Why Narendra Modi Wants Indian Military Officers To Forgo The ‘Legacy Systems’ In Armed Forces

Are the officers of India’s armed forces prepared to forgo the “legacy systems” that PM Narendra Modi wants? Not really, if credible reports on the views of many serving and retired officers are any indication.

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Addressing the Combined Commanders’ Conference (CCC) 2021 at Kevadia in Gujarat on March 6, Modi had stressed the importance of enhancing indigenization in the national security system, not only in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures, and customs practiced in the armed forces.

According to Prime Minister’s Office, Modi highlighted the rapidly changing technological landscape and emphasized the need to develop the Indian military into a ‘future force’.  Underlining the need for the optimization of manpower planning in both military and civilian parts of the national security architecture, the Prime Minister also called for a holistic approach that would break down civil-military silos and expedite the speedy decision-making.

In this context, he advised the forces “to rid themselves of legacy systems and practices that have outlived their utility and relevance”. And true to his style and words, this year Modi did break one important tradition (a feature of the legacy system) of the Commanders’ Conference.

And that tradition is that it is attended by the Commander-in-Chief rank officers of the three services and the tri-services organizations such as the Integrated Defence Staff Headquarters, Strategic Forces Command, and the Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Command.

This time, there was supposed to be only one more addition to the list of participants, going by that tradition. And he is the Chief of Defence Staff — a post which was created soon after Modi began his second innings as the Prime Minister in 2019 as one of the first major military reforms.

But the officers never anticipated that this time Modi would ensure the participation in this high-profile event of persons whose ranks are below that of commissioned officers at even the entry-level.

Modi mandated the attendance of personnel below officer rank (PBOR) such as junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers and jawans at the two-day CCC. This decision of the Prime Minister has been widely castigated by many officers as “disruptive, disturbing and uncalled-for” by serving and retired Indian military officers.

Criticisms are that the attendance of PBOR  “could eventually end up bypassing or diluting the services’ long-nurtured and critical command-and-control structure”,  that “India’s armed forces were neither a political party that called for all-cadre representation in its highest forum nor is it a panchayat” and that “armed forces are professional institutions, developed over centuries with form, tradition and operational experience that is conditioned to operate in a hierarchical structure to fight wars”.

However, for many discerning observers, Modi’s idea of changes in “officer and jawan” relationship does have many merits. The past few years have seen many instances of brawls between the officers and their subordinates.

There have been reports of how sepoys/jawans have tried to meet parliamentarians and ministers to air their grievances against officers; how some of them have committed suicides under extreme stresses; how in certain cases the non-officer cadres have gheraoed the officers in their offices and residences; how some jawans are increasingly becoming hesitant to work as domestic help that officers and their families are entitled to; and how in some extreme cases they have clashed physically with the officers.

A recent study by the United Services Institution of India (USI), a leading think tank of three services in Delhi, has also highlighted the prevailing stress level in the Indian armed forces. Although this study has devoted more to the situation prevailing in the Indian Army and concluded that officers too are under severe stress when exposed to prolonged “Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism Environment”, it has revealed the existence of fratricidal schisms within the forces.

The study says that “Units and sub-units under stress are likely to witness an increased number of incidents of indiscipline, unsatisfactory state of training, inadequate maintenance of equipment and low morale, motivation, and esprit-de-corps, thereby, adversely affecting their combat preparedness and operational performance”.

It also lists “inadequacies in the quality of leadership, overburdened commitments, inadequate resources, frequent dislocations, lack of fairness and transparency in postings and promotions, down-gradation in pay and status, zero-error syndrome, inadequate promotional avenues, micromanagement, insufficient accommodation, and educational facilities, lack of motivation amongst juniors, non-grant of leave, indifferent attitude of civilian officials and short command tenures” as part of the organizational stressors among the officer cadre in the forces.

Similarly, not long ago a report by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research had held that “perceived humiliation and harassment, over and above occupational and familial causes”, at the hands of their superiors often serves as the final “trigger” for jawans in stress-related cases in the armed forces. In fact, fragging is an ominous development, if the American experience during the Vietnam War is any indication.

It is one of the neglected aspects of the Vietnam War that fragging contributed a lot towards the emergence of Vietnam as one country. Between 1968 and 1973, the US military experienced a serious crisis in morale.

Chronic indiscipline, illegal drug use, and racial militancy all contributed to trouble within the ranks. But most chilling of all was the advent of a new phenomenon of fragging, with large numbers of young enlisted men turning their weapons on their superiors.

Two interrelated factors could explain the growing distance between the Indian soldiers and their officers –  this is particularly the case with the Indian Army, not so much with the Indian Air Force and Navy.

One is the administrative factor. Unlike its sister wings, the Army is a huge establishment with 1.1 million men and women. But that does not negate the fact that unlike in the past, a healthy legacy feature of the “arzi” system or practice within the Army is losing its importance.

Earlier, this worked as an effective grievances-redressal mechanism under which the commanders or officers held “sainik sammelans”, letting the jawans know of the latest developments and listening patiently to their grievances, if any. And more often than not, actions, to the satisfaction of the aggrieved, were taken.

PM Modi interacting with soldiers on Army Day, 2020. (Image: Twitter)

Of late, however, the above practice is said to have lost its credibility, denting in the process the very communication system between the jawans and the officers. Some army veterans have attributed this to the lack of enough officers available to engage with the jawans.

It is said that a company which, should have four to five officers under ideal circumstances is having only one, who, in turn, is too preoccupied to find time for the welfare of his jawans.

This argument makes sense, given the fact that the Army, with a sanctioned strength of is 50,312 officers is sort of about 8,000 (In the Indian Navy, 10,012 officer positions out of 11,557 are currently occupied with a shortage of 1,545 positions. In the Indian Air Force, the authorized strength is 12,625 officers out of which 483 are vacant as per the latest available data).

The second factor behind the widening gulf between the officers and jawans is sociological.  Unlike in the past, jawans today are better-read (most of them have completed high school education), better exposed to the outside world because of the revolutions in the field of communication, and more ambitious.

Given the fact that a jawan has to serve at least 20 years for being eligible for pensions and other facilities, he does not like career-stagnation and wants to be an “officer” himself. And this is something that the commissioned officers hailing from the middle class do not seem to have appreciated enough.

Though the Army does have the system of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) – eligible usually after 10 years of service – and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) – eligible usually after 15 years of service –  for the jawans, it has been seen that they are hardly given any leadership roles by the officers’ class. They are not imparted even proper training and exposure.

Viewed thus, many analysts consider it to be healthy development that no lesser a person than Prime Minister himself wants the streamlining of the JCO system and that of the jawans towards better professionalization by amending the procedures and customs practiced in the armed forces.

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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com