There was an article last week in a national newspaper titled, ‘Commanders whose bases breached in terror attacks may be told to quit.’ The writer claimed to be an established defence journalist and obtained his inputs from unnamed sources in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The article said the government has informed Army HQs that commanders of bases which had been attacked by terrorists in J and K and had casualties should be directed to resign from the service, though they would be entitled to all pensionary benefits.
Prior to publication, the author did contact Army HQs to confirm the veracity of the selective leak from the MoD. He was told that the inputs were false, yet he went ahead and published. The article did quote army representatives who stated, “‘Terrorist attacks on every camp have been probed. Necessary steps have been initiated already. Can action be initiated again?” It implied that once any adverse action is taken for failure of command, another cannot be legally adopted.
The reality is vastly different. The bureaucracy in the MoD had suggested this thought process and were pushing the then defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, to act. Such a decision could, apart from impacting the functioning of HQs in the chain, also have adverse effect on operations at the grassroots levels. This would not have been the primary concern of those who made this suggestion, as they remain far removed from areas of operations.
The army view on the subject was that in a terrorist environment, such incidents would occur, despite all precautions. Each incident is investigated and failures at command level acted upon. Administrative or disciplinary action once taken is final and any further action, including seeking resignation, is legally untenable.
By adopting the approach of resignations, there would be major disadvantages at the operational level. Firstly, army camps would be converted into fortresses, which would imply they are defence and inwardoriented rather than being offensive and outward in nature, which are the demands of the area. There would be reluctance of senior officers to operate in the region. The army anyway sends its best officers, with experience at multiple levels to the valley. They should have the freedom to operate, rather than being bound down in ensuring security.
For complete security of a camp, more than just barbed wire fencing and security posts, which is what most camps have, are needed. Security sensors, CCTV camera and other gadgets are essential, all of which are prohibitive in cost and beyond the present budget. Recommendations of the Philip Campose committee formed by the MoD have yet to be implemented due to paucity of funds. This gets compounded with the vast number of camps established to ensure domination of the valley. Breaching security fencing is possible despite the presence of alert guards and lighting. Most importantly such decisions would impact morale at lower levels while providing a boost to terrorists operating in the region. They would have the advantage of knowing that their actions can determine the future of commanders and instil a defensive mindset, which would function to their advantage.
Such actions are never adopted in any country where forces battle terrorists or anti-national elements. The army therefore felt that this was a retrograde step on the part of the government. Nirmala Sitharaman accepted the army viewpoint and the case was closed. However, the bureaucracy was unhappy that their suggestions were discarded.
No such approach has ever been contemplated for other security forces operating in the valley. The Pulwama incident, which led to the largest number of casualties in recent times was the result of multiple failures at administrative, intelligence and security levels. No heads rolled. On the contrary, shortcomings were identified and immediately acted upon.
With a change of defence minister, the bureaucracy is back to playing games. It is attempting to flag the issue once again, seeking to put the army at a disadvantage. It has no concern on what the impact of this retrograde step would be on morale of troops at lower levels. It is neither responsible for operations in Kashmir nor has anyone serving in the MoD ever faced a live bullet. All it seeks is to gain an advantage over the armed forces and bring them under greater control.
Therefore, the MoD resorted to a selective leak to a single journalist, rather than releasing a press statement as is the norm when dealing with a genuine direction of the government. The bureaucracy was hoping that based on this selective leak and subsequent discussions in the media, the new defence minister would act and apply pressure on the army. However, all it has done by this immature act is to send a wrong message to the nation
Simultaneously, laxity on the part of commanders needs to be firmly dealt with, an action which the army continues to take. Loss of lives is always painful; however, it has to be accepted in operations.
With a bureaucratic MoD without uniformed representatives, the atmosphere between it and service HQs has become one of competition, rather than of working in unison for a common goal. It gets compounded because the staff within the MoD lack ground experience and understanding of the environment in which soldiers operate.
Therefore, the government should consider a few immediate steps to change the atmosphere of competition presently existing, to one of working together. It should either engage retired military personnel as domain experts in the MoD, as it has done in other ministries, or merge HQ IDs, which was created to be a part of the MoD with it.
The government should order an investigation to determine the individual who was responsible for this fake selective leak and he must be taken to task. The publication of a report which is subsequently reported to be fake, can impact morale of soldiers operating in an already stressed and tense environment. It also portrays a poor image of the government and the defence minister, contrary to reality and their genuine concerns of the soldier.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.