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Analysis: Defining Discipline

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There are two aspects to the case study. one, it is about sexual harassment at the work place, more specifically in the uniformed services. Two, there is a larger issue of what may constitute discipline in the armed forces, given a perceptible change in the social milieu in the country.

We define sexual harassment as an unwelcome act that involves four things:

"First, there must be an action, such as the actor putting his arms around the target, which can be physical, verbal or visual. Second, the action must be unwelcome or unwarranted in the target's view. Third, it must be sexual in nature and based on the target's gender. Fourth, there has to be a tangible economic impact on the target or a severely negative impact on the target's work performance or work environment." (Linda Gordon Howard: The Sexual Harassment Handbook).

There are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and those that create a hostile environment. In the first, sexual favour is sought in exchange of work-related benefits. In the second category, the behaviour alters the target's experience of the workplace, "causing the work environment to be a sexually charged, intimidating, or offensive place to be".  

Although his adjutant tells him it was a consensual relationship, Colonel Arjun Singh would need to see to the facts with speed and fairness: misconduct, the influence of alcohol, on-duty or off-duty, and one-off or recurrent in nature. The service record of the officer and a consequent loss to the system are dangerous distractions to the central questions — did or did not the target consider the move as ‘an unwelcome sexual advance', and did the act take place or not?

The larger issue is of changing social mores and what they do to the idea of discipline in the armed forces.

During Brigadier Murtaza Ali's time, a young officer had no way of viewing pornography on the Internet or the cell phone. Neither did he wake up to read newspapers about scams involving his superiors, and those who influence his promotions and even pin bravery medals on his chest. He did not witness a government system in which generals took away housing meant for war widows, and colluding politicians and bureaucrats make money from aircraft and armament procurement, purchase of snowmobiles, rum, ration and even coffins for slain soldiers. There was a time when the bad guy was in the minority. Today, he moves around in a red-beaconed convoy fluttering the tri-colour, which the soldier has to defend at the cost of his life. What does all this do to the man in olive green?

Understand, the armed forces  get their people from the civil society. The men and women in uniform marry into the civil society; their children are part of it; and after serving the nation, they return to the same civil society whose physical borders they must defend with their lives. If the moral fibre of that larger civil society is broken, it rapidly invades the uniformed services. The tragic reality is that there is no defence against the enemy within.

We live in times of abandoned probity in public life. It is led from the front, with valour, by most politicians and supported by colluding bureaucrats. The size of their play is so large that the generals must fall in line.

Look at the size of the defence outlay in 2010: Rs 147,344 crore, of which Rs 60,000 crore is capital expenditure alone! It is a booty that is renewed every year.

The general sees the minister and the bureaucrat making money hand over fist, and asks himself why not me? Soon they want him as an accomplice. The reward for complicity is seemingly harmless like a piece of government land, an extended time at the army headquarters so the son can finish college, and sometimes even a bravery medal. So, the general does not flinch when he salutes the politician — he tells his conscience he is actually only saluting the office and not the person. Why should it matter?

The power to defend a country is not in blazing guns. It is in the burning hearts of men and women behind those guns. It is a moral fire. Once morality is taken out, the fire dies. And the enemy notices it before anyone else does.

There was a time when Indian service officers used to look down upon their Pakistani counterparts as the ones who swore by their religious beliefs but drank scotch, swam in land deals and womanised. Earlier, they had the better armament but we had the better people. Our sense of superiority came from moral armour. Now, our society and our government have taken away that armour.

The conflict is no longer on the line of control. It has shifted within.

Unfortunately, Colonel Arjun Singh needs to get his answers from the larger system that writes the code of conduct he must comply with. If the two are not aligned, the nation no longer needs an external enemy.

Subroto Bagchi is co-founder of MindTree, gardener and vice-chairman of the Board

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-12-2010)