The BSF constable, Tej Bahadur’s video posted on the social media has set off a chain reaction. Similar videos by the jawans of other central police forces and the army have also surfaced, thus creating an adverse impression. The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, has now warned his men against the use of the social media for expressing their grievances, instead of following established procedures for redressal. He has also threatened disciplinary action against those who continue using the social media.
It is a fact that the videos in social media, highlighting the poor quality of food and other indignities, can prejudice the public mind and convey the impression that soldiers and personnel of para-military forces are not being properly looked after in operational areas where they often have to risk their lives. Wide publicity in the social media has had a demoralising effect on the members of the force who are doing a splendid job in inhospitable circumstances. This is a reflection on the leaders of the force. Yet it would be wrong to sweep such allegations under the carpet as the outpourings of disgruntled elements, and take no notice of them. There is need for introspection and corrective action.
Leaders of the armed forces know that the honour of the country and welfare of the men under them should always be accorded uppermost attention. For those posted in difficult terrain and under hazardous circumstances, the supply of well-cooked nutritious food is imperative. Duke Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, had aptly remarked that the army marches on its stomach. Hence, the jawans feel short-changed if the food is unfit for consumption. This affects their fighting spirit and capability. Their sense of grievance and alienation is intensified if their senior officers are impervious and do not care for their welfare. Many of them are performing their duties far away from their homes and families and remain taut and tense. Hence, it is of utmost importance to address their problems with compassion and urgency.
I had done a long stint in the BSF and have seen how the men perform their duties with commendable discipline and commitment in difficult and inhospitable terrain and in daunting circumstances The food provided in the BSF mess and in border outposts (BoPs) is adequate and wholesome and the battalion commandant and the company commanders see to it that the quality of the fare is nutritious. In border areas, where BSF units function under the operational control of the army, the ration is procured by the army and supplied to the BSF. There are odd complaints that the ration is often of poor quality. But such cases are few. In other areas, where the BSF operates on its own, the ration is bought from the market under the direction of the Commandant, who is assisted by a mess committee. At times the quality and taste of cooked food is not up-to-the mark because of the dearth of good cooks in battalion headquarters and in outposts. The problem relates to the taste of the food, and not its quantity and variety. It is necessary, therefore, to recruit trained cooks and not greenhorns who have to be trained and groomed as cooks. In the early years of the BSF, the first DG/IG, Rustamji, ensured that trained chefs from well-known hotels and restaurants were inducted into the force. They could prepare palatable dishes and train other cooks as well. The system needs to be revived.
However, the key issue is not just the quality of food or supply of rations, but the equation between the supervisory officers and men serving under them. In the BSF as well as in other central police forces, there have been instances of a rift between the commanders and the men. Battalion commanders and Company Commanders have to be in close touch with their men and stand by them when they face problems. The jawans should feel that the senior leaders feel and care for them.
Some of the stalwarts of the BSF are still remembered with love and respect for their concern for those serving under them. In the police and in armed battalions there are grievance redressal mechanisms and also facilities for discussions in open forums (Alochana Sabhas) where the other ranks are free to articulate their grievances. There are force leaders who respond positively to the grievances raised in such sabhas. In parallel, there are some who allow things to drift. The unit leader must care for the men serving under him, and at the close of his tenure he should leave things a little better than he found them.
The Home ministry has called for a report from the BSF authorities on the constable’s video which went viral. The BSF brass has ordered a Court of Enquiry to probe the matter and submit a report if it is a one-off issue or an indicator of systemic malfunctioning. The Court of Enquiry will conduct a comprehensive investigation and suggest corrective measures including disciplinary action against the complainant if the allegations lack substance. Normally such boards of enquiry are known to do a thorough job.
The service record of the aggrieved constable is poor, but it is necessary to ascertain if his grouse has a factual basis and whether it highlights a local issue relating to poor ration or whether it points to systemic mismanagement and lack of concern for men battling it out for the country’s defence. Similar videos have resulted in negative perceptions of the functioning of the armed forces. The public has the right to know the truth of the matter. Genuine grievances of the personnel of the armed forces do need to be expressed, but posting of videos in the social media without proper verification or without explaining the attendant circumstances may not be the correct and responsible thing to do. This can result in demoralisation and foment indiscipline.
From my experience in the BSF, I can vouch that this large and proud force of 200,000 officers and men are guarding the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh with commendable zeal. The BSF has made the supreme sacrifice on many occasions and this has been possible because it is effectively led and looked after well. Relentless concern for the welfare of the men was the legacy bequeathed by the founding fathers of the force, pre-eminently Rustamji and Ashwini Kumar. Their motto should continue to inspire the present generation of BSF leaders.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences; former Director-General; National Human Rights Commission; and former Director, National Police Academy.