Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi: Honour our Soldiers

The following is a column by former Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi that appears in the latest issue of COVERT, the fine new current affairs magazine edited by MJ Akbar.

There is predictable euphoria in the country about the brave actions of the defence forces during the highly successful operations launched by them at Mumbai to clear terrorists. There is no doubt that the land, sea and air warriors of the three services excelled in carrying out their tasks skillfully and with great élan. They do deserve to be commended. However, the rhetorical question is how long this adulation will last? I am afraid the unfortunate answer is ‘not too long’. After every such operation, there is spontaneous and across the board cheering for the soldiers, but it is soon forgotten.
Soldiers, whether serving or veterans, need to be honoured at all times and not only when they return victorious from a battle or war. Most nations do this, but in our country soldiers are soon forgotten and then ignored, till the next time they sacrifice themselves in some operation, Should we not change this? We must also compel a callous government to change its attitude towards the soldiers who protect the nation. This is not a harangue, but a statement of facts. While the citizens of India love and respect the military, the entire governing class, is either callous or indifferent to all military personnel to varying degrees. If this state of affairs continues, soon the military will lose its motivation to deliver when the chips are down.
The Indian defence forces have served the nation loyally, efficiently and effectively since Independence and even during the turbulent times of the partition of India. Thereafter, commencing with the operations launched to save Kashmir in October 1947, to the various wars and conflicts fought by the Indian military to secure the nation, it should have been the darling of the nation. It still is, in the eyes of the common Indian, the Aam Aadmi.
The story is quite different, however, where our governing class is concerned. They are so engrossed in meeting their own petty and short-term vested interests that they have no time for the soldiers. Indeed, they have left no stoned unturned to reduce the military’s status and make it a third class service. Witness how the budget of the defence forces has been steadily declining. As a percentage of the nation’s GDP, it has reached an all time low of less than two percent. Modernization of all the three services is moving at a snails’ pace and shortages of weapons, ammunition and equipment are steadily increasing. There is a grave shortage of officers in all the three services, but it is hurting the army the most, resulting in serious erosion of the capabilities of our units.
The pay, allowances, perks and most importantly status have declined to such an extent that service in the defence forces is at the bottom of the aspirational ladder for all young men and women. Although there is no shortage of soldiers, the young men come forward to get recruited, not because they are enthused but on account of the rising levels of unemployment. It is only the resilience of our soldiers; their training and ethos; and the values ingrained in them; coupled with professional leadership at all levels that has prevented the disintegration of the Indian military. However, against the sustained onslaught of the governing elite of our country, it is unlikely to last unless the people rise and compel them to honour the military and empower it instead of demanding the best while compensating them the least!
The military has always placed status and ‘izzat’ as the epitome of a soldier, while the government seems to have no time for such emotions. Our political leadership, on account of their high dependence on the bureaucracy, seems helpless, as they merely echo what their so-called advisers say. The situation reached such a breaking point in October that the three chiefs’ of the services had to protest vehemently, a departure from their traditional acquiescence on most issues, as the status of many ranks, particularly those of Lt Gen and Lt Col are being grossly lowered. This would have had a highly adverse effect on the morale and consequently fitness for war of all ranks, besides functional problems, especially in situations where a high degree of co-ordination with the police and administrators is a must for smooth conduct of operations. This type of downgrading not only affects status but also emoluments. What a reward for the military that is task-oriented and takes pride in its efficient work. People with inadequate knowledge termed it as defiance of authority, when in actuality it was the commitment of the chiefs’ to their commands, a sacred duty, which compelled them to take such a stance.
Morale of the defence forces is an important ingredient for victory. The effect of low morale of the military translates into the weakening of the security of the country. If the government is indifferent, the civil society must act. What should the citizens of the nation do to assuage the feelings of hurt and neglect, which are gnawing away at the hearts and souls of both serving personnel and the military veterans? Let me suggest a simple solution.
Most countries honour their serving soldiers and veterans by nominating a day and sometimes a week, where soldiers are felicitated by the highest leadership, as well as the citizenry. The serving personnel and veterans are made much of and literally placed on pedestals, while a grateful nation, led by the governing elite, sings paeans for their gallantry, tenacity, spirit of sacrifice, contributions to the security and sovereignty of the nation and their selfless spirit. Readers may recall that in early November many countries across the globe celebrated Remembrance Day, Veterans Day or days with other similar sentiments in a major way. Most citizens adorned the lapels of their coats or other outer garments with a bright red poppy flower to remember those soldiers who had sacrificed their lives and limbs during wars and conflicts, in the service of the nation.
What do we do in our country? Nothing at all! We seem to have no time for such niceties of life. Is this a deficiency in the character of our nation or are we so engrossed in the business of living that we studiously ignore those who are ready to sacrifice even their lives and actually do so? I do not think the citizens of our country are so callous, but I cannot say the same for our governing elite. Why can we not declare 16 December, the day when our armed forces brought glory and victory to the nation in 1971 as the day for honouring our soldiers, both serving and those who laid down their uniforms?
We must honour our soldiery. If the government or the civil society cannot do so, perhaps the military veterans, who numbered over 30 lakhs at last count and whose numbers are increasing by 60,000 every year will have to do it themselves but what a shame it will be for a nation of over one billion souls!!

Text ©Copyright COVERT

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