General Sham(e)

Imagine giving your whole adult life to one of the armed forces and then ending your career, not with the adulation of your men, but the suddenly unshakeable reputation of a common thief. If Lt Gen SK Sahni and three senior cohorts in the Army Services Corps (ASC) were found by an Army inquiry to have allegedly made lakhs by purchasing second-rate masoor dal instead of nutritious cereal for thousands of soldiers, another inquiry recently found "some lapses" by other senior officer in the purchase of frozen meat for soldiers in Ladakh. The latter operation, if proved by a court, would easily match the profound disgrace of Sahni’s alleged heist.

No matter what anyone says, especially from within the Army, a Major or a Captain skimming off the top from his Mess bill is a trifle, a mere flicker compared to a General cavorting his whole life in elite military finery and bringing those decades of trust, respect and faith placed in him by his troops to a crushingly humiliating end by trading off every last shred of integrity for a few lakh rupees. And how? By playing monstrously and unfeelingly with the basic needs of those very troops.

The kinds of thievery by senior Army officers in recent times are immediately repulsive. Maj Gen Gur Iqbal Singh and four Brigadier-rank accomplices sold subsidized defence liquor by the truckload at street prices with superb self-assurance. Maj Gen KTG Nambiar and Maj Gen Rana Goswami allegedly took to cooking formation books and pocketing the difference. It probably won’t be long before probes uncover Generals getting juicy fixes from contracts for milk, or kerosene, or vegetables or any of the thousands of other items that the million-strong service buys and stocks every day.

Is this, as Army chief Gen JJ Singh was asked at a press conference recently, a complete breakdown of respectability – or simply, honesty – at the highest levels of the Army? Probably not. For every Sahni or Nambiar, there’s a full phalanx of Generals and other senior ranks who serve out their time with quiet honour, their reputations more precious than pensions or retirement benefits. Furthermore, there can be little to criticize about the swiftness and nature of the Army’s brand of justice once it finds culpability among its own.

The tainted clique of Generals all face humiliating chastisement, ranging from general courts martial, which will likely see them plucked from their uniforms and sent packing, to administrative action, with its own attendant embarrassments, including loss of seniority or the cancellation of retirement benefits.

A few rotten apples then? Yes, but that doesn’t makes each individual case any less disturbing. Wizened and retired officers wonder why these Generals, with years of necessary toil behind them, would allow themselves such reckless folly when the finishing line, as it were, was in sight. With quaintly endearing defence elitism, the retired ones will tell you that the tainted Generals won’t just have to endure being civilians in retirement, but debased and sullied ones at that. What, they ask, could really be worse? The answer, anyone will tell you, is little.

The argument that systemic flaws encourage corruption is a necessarily complex one. Does the Army’s otherwise ingenious supply chain of contracts and services allow for a quick buck as a result of uniquely empowered formations with steeply unwieldy structures? Just as countermeasures to check fraud are plentiful, cracks exist for the crooked to work the system. The private contract mafia, it is commonly known, persistently pings the Army structure for dodgy characters willing to jointly defraud the service. It’s just a black day for everyone when that person happens to wear three stars.

Notwithstanding the irreparable damage this handful of officers and others have inflicted on its ethical fabric as a whole, the Army is thankfully far yet from being perceived as a refuge for scoundrels. But with a distinct shortage of officers and a generally tapering interest in the armed forces as a career, the huge and expensive Army machinery put to use to project an upright profession, where you’ll be a “winner for life”, is gradually undermined. And there can be no forgiving that. No matter what the motivations are to enroll, the fact that the Army is a noble career option is beyond doubt.

According to a Ministry bureaucrat, on November 29, when Defence Minister AK Antony was called upon in Parliament to provide a list of senior officers in the dock for corruption, he was deeply dismayed when he browsed through the pre-prepared Parliament answers. For a man who famously and admittedly puts probity pretty much above everything else, the dozen cases the Army compiled for him must have been a source of sharp consternation. And last heard, he’s not buying the Army’s affirmation that these are but a few spoilt drops in a veritable ocean of human relationships.

Rightly so.

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