Over the years and for many reasons, the defence ministry (MoD) has been viewed as a stumbling block in national security, rather than being the prime mover. It has been viewed as being antagonistic to the armed forces, rather than a supporter. Amongst all the ministries of the government, it has faced the most flak for this reason.
The UPA regime refused to clear any defence deal, creating capability shortfalls and leaving the armed forces with such shortages of ammunition that even fighting a ten-day war was difficult. For years, A K Anthony only saw the Bofors ghost lurking around each corner, viewed every deal with suspicion and worried about his clean image being damaged. It led to the ministry losing even the basic respect it deserved.
The present government appeared to begin on a positive note, with Prime Minister Modi addressing the Rewari veterans’ rally, promising to pay special attention to the military and its veterans. He gained full support in his campaign. With no defence minister at the helm for prolonged periods, the MoD continued with its antics. It gave false details to the pay commission, without clearing it from service headquarters leading to servicemen being degraded in status and salary in the seventh pay commission report, which the government accepted despite strong objections from the service chiefs. It was the joint decision of the service chiefs against issuing the letter of acceptance which compelled the PMO to step in.
Other issues which dominated headlines were letters degrading the status of the armed forces vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts, refusing to process their case for the grant of NFU (Non-Functional Upgradation), propelling a group to approach the courts for a decision and even supporting government decisions on cancellation of rations. It has claimed to be studying the Reddy commission report a year after it was submitted. It kept silent while veterans were hounded out of Jantar Mantar, not once but twice, and has ignored OROP anomalies.
Every day there are reports of war widows, including those of gallantry awardees and aged veterans challenging the government in courts for their rightful pensions, being denied by the accounts department of the MoD finance. This despite having obtained justice from the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT). Some officers sitting in MoD prefer to challenge these humane and just decisions of AFTs in higher courts, while the defence minister keeps quiet, adding to the suffering of widows and veterans.
Are these deliberate actions or accidental or being done to compel service headquarters to waste time and reams of paper only on resolving non-issues? It is a fact that those who serve in the MoD have little knowledge of matters military, seek privileges which flow from being a part of the armed forces but battle to remain at their helm. The impression being conveyed to the nation is that the MoD is a monster, seeking to dominate the services, subdue their voice and lower their status, while denying them the capabilities they need to ensure national security.
For every ill, the MoD is blamed, because as an organisation it has neither amalgamated the service HQs nor have its representatives as a part of it. Yet it continues to take decisions impacting the armed forces with a lack of understanding and knowledge. Publicly it is visualised as being aloof, uncaring, unresponsive and insensitive.
At the same time, the present defence minister has shown her desire to interact more with service chiefs and veterans than her predecessors and appears to be concerned about service-related issues. She is possibly the first defence minister in a long time with minimum outside responsibilities and hence is able to devote complete attention to the armed forces. If this is the truth, then the MoD must make efforts to change its image from that of an opponent to one of a friend in the eyes of the common Indian, who supports the armed forces because of its sacrifice and commitment.
The first action that the defence minister must take is to direct her staff to stop approaching higher courts, especially in cases of pensions and disability issues which concern war widows and veterans. Unless special focus is given to veteran and war widows’ welfare, the ministry would continue to be criticised for being insensitive. If George Fernandes, as defence minister, could threaten sending erring defence ministry officials to Siachen, she could do the same with those adding to the agony of war widows and veterans.
The next action is to withdraw the challenge of the government in the NFU case. It would resolve much of the anger which presently permeates throughout the service and would be an immense morale booster. On similar lines is the case of ‘Military Service Pay (MSP)’ for Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), a small issue but one that has immense impact on morale.
The veteran community today stands with the serving. Those in service today are veterans of tomorrow. A positive approach to their problems, resettlement and pensions would enhance the image of the MoD and of the government.
The minister must pull up ordnance factories for their tardiness and hold them accountable for their lapses, especially their poor-quality products. Decisions on defence procurements must be based more on service HQ inputs than on suggestions of her scientific advisor, who would invariably support the DRDO in its development. This would not be difficult as both these organisations directly function under her ministry.
Finally, the armed forces need to be amalgamated into the MoD. By keeping them away, they are neither in decision making, nor are their interests ever considered, only enhancing the swelling anger against the ministry. Functionally too, the present system is obsolete, especially for a rising superpower.
The MoD needs to alter its image, which has in recent times been negative. Nirmala Sitharaman has proved to be an able administrator and has indicated a desire to act. But unless she puts in concerted efforts to change the outlook of her own staff, the MoD would continue to face criticism.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)