Primetime shows on television are peppered with repeated allusions to the Indian defence forces, from invoking the ‘soldier’ on legitimate issues like the Indo-Pakistan impasse, to utterly disconnected issues like demonetisation and standing for the National Anthem in cinema halls. There is convenient propping up of the symbolic Indian ‘soldier’ to inject hyper-nationalism aided by the accompanying retinue of the latest ‘newsroom warriors’ ~ Veterans in resplendent military regalia, creating political ‘no-fly-zones’ to guarantee the nationalistic high ground for political parties. This is a new medium for the essentially ‘barrackised’ soldiers, who are more attuned to relative isolation from the political mainstream, ensconced in either the ‘forward areas’ or picket-fenced cantonments.

Part-historical and part-deliberate, the institution of the Armed Forces has evolved its own governance, ethos and values that have withstood the parallel degradation of most other governmental agencies. It has its own laws, redressal and operational systems that have ensured that the efficacy of the sword arm is maintained from the frozen minus 50 degrees of the Siachen glacier, to the infernos of plus 50 degrees of the Thar Desert. The systems are not perfect and are susceptible to aberrations and derelictions like Adarsh scam, Tehelka sting, Tatra trucks scam among others but the proverbial bad apples are still a minority unlike other governmental bodies. However, it does have a simmering angst and ire that is dangerously glossed over as in OROP and successive pay commissions, testimony to the price that befalls any disciplined institution that delivers more than mandated, and yet remains ‘voiceless’, by design, choice and good reason.

The frustration of ‘voicelessness’ first burst forth in the OROP saga, that sadly continues, with the emotional and financial humiliation of the fraternity playing out on the footpaths of Janpath. The OROP struggle was apolitical in its inception as it presupposed that all political parties had contributed to the regression of the Indian Armed Forces, notwithstanding the condescending invocation of the ‘Indian soldier’. Sadly, TV lost interest in the technicalities of OROP and the civil bureaucracy managed to kick one more in, when the 7th pay commission perpetuated the ‘second amendment’ and disallowed the promised parity.

The OROP movement is symptomatic of the institutional discipline that is oddly enough, abused and ignored, as the dual reality of tanks parading down Rajpath on Republic Day is juxtaposed with the spectre of aging warhorses with rusting medals sitting silently across the road in Janpath, unable to comprehend the indignity of jumlas. Apathy breeds division and the government’s procrastination almost succeeded in creating a hitherto unprecedented and explosive divide ~ a few metres from the principal OROP movement tent was an alternative OROP protest that was ostensibly protecting the rights of ‘other ranks’, as the principal movement was unfairly projected as propagating the issues of officers only. The first fissures of internal divide surfaced. This owes its genesis to the governmental twiddling-of-thumbs, and risking the sacred covenant between the officer and the soldier. Like all divided protests, OROP’s totality was essentially lost despite the institution exemplifying living by the sword in Pathankot, Pampore and various other natural disasters that elicited jingoistic fervour for a few days, before settling down to concerted apathy.

OROP was the primetime TV baptism for veterans, and soon, many joined the varied debates and propounded blunt military angularities, unquestionable in import and running the risk of sounding ‘anti-national’, should a less kinetic option be suggested. The political appropriation and showcasing of these veterans was irresistible, as they offered plausible justifications and ‘cover-fire’ for the muscular posturing of the executive. Except that this pawned overreach led to veterans joining the ‘shouting brigades’ and navigating debates to convenient political positions. This tactic was fraught with inherent risk, as initially the conversations were essentially outward and therefore even extreme solutions like ‘let us raise our own fidayeens’ were given a long rope. The cookie crumbled when the dispassionate TV channels picked up a story of disgruntled soldiers on social media to milk it for primetime TRPs. For once the Veterans were forced to stare at their own navels and get caught in the line of fire of TV sensationalism. The no-holds barred platform of the TV newsroom pitted officers versus the ‘other ranks’ and watched them squirm with glee. TRPs were guaranteed, institutional sensitivities and implications be damned!

The construct, history and conditions of the Armed Forces are so  complex that to make immediate sense of the situational status is impossible, and to twist it extremely possible. The viral reaction to the posts of the BSF jawan, then the CRPF jawan, and finally the Army jawan, was almost expected given the immediacy of the medium. Again, this is not to suggest that there are no lapses or issues warranting redressal and review. However, this was tantamount to acts of unimaginable disciplinary consequences, and belies the reality of the multiple redressal systems that exist within the Armed Forces.

General Bipin Rawat was spot on to call the bluff of sensationalism and insist on raising valid concerns in the appropriate form and forum ~ frankly, given the overall governmental apathy, the institution would not be able to deliver a Kargil, a surgical strike or continue winning in the most hostile and inhuman combat conditions but for the exceptional internal leadership and redressal systems that exist and keep the chin up, across the board. The systems in the Forces work better than anywhere else.

The Veterans have paid a price for their own naivety. The fraternity reposed its faith on politicians and TV studios and found itself stuck in the quagmire of selective usage. Recently, the apolitical voice of the Armed Forces acquired a deeply political overtone by willfully dragging the ‘soldier’ in political posturing. The continuing slide of the Armed Forces is a legacy reality that needs a voice stripped of all political colours and loyalties, when it is about the institution itself. Veterans must engage carefully avoiding the political usurpation of the ‘soldier’ and avoid minefields of divide, that come from ignorance of the institutional functioning, as politicians and TV studios are only driven by ratings, political or viewership, fickle either way.

The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor Of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry