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Analysis: Nation Before Self

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Since the concept of honour has remained unchanged over the years, so too must interventions that ensure appropriate behaviour from our men in uniform.

The case study brings out an interesting existential reality of our modern times. On the one hand, we have a society that is becoming increasingly permissive and dismissive of existing societal norms while, on the other, our security environment has degraded drastically, demanding a higher state of alertness and professionalism from our uniformed forces. Under these conditions, the very concept of discipline is under stress. Yet, discipline needs to be enforced, no matter what the cost. There is bound to be some confusion in the minds of current military leaders. Should they be condoning today the behaviour that was unacceptable yesterday?

We must remember that our expectations from our uniformed forces, military or para-military, have remained unchanged. These requirements have not changed a whit. If at all, the stakes have risen even higher. There is need for much greater vigilance and, therefore, discipline today than ever before, since terrorism hides behind civilian clothing. Danger lurks in the unlikeliest of places. We should not be concerned here with merely passing a value judgement on the errant officer's behaviour against the backdrop of how today's permissive society views it. Rather, we should be discussing whether time-tested tenets of military propriety continue to be valid in today's India. My belief is that they are and, due to the presence of a degraded internal security environment, these need to be enforced with an even greater sense of purpose and urgency.

Specifically, if a couple — both being in the armed forces — breach military propriety and end up in a physical or emotional relationship, as brought out in the case, they are unlikely to succeed in maintaining the kind of ‘professional distance' required for effective functioning. This will ultimately be detrimental to the organisation entrusted with the nation's safety. As such, the touchstone ought not to be the act itself but the further effect of that act on military discipline and, by extension, the nation's security.

Of course, times are changing and this will exacerbate recruitment and subsequent training problems. Youngsters will have to be drawn from a society that is a lot more permissive than earlier. The problem our Services face today is: the induction point or the raw human resource we receive today, has to be worked upon much more than before. Our selection process needs to acknowledge this, and the recruitment pitch must be appropriately calibrated.

Given the reality of our existence this, per se, may not ensure the right type of human material needed by our Services. For a start, the nation must start looking up to the Services with pride, respect and compassion. This cannot, of course, be demanded or requested. We live in a media-driven society and, the media  exerts a huge influence by its ability to sway public opinion. I feel that the time has come for the uniformed services to shed their traditional reticence and engage with the media intelligently and purposefully. The public needs to be informed of the reality that governs the existence of our armed and para-military forces — the hardships; the service conditions that adversely impact their family lives; the sacrifices that they are routinely called upon to make, etc. Once all of this gets into the public domain, our countrymen will start looking at the Services with renewed understanding. Empathy is bound to develop, followed by respect and gratitude.

Internally, the fauj ought to revisit its training curriculum in this respect. It needs to employ perceptive and innovative training methodologies to reinforce the values cherished by them and create conditions that will make our officers and men proud to wear that uniform. Taken together, these interventions will inculcate a feeling of pride in new entrants. They must want to belong to that select group and be overwhelmed by a chest thumping kind of feeling that makes each of them say: "I want to be an officer or soldier/ airman/ sailor of the Indian Armed Forces!"


Lastly, just as in our own families, the seniors in the fauj, too, need to set an example — walk their talk and lead from the front. It follows that the selection process for higher ranks needs to be transparent and ‘fail safe', thereby ensuring that those selected do not fall short of the nation's and the fauj's own expectations in this regard. In the Services, the uniform must end up making the man — or the woman!

And so, behavioural norms that are okay for society at large cannot be okay for the fauj, which is required to protect the very same society. The stakes, I am afraid, are very much higher, and a failure in this domain cannot be an option for the likes of us — whether or not we continue to be in uniform.

Rakesh Sharma (India's first man in space), has retired from active service. He is currently chairman of Automated Workflow Group, an IT firm based in Bangalore

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