officers. Twice he has narrowly escaped with his life. Once some army officers covering him with a blanket attacked him while he was sleeping in a tent and another time he was even shot at.

Despite all this, he has endured and finally on Jan 20, the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) has reinstated him as a Lt Col after 25 long years. He has regained his seniority and promotions. The court has mandated a financial award of Rs 4 crore to him and another Rs 1 crore is to be deposited in the Army Central Welfare Fund.

But can all this replace the life that Chauhan could have had – a dashing army officer- a dream which was so brutally marred? What a fall for an organization that prides itself in its discipline and fairness! And this is not an isolated incident. The army has always protected itself and hung anyone who doesn’t conform out to dry.

There has been a lot of television debates for OROP and other financial allowances which the army gets or doesn’t get, but never do we hear about the urgent need for internal reforms. The army has always been shy of external scrutiny, preferring to draw conclusions through their own “court of inquiry”.

External scrutiny aside, the armed forces even dislike any discussion on their existing system of functioning. Under the guise of “don’t create discord between officers and soldiers” and “this is what Pakistan wants” the army generals on TV debates has always been able to sweep major issues under the rug.

Now that the media has moved on to other breaking news, the soldiers who posted videos would quietly be shipped off for a “punishment posting”. Under the Army Act, soldiers and officers are not allowed to interact with media and can face severe disciplinary action. Though the terminology of “social media” wouldn’t have existed at the time when the act came into force, but the army would consider itself well within its rights to punish them for the videos. And you can be very sure, that they promotional prospects are now down the drain and they would never be making it to the ranks of a Subedar.

The “Sahayak” system is a British era tradition as is the “60 days leave”. Soldiers get 60 days leave because it allows them to go back home to their villages and have 3 menstrual cycles or 3 attempts to impregnate their wives.  While this may still make sense in today’s era, the system of “sahayaki” has genuinely become outdated.

With graduates and more and more literate men being commissioned in as jawans – the more they are refusing to do these kinds of tasks. Have heard many acounts of jawans being punished for refusing to be a sahayak, which previously used be a coveted job as it allowed a jawan close proximity with an officer.

They may be made to stand with a heavy tire around their waist for all to see, or maybe they will be made to run with extra weights in their backpack. Is it not unfair? But if their Subedar lets one go unpunished for disobeying an order, tomorrow ten more may refuse to go into battle.

Security concerns regarding employing civilians in an Officers home are genuine. That is not debatable. What is missing is the way army is handling the system of sahayaks. If the army can be self sufficient by employing soldiers in trades such as cooks, waiters, cleaners and sweepers then why not for helpers or “sahayaks”?

On looking closer at the issue, it is clear that while an officer is a bachelor, the “sahayak” system works quite well. Yes, you guessed it right! It is majority of the times that the lady wives treat the “sahayak” as their own personal butler and servant, that discord creeps in.

And can you really blame the women? Their problem is the unlimited amount of time that they have to spend preparing for frivolous Ladies Meets and Welfare Meets – another army system that is ripe for reform.

Every time a General comes to visit, a plethora of dances, songs and skits are performed for his wife. For while the General is usually busy on site visits and attending important briefings how can you leave the lady alone by herself in the guest room.

Junior officer’s wives are harassed to practice and perform for the occasion. If they don’t, you can be sure that her husband will not receive a favorable ACR. (Annual Confidential Report)  She has to leave her young toddler (to look after whom she gave up her budding career) in the hands of the “sahayak” who has no time from these duties to look after his own children – to go and attend a Ladies Welfare Meet which the sahayak’s wife would also be unwillingly attending. Isn’t it laughable?  To top it all, most junior officer’s wives are just waiting for their husbands to pick up the ranks so, they could enjoy these privileges – and the vicious cycle continues.

Besides these institutional reforms, army should also look at the corruption that is slowly creeping in. From recruitment scams, siphoning of rations, procurement scandals, land grabs, to bribery in MES and BRO, the army needs to take a hard long look at itself.

And it seems like the army has been doing some thinking! Its move to employ non combatants in a lower pay band for the role of sahayaks is a welcome move. In another recent development army has also issued a WhatsApp number for soldiers, which takes grievances – directly to the Chief of Army Staff.

While the sentiment is appreciable do we really want our soldiers breaking the chain of command? How will the COAS differentiate between a genuine complaint and a grudge? Has our army become so apprehensive of social media that it wants to avoid more embarrassment?

Veteran organizations like the IESM are doing a stellar job in their fight for OROP and pay anomalies for widows. However, they have to begin and take forward the discussion on internal reforms of the army, as the army itself seems reluctant to.

Corruption and such outdated and resource consuming activities have to stop if the army is to modernize itself for the challenges ahead. Else the adage spoken by many officers has surely begun to ring true – The army is its own enemy!

The author is a blogger and an army wife. Opinions are her own.

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