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India in Transition

An Army in a (Reluctant) Transition

Anit Mukherjee
December 16, 2013

The Indian Army has lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons. General VK Singh’s controversy-laden tenure, reports of officer-men clashes, corruption allegations and stories of soldiers sleeping while on operations along the Line of Control have all led to unwelcome media attention. Interestingly, out of all these issues, the Prime Minister chose to highlight the issue of officer-men relations and while addressing his senior most military commanders, put it with uncharacteristic bluntness: “You are responsible for the lives and welfare of your men and women in uniform. As commanders, you also have to introspect over fidelity to inviolable principles and set an example. Where the institution has frayed, remedial policy initiatives are imperative.” Indeed, as with most other institutions, the Indian Army is grappling with rapid societal change, but its current “zero tolerance” policy is a typical knee-jerk reaction to a complex problem. Instead, it needs to break from some of its traditions and be more transparent and logical with different aspects of military sociology. It is not known, however, whether the army is alive to the challenge of embracing change or if change will have to be forced upon it. 

Incidents of clashes between officers and men have been described in the media, often in sensationalistic fashion. In the recent past, there have been “incidents” involving an artillery unit deployed for training in Leh, two armored units deployed in Samba and Gurdaspur, and, just a few months ago, an infantry unit training in Meerut. Alarmingly, these incidents occurred in the combat arms where officer-men relations are of utmost importance. Also, all of these units were deployed in peace stations, belying opinions expressed by many who blamed these incidents on prolonged employment in stressful counterinsurgency or other operational duties. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Defence Minister AK Anthony, described these incidents as “aberrations” and stated that “commanders have been instructed to have zero tolerance towards such cases.” It may well be the case that these are mere “aberrations” but the problem is that we will never really know. At fault is what, Manvendra Singh, has called the army’s “cover-up culture.” Simply put, due to a misplaced sense of regimental pride and loyalty, a number of incidents are not honestly examined. More importantly, the findings of the Court of Inquiries that are inevitably ordered are not widely disseminated. As a result, while zero-tolerance may indeed be an appropriate post-incident policy, it does not address the structural problems arising out of an army in the middle of widespread societal and attitudinal change.     

The first, and most widely acknowledged problem is a debilitating shortage of officers.  Currently there is a shortage of approximately 11,000 officers, almost all of them below the rank of a Colonel. This means that units function with very few officers who, in turn, often hold multiple appointments. As a result, junior officers are unable to spend as much time as they did in the past with the men. As their official and social interaction – whether during training, on the sports field, or for everyday routines like roll-calls and activity parades – has been curtailed, the bonds between officers and men have inevitably weakened. This fact was admitted by a senior Defense Ministry official who, in a deposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, argued that due to a shortage of officers, “the type of interaction which we need at our junior officers’ level is lacking.” One manner of addressing this is to discourage, as far as is operationally feasible, junior officers below, say, three years of service from assuming any appointment at the Headquarters – whether Battalion or Company. Instead, they should be exclusively detailed for platoon level activities so that they can spend as much time with the men as possible and get to know them, and vice versa. Another approach towards this problem is to increase the number of officers commissioned through the Army Cadet College route, which allows suitably qualified enlisted men to get commissioned as officers. Compounding matters,  a shortage of officers leads to a high demand for careerist, and competent officers for staff duties and subsequently, few are available for Battalion or Regimental soldiering. As a result, there are not enough positive role models for young officers to emulate and their “grooming” suffers.

The effects of the shortage of officers have been compounded by unimaginative human resource development policies and the relentless pressure of peacetime soldiering. Unfortunately, the Indian army’s officer-management policies are tailored mainly toward the upwardly mobile command stream. To an extent, this is unavoidable in a steep pyramidal organization like the army, but more can be done to accommodate officers with varied interests who do not make the cut, for instance, by encouraging and creating opportunities for the study of military history, area studies, and technological and scientific interests. Such measures can help curtail the rank careerism that is often blamed for decreasing levels of probity and integrity. In addition, in recent years, purely out of career considerations, Major Generals are posted as Division Commanders for a typical tenure of under fifteen months.  This not only makes little operational sense, but it results in General officers driving their Divisions relentlessly to enhance their careers. This creates tremendous pressure at the unit level. It is not uncommon, therefore, to hear many soldiers say that they prefer deploying in field areas to peace stations. When considered together, a shortage of officers, competitive career structures, and a relentless pace of peacetime soldiering all combine to create enormous pressures at the unit and sub-unit level.   

Another source of tension between officers and men is the archaic sahayak culture, or the use of soldiers to assist officers in their administrative duties. Those who defend this practice usually say that this is an extension of the buddy system wherein soldiers look after each other. Indeed, in field areas, having a buddy frees up the officer to concentrate solely on operational responsibilities and not worry about personal administration and comfort. There is, therefore, definitely a requirement for continuing this arrangement and, noticeably, rarely are there reports of discord from field areas on this account. Problems, however, arise from the use of sahayaks in peace stations with its potential for misuse and clashes, regardless of who is at fault, with officer’s wives and family members. The official charters of duties of a sahayak are all operationally related and technically, he is not supposed to do any menial work. But in practice, they are employed to do all sorts of jobs. On this issue, when a representative of the Army was pressed by the Standing Committee on Defence with the observation that jawans were found working in the residences of officers, his answer was startling: “[He] would have been attending the work at home due to reverence.” Such convoluted justifications aside, officers who defend this practice should answer a relatively straightforward question: if they were to join the army as combatant soldiers, how many of them would volunteer to serve as sahayaks in a peace station?  The answer to this question should thereafter be considered together with the first law of leadership: one cannot ask others to do what the leader would not do. The policy prescription, therefore, appears relatively simple: continue with the practice of sahayaks in field areas and discontinue in peace stations. Indeed, a few years ago there was some discussion, based on an internal army study, of hiring civilians as Assistants; a measure that was apparently examined after AK Anthony pressured the army to re-examine the use of sahayaks. Unfortunately, like with many other of his visions, the Defence Minister so far has been unable to implement this idea.    

These are just a few out of the many issues in the field of military sociology upon which the army needs to deliberate. As Indian society changes, the old safety nets of joint families are slowly disappearing while discussions on the television with feuding senior officers, corruption allegations, and smeared institutions, are being keenly followed in langars and barrack rooms. In addition, there are changes in the expectations of both officers and soldiers.  The army’s attitude towards gender, symbolized by its challenge to a High Court order recommending permanent commission for women, is a separate topic but is indicative of a polite, though still unacceptable, misogyny. In this respect, the Navy and the Air Force has shown itself to be far more progressive. As Indian society changes, there will be more interest and hunger for information from civil society, and politicians, on such aspects of military administration. All these developments will force the army to change whether it wants to or not. The best way forward is to be prepared by allowing the field of military sociology to develop and to have the confidence to enlist the help of social scientists, mental health professionals and human resources specialists. But even such a simple step may be a bridge too far.

Anit Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is a former CASI Postdoctoral Research Fellow.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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