It is an oft-repeated truism that militaries are conservative by nature. According to popular perception, conservatism has two connotations. One, it shows belief in the value of established and traditional practices, considering them to be sacrosanct and essential for the continued sustaining of the organisation.
The second connotation, in popular perception, is identified with obscurity, stagnation and aversion to modernism. Some go to the extent of accusing the conservatives of ‘living in the past’ and considering change to be an act of sacrilege, bordering on subversion of an organisation’s traditions and history.
Many can challenge the above proposition on the grounds that the Indian army thrives on well-evolved conventions, customs and precedents; and that nothing should be done to disturb them. But traditionalism is not antithesis of modernism. An organisation can be conservative in adherence to its cherished value-system and yet be receptive to the inflow of innovative ideas for its continued progress.
As regards the human resources, the Indian army is forever undergoing major transition on account of three issues. One, modern soldier is much better educated. Having been exposed to electronic media, there has been a discernible increase in his awareness level and expectations. He is intensely conscious of his self-respect and deeply resents any threat to it.
Two, with an increase in the education level of soldiers’ wives; many are highly qualified and gainfully employed. They prefer to stay at one place for the sake of their career and children’s education rather than moving with their husbands on frequent transfers. Result, soldiers are deprived of family support in times of emotional disturbances; stress tending to become distress.
Three, soldiers are financially far more comfortable today, both on account of better pay/allowances and wives’ income. Consequently, there has been a discernible increase in their aspirations.
Three issues need immediate attention.
1 Delineation of Perks
Perk (an abbreviation of perquisite and defined as a special privilege) is by far the most abused term in the army. It is also the cause for many ills that afflict the army. In the services privilege means a dispensation that ‘helps an officer in the discharge of his official duties more efficiently’. There is no other connotation of the term. A privilege cannot be made a smoke screen to misappropriate government/regimental resources.
For example, a commander has the privilege to use a vehicle that is mechanically most reliable as he must not get stranded on road. However, it is not a privilege either to decorate it extravagantly with regimental funds or to earmark a fleet of vehicles for his personal and family use. As the subordinates are far more discerning these days, they view any transgression adversely and resent it. Many units have undergone unpleasant experiences on these accounts.
Although the norms regarding the scope and extent of the service perks are well established for every rank/appointment, there may be occasions when reservations may crop up. In such cases, informal approval of the next higher authority must be obtained as a matter of abundant caution. No officer can ever decree as to what his privileges are.
2 Upholding Dignity of Soldiers
Today’s soldiers are far more sensitive about their sense of pride and self-esteem. They find ‘unsoldier-like’ jobs demeaning and dehumanizing. When forced, many feel debased, degraded and humiliated.
As it is, soldiering is stressful. Humiliation and stress make a lethal combination, resulting in a ‘pressure cooker effect’. In the case of soldiers, it blows the safety valve that unit cohesion and military training provide, thereby threatening well being of the organisation.
The institution of ‘Sahayak’ (orderlies) has outlived its relevance and has become a key cause for disaffection among the troops. Most soldiers abhor these duties and consider them to be degrading. They have to be ordered, coerced and threatened. The warning signs are ominous and the army must discard it at the earliest. As an immediate step, no ‘Sahayak’ should be allowed in the stations where families are permitted to stay.
Similarly, soldiers resent being detailed to cut grass or sweep roads or maintain golf courses and other facilities. Moreover, they do not like to be seen by the public doing such duties.
All tasks related to the maintenance of cantonment facilities should be outsourced to civilian service providers who are better equipped and are also more cost effective. This single step will increase soldiers’ level of job satisfaction considerably and improve their public image. Further, outsourcing will allow additional uniformed personnel to focus on training and assigned military missions. The time has come for the army to explore outsourcing with an open mind. However, it has to be a phased and carefully calibrated process.
3 Revisiting the Concept of Family Welfare
Nothing is more feared and abhorred by the soldiers than the institution of family welfare centers. Considering them to be of utter nuisance value, many units prefer field tenures to escape them.
No welfare activity is ever carried out therein. Instead, a parallel command hierarchy has proliferated to satisfy the ego of commanders’ wives. They meddle in official matters and move around in army vehicles with staff officers in toe. Two photographs that have gone viral on the net are highly worrisome. One shows a formation commander’s wife holding ladies’ conference in the operations room while the other one shows a unit commander’s wife sitting in the commanding officer’s chair and addressing unit ladies.
With increased levels of education and awareness, soldiers’ wives have become highly conscious of their self-worth. They find welfare meets to be wasteful, humiliating and hurtful experience. They dislike being treated like ignorant nitwits. Most have to be coaxed or cajoled to attend. There are also reports of some being coerced under the threat of their husbands’ career.
Many cases of indiscipline owe their origin to cases of mistreatment (real or perceived) in welfare meets. Such meets are considered by many to be the breeding ground for dissentions in the army and a major contributory factor in generating disaffection in many units.
Hence, the very concept of family welfare needs a fresh look. Concomitantly, there is a need for the wives of the senior officers to be conscious and cognizant of the sensitivities of soldiers and their wives.
The above issues have the potential of being volatile in nature and consequences. It is essential that the army remains in-sync with the emerging changes and modulates its man-management practices accordingly. As stagnation means certain decay, a vibrant organisation like the Indian army must adopt the philosophy of progressive conservatism. It implies adoption of progressive ideas and practices while preserving past ethos, beliefs, morals and work-culture.
Major General Mrinal Suman