By Chiran Jung Thapa, Kathmandu
15 January 2017
Recent string of incidents involving uniformed personnel have roiled the Indian armed services. Several uniformed personnel have taken to social media to expose the excesses, inadequacies and transgressions in their respective services.
It all began after Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav from Border Security Force, (BSF) stationed in the frontlines of Jammu and Kashmir uploaded a video accusing senior officers of his unit of illegally selling rations in the market and providing atrociously substandard rations to the troops. He even alleged that men in his unit had to go on duty on hungry stomachs because the meals were simply inedible. This video immediately went viral and caused widespread public outrage.
Before this issue settled, another video posted by Constable Jeet Singh of Central Police Reserve Force (CPRF), India’s largest paramilitary, came to light. In his video, Singh is seen addressing the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlight the prevailing discriminatory practices meted out against CPRF personnel. In the video, he reveals the abysmal working conditions of CPRF personnel and claims that their salary and privileges are not in par with the Army and with other government officials. He claims that government school teachers are paid more than them and laments the absence of health care, pension and other benefits. In a somber manner, he also narrates about the grueling duty his unit performs and the discrimination they face.
Immediately after the BSF and CRPF videos, another video posted by Lance Corporal Yagya Pratap Singh of the Indian Army surfaced. Singh, posted in 42 Infantry Brigade in Dehradun, had reportedly written to the Prime Minister’s officer detailing the harsh service conditions of the soldiers. In the complaint, he claimed to have written about the exploitation of soldiers by senior officers who reportedly made them perform menial chores that were beyond their service agreement. When an inquiry was ordered from the higher command to investigate his complaint, he alleged that several senior officers ranging from his Brigade commander Brigadier Ajay Pasbola to Sargent Major Babu Lal of torturing him for lodging the complaint and threatening to court-martial him. He mentioned that the torture was so intense that had it been any other soldier, they would have already committed suicide because it was simply unbearable.
Amidst the ongoing revelations, a deadly incident occurred which almost epitomized the claims of the aggrieved uniformed personnel. A constable of the Central Industrial Security Force, Balveer Singh opened fire and killed four of his colleagues stationed in Aurangabad district of Bihar. Allegedly, Singh was upset after his leave petition was refused by his senior officer. Frustrated and furious, he apparently turned his service weapon against his senior officers.
In the last two weeks, even the grievances at the senior-most level became pronounced. On New Year’s Eve, a day before the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat was sworn in, the Eastern Army Commander Lt. General Praveen Bakshi delivered a thirty minute long speech to 300,000 men under his command. During this video address broadcasted from Eastern Army headquarters at Kolkata’s Fort Williams, General Bakshi termed General Rawats’ appointment as a political decision and spoke of “a malicious smear campaign as part of a deeply rooted conspiracy hatched by men in the shadows” that prevented him from becoming COAS. Although he said that he supported the new COAS and abided by the government’s decision, he also said that he would personally probe into matter to unmask the culprits. Although not explicit, thecontents of speech clearly indicated that General Bakshi felt aggrieved for not being elevated as COAS.
Aside from the individual level grievances, group level grievances too have come to the fore. Indian media recently highlighted the grievances of the Mechanized Armored Division of the Indian Army. Their grievances reportedly stem from the fact that most of the top positions in the Army have been dominated by infantry officers. After General Shanker Roy Chaudhary from the 20th Lancers Armored Corps retired as COAS in 1997, no other officer from the Armored Division has become the COAS. In line with tradition, Lt. General Praveen Bakshi (as the senior-most Lieutenant General) from the Skinner’s Horse regiment (armored unit) was poised to succeed General Dalbir Singh. But that did not happen because, in an unprecedented move, the Indian government superseded General Bakshi and appointed General Bipin Rawat – an infantry man from the Gorkha regiment.
The grievances of the soldiers and officers of Nepali origin hailing from the hill tribes of Nepal serving in the Gorkha regiment are also salient. A crippling blockade imposed by India on Nepal to express its displeasure against Nepal for promulgating its constitution had an adverse impact on the morale of Gorkha soldiers stationed across India. The unspeakable hardships the soldiers’ families in the hills in Nepal had to endure due to the blockade naturally eroded their morale mainly because they felt betrayed by India. While they were braving all adversities and remained ready to lay their lives to safeguard India’s frontiers, India was strangling their families in Nepal by imposing an inhumane and immoral blockade. Unlike the aforementioned grievances, however, the Gorkhas displayed utmost patience, perseverance and professionalism even during these dire moments. Amongst more than 50,000 Gorkha soldiers, not one grievance came to light during that period.
Evidently, the aforementioned cases clearly demonstrated how social media has become an integral part of human life and how its increasing use is intersecting with all sectors. The fact that these anguished personnel took to social media to vent their grievances and the manner in which it became viral also illustrated the awesome power of social media. Such was impact that even the COAS had to urgently call for a press conference to allay concerns of his troops, media and the public.
These grievances disclosed in a brazen manner will surely resonate with many aggrieved others and could potentially trigger more revelations in the future. Therefore, before it becomes a major challenge, it would be propitious for Indian Armed services to jointly review these incidents and formulate an optimal social media policy. Such a policy would be in line with the organisational imperatives and also not infringe upon the personal liberty of the uniformed personnel and aim to curb such erratic and unprofessional disclosures that could inflict severe damage to the image, morale and discipline of organisation. Additionally, there also needs to be more research conducted on the intersections of social media with armed services and its likely impacts on the morale, discipline and operational readiness of the troops.
More importantly, these separate disclosures need to be thoroughly investigated. First, the authenticity of these claims needs to be established. They could all be genuine and it could also be that the first disclosure inspired the subsequent ones. In that case, immediate action needs to be taken to address these issues because it could have grave consequences if allowed to fester. Also, given that all cases involve lower ranking personnel, it may potentially serve to widen a rift between lower ranks and their senior officers. Moreover, this disparity is likely to be susceptible to external manipulations. The probability of external machination in one or all three cases cannot be ruled out. Thus, the investigation must look into whether there were any external influences that triggered in these viral videos. If that is the case, then it could be a part of a larger strategy to hobble the security forces from within by fanning existing grievances and creating fissures within and amongst the armed services.
The manner in which certain media outlets fanned these issues and portrayed a negative image of the armed services seemed to have become a matter of grave concern to the Indian Army. By sensationalising such sensitive issues and jumping into conclusion prior to an investigation, the media appears to have imperiled the image and unity of members of the armed services. Such insensitive reporting has only served to provide more fodder to those hostile forces mounting psychological operations against India. Perhaps recognising this challenge, COAS Bipin Rawat during his first press meet sought to align with the media by stating how it was a force multiplier for the armed services. He, however, admitted that there would instances of convergence and divergence between the media and them but hoped that both would ultimately go together in the end.
Indian Army, the third largest Army in the world, has perhaps the most daunting challenges of all. Unlike other large armies, it has not been able to project its force beyond its borders mainly because it remains tied down within its territory due to multiple conventional and asymmetric threats it confronts along its borders and inside its territory. It has to operate on multiple and varying theatres ranging from the highest altitudes in Siachen glacier to the scorching Thar dessert and all terrains in between. India has prickly border disputes with two nuclear armed adversaries (China and Pakistan) who are allied with each other; India has fought separate wars against both. Likewise, there are several raging insurgencies across India and the perennial scourge of terrorism afflicts the country.
In light of all these conventional and asymmetric threats and challenges, the Indian Armed Forces have been gearing to confront them – mainly through the development and procurement of advanced military hardware. For several years in a row, India has been ranked as the number one importer of military hardware. On the air front, it recently signed a contract with Dassault Aviation of France to procure 36 advanced Rafael fighter jets. India is also procuring several missile-armed Israeli Heron TP drones and also seeking to procure Predator drones from the US. On the land front, it is looking to replace all its aging T-72 tanks with Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCV). The Indian Army is also looking to replace its homegrown inferior 5.56mm INSAS rifles with a more advanced 7.62x51mm single caliber assault rifle with a 500 meter range, limited recoil, multi-option telescopic sights, and compatible with visible laser-target pointers, holographic and other sights. The Indian Navy is striving to enhance its indigenous capability by building more aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.
While all these procurement and advancement are in line with their operational imperatives, other human variables cannot be discounted. Alongside the hardware, morale and discipline of the troops are two indispensable prerequisites for operational readiness for any armed service. Trust between senior officers and lower ranks is also of utmost significance. Therefore, following the revelations of the festering grievances amongst uniformed personnel, the Indian Armed Forces need to collectively take all these variables into account and address them befittingly before these internal factors become more of a threat than the external ones.
Chiran Jung Thapa, a Kathmandu-based Security and Defense analyst, is an editorial associate of southasia.com.au.