There could be widespread application of the sentiment underlying the jurists’ insistence that justice must also “be seen to have been done”. And to put it into a specific and relevant context, to provide adequate solace to the families of those feared to have lost their lives after an AN-32 transport aircraft of the IAF “disappeared” when flying from Chennai to Port Blair. It would be most unfair to suggest that the multi-agency three-dimensional search-and-rescue operation was inefficiently conducted (was there inordinate delay in seeking satellite assistance from the United States?), for there would be emotion “colouring” the complaints of ageing aircraft not being properly maintained. Yet where a genuine shortcoming appears to have presented itself could be the failure to keep family members duly informed of “developments”. Complaints of an information-deficit have been made by several members of the stricken families, which points to a painful communication gap between IAF officials and the families.
That gap would have been only partially reduced by the defence minister personally visiting some family members. A case of too little too late? That Parliament did not take due notice of the agony to which the families are being subjected reinforces the belief that the lives of defence personnel are taken for granted, and that financial compensation suffices to provide solace and “closure”. It is true that a majority of defence personnel accept that in their lives the risk of death is inherent. But their family members are as “human” as others.
Obsolete prescribed procedures could be a stumbling block. While there is merit in the names of potential victims not being publicised until after the families have been informed, it is time to query the tendency to await confirmation of air accidents etc. before the families are taken into confidence. Contemporary communications, cell-phones and the internet for example, will ensure that word of a possible crash spreads through a military installation like proverbial wildfire, and there is every likelihood of a colleague telephoning the family with the sad news well before an “official message” has been despatched.
Similarly, since the information of mishaps flows fast when a civil aircraft is involved, the same “openness” is expected from the military as well, particularly when a combat mission was not being conducted. The air force has the assets to bring family members (at least some of them) to a centralised place where a full picture is presented and regularly updated. Those are matters of detail, it is the attitude that needs a makeover. Remember how George Fernandes earned the accolade of “jawan&’s minister” for sending the bodies of those killed in Kargil to their homes for the last rites?