The best democracies in the world have retained firm civilian control over their armed forces not by isolating them,but by involving them in the national security decision-making process
The media flutter caused by a recent missive from Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) Admiral Nirmal Verma to the defence minister,expressing dismay about the omission of a military representative on the committee to examine the armed forces pay and pension anomalies,is uncalled for. While a Service chief conveying concerns to his political superiors (including the prime minister) is perfectly in order,it is the continuous haemorrhaging of such privileged communications to the public domain that should really be cause for serious concern to the Union government.
And now,a matter of even greater disquiet for the public is that the defence minister should need to convey his concern in writing to the PM,reportedly,suggesting that things may take a bad turn if timely corrective action with regard to the anomalies in fixation of salaries and pensions of the armed forces is not initiated.
Since 1947,vexed issues,with a vital bearing on Indias national security,have remained crammed into a Pandoras Box that was daringly opened,post-Kargil,by the NDA government. A group of ministers convened to examine these issues,rendered a timely report,but the loss of political nerve led to a partial and cosmetic implementation of its well-considered recommendations. The recent Naresh Chandra Committee ventured,once again,into the crucial arena of national security; but it remains to be seen whether the labours of this body will find fulfilment,or are cast,once again,into limbo by the current coalition. The recent contretemps have an important,even if indirect,relationship with national security reform,and two aspects merit special attention.
First,the defence ministers warning comes not a day too soon; because grievances about pay and pension issues have been simmering for many years,with bureaucrats and politicians alike ignoring them. As far back as April 2006,before the Sixth Central Pay Commission (CPC) was announced,this writer,as Chairman COSC,wrote to the defence minister,seeking his personal intervention for the appointment of a Service Officer as a constituted member of the Sixth CPC. since the lack of a Service representative was one of the main reasons for the dissatisfaction amongst the armed forces post the Fifth CPC award.
Having responded very positively to the initial suggestion,the defence minister at the time subsequently conveyed to the COSC that,in spite of opposition from his cabinet colleagues,he would still try to embed a Service element to provide advice to the commission. A few weeks later,the minister moved on to take charge of external affairs and the fate of the armed forces was left to the mercies of the bureaucracy-dominated Pay Commission.
As expected,the Sixth CPC report contained a number of glaring anomalies with respect to the armed forces,and at the persistent urging of the COSC,a review committee was constituted to examine them. Perversely,this body again excluded any armed forces representation,and ominous signs of active discontent began to emerge,in 2007,from the ex-Servicemen in public demonstrations. Alarmed at this,a few retired Service chiefs wrote to the PM expressing deep concern at these developments and urging him that it would be just and fair to have a Services representative on the review committee. However,contrary advice seems to have prevailed,and the results are before us to see.
A second crucial issue worth examination relates to why Indias political establishment is so reluctant to accord recognition to the countrys military leadership,and insists on interposing a layer of bureaucracy between itself and the armed forces. Why is it that the defence minister and the PM consider the defence secretary better placed to represent the armed forces,in most forums,than the Service chiefs each with over 40-plus years of experience in national security? With the greatest respect for our civil servants,the fact remains that many of them are best described as rolling stones,whose careers demand that after serving in states and assorted ministries they transit through the ministry of defence for a year or two before moving on to greener pastures.
The fundamental reason for this situation,and the crux of the problem,lies in the fact that the Service chiefs have not been accorded a locus standi and,therefore,remain non-persons in the edifice of the government. The background to this anomaly is to be found in two volumes of business rules,issued under the constitutional powers of the president in 1961,which are the bibles for conduct of business by the government. According to these rules,the responsibility for the defence of India,and every part thereof,including preparation for defence,and for the armed forces of the Union,namely,Army,Navy and Air Force has been vested in the defence secretary. The three Service chiefs neither find mention nor are allocated any responsibilities by these rules.
The rules of business have been amended by the cabinet secretariat on over 300 occasions (the last in May 2012),but no politician or civil servant has considered it necessary to bring the chiefs,the vice-chiefs and the principal staff officers in the three Service HQs within the ambit of these rules. All these functionaries have a vital role to play in national security,but since they lack a status in the government,and have no equation with secretaries of defence,the Defence Research and Development Organisation or the Department of Defence Production,their views and recommendations are often ignored.
The best and oldest democracies in the world have retained firm civilian control over their armed forces not by isolating them but by subsuming them within the central edifice of government and involving them in the national security decision-making process. It is time to discard our antediluvian system and stop inflicting wounds on ourselves by alienating soldiers and veterans.
The writer is a former Chief of Naval Staff and chairman,Chiefs of Staff Committee