• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
BW Businessworld

Case Study: Trained And Built To Protect

Photo Credit :


Brigadier (Retd) Mir Murtaza Ali, leafed through the old dog-eared album, pointing out different officers to his wife Shobhna. Some places he paused longer, recalling events and occurrences; some places he touched the pictures longer in reverence to the departed officer.

Presently tapping a photograph decisively, he said, "Second Lieutenant Arjun Pratap Singh, 1990." Brig. Ali was preparing his wife for the forthcoming meeting. Smiling, he added, "Arjun was the first of a growing breed of young officers who had the confidence to engage with the CO (Commanding Officer) in discussions regarding the strategic intent of doctrines being practiced during training exercises."

Col. Singh was the CO of ‘Jangi Paltan' — the same battalion that Brig. Ali had commanded 14 years ago. Then, Arjun had been a young, recently commissioned officer just out of the Indian Military Academy. Today, he was visiting Jabalpur to fix up some training exercise for his paltan. Brig. Ali was delighted that he would be dropping by his home for dinner.

"At that time in the paltan," said Brig. Ali,

"Arjun reminded me of my own days as a young officer — full of josh but wet behind the ears, ha ha... but a great lad!" More memories followed more pictures as Brig. Ali said, "Remember when we first met, how I was furiously trying to grow a moustache so that I could look older than I was, hoping to be noticed by you, Shobhna?" They both laughed softly, chiding one another and claiming supremacy in the ‘conquest' that was now over 40 years old.

Just then the door bell chimed. It was 7 pm  Col. Singh had arrived, on the dot.

Brig. Ali's residence was elegantly functional, with mementoes of his service lining the walls. Above the grand piano was a neat row of photographs from his younger days, and a framed photograph of the President pinning the Vir Chakra on his uniform, earned for the role played by him and his men in a significant battle during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict.

Col. Singh's eyes took in the walls as if they chronicled his own youth's victories and failures, until his eyes settled on the prominently displayed regimental insignia of the ‘Jangi Paltan'. Singh's heart missed a beat as it always did when he saw the insignia. It was an altar of worship...

Just before dinner, Col. Singh's phone rang. It was a call from his adjutant, which he took in the verandah. He came back looking disturbed. Not a twitch missed the Brigadier's keen eyes even now. Their eyes met making it impossible for Singh to pretend. And he wouldn't either. The Brigadier was responsible for his professional upbringing till not very long ago.

Col. Singh: We had an unsavoury incident involving one of my junior officers and a young lady officer last week; a case where the consumption of liquor has played a significant role.

Brig. Ali: Messy, when we are compelled to sit in judgement over the spirit and not merely the letter of the law.

Col. Singh:
Based on surround evidence, it is not clear whether it was consensual flirtation or molestation....

Then seeing Brig. Ali's face, Singh added: "I mean, sir, he is a bright officer, just 26… boys will be boys, sir. It would be a shame to lose such a promising youngster to this one incident."

Brig. Ali:
So your conundrum is: do we condone this as an aberration, or do we use it as an opportunity to strengthen our ‘code of conduct' even if we lose a promising lad in the process? It has been a long time since I retired. How does our Service look at this sort of thing now?

Col. Singh: A lot more happens in terms of breaches and indiscipline now. The young are spirited; they do more things sooner than was appropriate 15 years ago, sir.

Brig. Ali:
Yes, I have a number of young people in my family so I am exposed to changing attitudes. Has the Service, therefore, changed its treatment of this?

Col. Singh: Well, maybe not the Service itself, but we who mentor and supervise the young certainly feel — let's say — challenged! Here is an officer, a competent professional, an asset to the unit, and now he goes and gets himself into trouble falling prey to a temporary aberration.

Brig. Ali:
Temporary aberration? In the olden days, a lot of the Service kept to the straight and narrow. It was the norm. Deviations were few and far between because salutary punishments were swift and fair. Today, it seems that the stigma attached to moral turpitude has reduced. People see it, rather wearily, as something that's become common — misappropriation of funds, misrepresentation of facts, expedient rather than exigent decisions… Yes, a lot has changed.

Col. Singh: But, sir. Nothing ever remains the same. Social mores change. What was unacceptable yesterday does not appear non-negotiable today. In any case, the fauj cannot remain insulated from society, can it?

Brig. Ali: I agree. I take you back to the time when Mrs Gandhi selected Giani Zail Singh to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. There was much surprise. The media was uncharitable and I remember reading a lead editorial that said: It is hoped that in this case, the office shall make the man. So those who have opted for the armed forces have to don the values and mores of the office, leaving behind what they assumed was ‘okay' living in an unrestrained society.

Col. Singh:
Right, sir. But, sir, the youngsters are drawn from urban centers where dating and all that it leads to is par for the course. I do not mean to sound patronising but women today know what they want and do act accordingly. It appears that this was harmless flirtatious behaviour on the part of this officer, and it, er... led to some, let's say, exhibitionism!


Brig. Ali: We must concern ourselves with how a change in social behaviour impacts the effectiveness of our armed forces. For example, is it realistic to believe that inter-personal conduct after office hours will have no bearing on interpersonal professional effectiveness the morning after? Since we have chosen to be a part of the fauj, we must steer clear of emotional minefields that have the potential to degrade our operational effectiveness. This is why the Service does not countenance such aberrant behaviour and, therefore, it is our duty to uphold these tenets.

Col. Singh:
I value your opinion, sir, yet I am keenly aware that I cannot thrust archaic concepts down the throats of young officers.

Brig. Ali: Even if not doing so reduces the effectiveness of our armed forces?

Col. Singh:
Sir... not easy, sir! The youngsters perceive their seniors to be social ‘dinosaurs'.

Brig. Ali: Not easy, but do-able, Colonel. And, it needs to be done for there is a lot at stake here. Like parenting, some things remain non-negotiable, no matter how much the external world changes. You see this incident as a ‘temporary aberration'. While I have no doubt that you will eventually do what is right for the Service, let me offer another perspective.

We in the Services know that in the heat of battle, ultimately, to be effective each of us will have to face and, in fact, overcome our fear of death. We have to reconcile to the possibility of walking into the path of a stray bullet, push the fear of death aside and stride forth because this is the life we have chosen for ourselves, this is what we have trained for and this is what is expected from us men of honour!

Now, imagine that an officer, while leading an attack during a realistic war-gaming exercise —  designed to validate some new concepts — chooses a longer, tactically unsound and ‘safer' routing that ensures he will not have to negotiate a slippery ravine in the dead of the night. He does not inform the chain of command about this departure from an operational, pre-briefed, best practice. The same officer is also known to be a brilliant strategist, adept at finding operational solutions to military situations and does possess the knowledge of variables that affect the outcome of an operational strategy. Should we classify his choice in the war-gaming exercise as a temporary aberration, or see it as a fleeting insight being provided to us about his mind-set affecting character under stress?

Col. Singh:
Surely, sir, we have all made mistakes during our service careers….

Brig. Ali:
We have indeed. However, the key ingredients here are: one, this was a ‘realistic' war-gaming exercise carried out to train officers, test out specific strategies of engagement in order to calibrate and firm up our operational response in similar situations. Two, the officer did not inform the chain of command about his decision to take the ‘safer' route, thus compromising the surprise element that the original approach would have afforded the attacking force!

I see this as a red flag. In this scenario, we should classify the officer's errors of commission and omission as ‘dereliction of duty'.

Col. Singh:
Even so, sir, how would you explain to the officer that this moment of flirtation is a dereliction of duty? Pardon my seeming flippant or glib, sir…  

Brig. Ali:
The behaviour expected of service officers have always been very clear: Mind Control. There is no peace time or war time, no duty hours or off-duty hours. There is only an officer, and an officer he stays once he takes his oath and dons his uniform. Why is an officer different from the man on the street? A civilian's misbehaviour does not result in compromising national safety or territorial integrity!

What is at the heart of this seemingly harsh law? What is at stake here? The loss of alertness — a lowering of the guard! This alertness is invoked even before the commencement of thought! It is the alertness that decides what thoughts to allow! So, did your officer have time between thought and action? He knew the exercise was being run to evolve a new tactic. He departed from pre-briefed procedure and chose not to inform the chain of command. That, in my book is dereliction of duty!

Col. Singh:
Would that not be too harsh a conclusion, sir? I mean, after all, it was just a war gaming exercise and not war itself! I would argue that he may have chosen the circuitous route so as not to endanger either his own or the lives of his troops while on a mere exercise. I mean, why expend yourself in training? Why not preserve oneself for the ‘real' thing? Just because he took a safer route, it is a bit extreme to conclude that the officer was ‘risk averse' and classify the happening as ‘dereliction of duty'.

Brig. Ali: Well, this is quite in line with what I hear from the youth of today. They say: we will deliver when the chips are down; till then, let us be! Okay, I will provide a context to the officer's errors as I see them. Training, you will agree, is how we build our officers and men. By taking a circuitous route, the officer denied himself and his men the training opportunity that the exercise was designed to impart. Also, therefore, the strategy that ought to have been tested during the exercise, remained un-tested. Would you say that these were errors of commission?

 Next, by failing to inform his superiors about the changed routing adopted, he may have contributed towards something substantially more serious. Won't they, unaware of his altered plans, conclude erroneously that the suggested strategic routing was effective and met the planned objectives? Consequently, this will be recorded by them as the strategy of choice and de-rigueur for missions of this type! This error of omission can potentially endanger the lives of our troops in times of war and worse, contribute towards a failed operational campaign.

Military operations are always very precise, dynamic and, battlefield situations tend to evolve rapidly. It is neither practicable nor desirable — due to security of information constraints — to explain the rationale behind every operational order, to everyone. This is why the fauj views departures from pre-briefed procedures so seriously.

Exactly why a tendency to depart from norms is nipped before it takes root and gets embedded in the culture of the organisation. When people break norms we have failures-in-waiting, Arjun! And each one of us will need to do our bit in enforcing these norms, howsoever unpleasant or insignificant it may appear at that time, so as to ensure that we do not, by our inaction, contribute to a drop in the level of preparedness of our armed forces.

As for why a uniformed officer differs from a civilian, just one word: stakes.

Col. Singh: Stakes?  

Brig. Ali: Yes. If a young corporate honcho screws up, he loses face and his company may end up losing some money. That's all. If a fauji screws up, he compromises the nation's honour; whether by giving away sensitive information, failing to make a headway on an offensive mission or, by failing to repulse the enemy's attack thus exposing a chink in our armour.

Col. Singh:
Yes, sir. I agree; but, today, society does not seem to mind. Our officers are drawn from this very society, sir. They come differently formatted! A dalliance here, a flirtation there,  is not an issue!

Brig. Ali:
True. I have observed that. The fauji is trained to not have any excesses. Fauj is a discipline-driven organisation; it has a commitment to protect the country and that requires a commitment to discipline. That society has changed, norms are changing, is all very well… but a fauji is not a civilian! His values are what he brings to his job, and he swears by his honour to adhere to those. Therefore, a transgression is a transgression. There is no small transgression and big transgression. There are no half measures!



Isn't that why we die for the country? If not wouldn't, we make a deal with the enemy and save our life than the country? Every industry and organisation develops rules and norms that enable its goals. In civilian life, there are social mores and there is the falling foul of the law. Punishments may change in degree, but not the law. Stealing, dishonesty, murder, etc., remain culpable, criminal offences everywhere.

Likewise, in the military, there is military etiquette and there is military discipline. The former may vary a bit with time but the latter, never. And, if a departure from military etiquette results in dilution of military discipline, it tantamounts to breach of military discipline. Let's say a senior officer writes to the Chief Secretary asking for a favour — an out-of-turn allotment of a flat. You will agree he ends up compromising himself and is vulnerable to a quid pro quo arrangement with the bureaucrat and may have to return the favour by agreeing to a proposal that he, otherwise, would have been better advised to turn down for security reasons! This is the fundamental difference between a fauji existence and a civilian one. Discipline is the driving force behind the fauj — its state of being.

A civilian mostly lives for himself while a fauji lives and oftentimes, dies for the very same civilian — his countryman!

Col. Singh looked out the window into the darkness… Brig. Ali's argument was compelling and he himself would agree had it been someone else they were discussing. His ears resounded with Brig. Ali's words….

The officer only knows duty, not his self. Training ensures this, Arjun, and it would seem your young officer's training is incomplete. In his spirited stupor, he has naturally lost his clarity so that he thinks because the lady is a willing partner, the crime is less! Theft is theft whether you steal from home or the neighbour... the crime lies in the act, not in the stature of the victim! That is how civilians think; ‘He slapped his servant, so it's okay....' Not for a fauji.

And finally this: This man is a danger to national security — he can allow himself to be compromised! Singh shuddered.

Col. Singh: What would you do, sir, in my place?

Brig. Ali: As the CO, I would recommend loss of seniority for an officer guilty of inappropriate behaviour with a lady; so, he will have to start again and work his way up with a clean record. Place yourself in the shoes of the errant officer. The moment his alertness suspended, he ceased to be an officer! Error is born in the depths of loss of mental control. That is why mind training is paramount in the military. Of course, there is just no excuse for such behaviour!

Col. Singh: He is a darn good officer...

Brig. Ali: We don't build darn good officers. We build minds. The man is his mind.

At the door, Brig. Ali gave Singh a warm hug, uncharacteristic but sincerely felt. He said, "Through all this, with regard to the lady officer — in the event it is assault, please set her expectations right so she doesn't feel abandoned in this respect. If not, make sure she too gets penalised for moral turpitude.  

"A breakdown of inner discipline is risky in defence, so it should be taken very seriously. Your officers need to know this. I reiterate: your officer is a security risk and can compromise himself and later, his position, by his un-officer like behaviour."

Brigadier (Retd) Mir Murtuza Ali — cerebral, straight and compassionate — never reached the rarefied atmosphere occupied by higher ranks, two- or three-star Generals. There were few like him who made it up the slippery slopes of a steep hierarchy of the armed forces... Yes, they are rare, thought Col. Arjun Pratap Singh.

casestudymeera at gmail dot com