A video uploaded on Facebook by a BSF jawan, complaining about the quality of food, went viral recently like wildfire. This was an astounding allegation to emerge from an armed and uniformed force where traditionally great stress is laid upon sound administration. The man soon became an instant media celebrity.
As Army veterans, we heard the news with shock and dismay. One of the clear articles of faith in the Army is the welfare of your men; in specific, their food, clothing, lodging and weapons and equipment. I had in my service career seen many BSF units. Their administration seemed sound and the boys looked well-fed. In fact, the whole nation watches the Wagah Border ceremonials of the BSF in awe. The best specimens of Indian manhood are on display there striking heroic poses and glaring down their Pakistani counterparts. They certainly do not look undernourished to me.
Was this a localised command/administrative failure? If so, it was most unfair of the media to extrapolate from a single incident and paint the entire BSF hierarchy in the blackest and vilest of colours. Such an assault could destroy the bonding between the officers and the men. Was it, as the BSF said, unwarranted propaganda by a disgruntled individual who had sought voluntary retirement, and to get it through, was intent upon making a nuisance of himself? Whatever it was, it was imperative that a thorough and time-bound enquiry be ordered and the guilty, if any, be dealt with most severely.
The instant fame conferred by the media on this constable soon unleashed a spate of copycat videos in other forces. A CRPF constable uploaded one that sought parity with the Army in pay and allowances. The 7th Pay Commission was to have its hearings and to some these looked like orchestrated leaks to influence the panel. The CRPF had already taken up these issues with the government and such a public airing of grievances was uncalled-for.
Most of us thought that with the strong combat bonds forged between officers and men, such incidents could not happen in the Army. The basic military ethos demanded that officers go out of their way to look after the welfare of their men. It was engraved in the Chetwode motto in the Indian Military Academy. To our horror, videos also surfaced from within the Army. A soldier, who was of the driver trade and had never been a Sahayak, decided to become the self-anointed spokesman of all the Sahayaks. He went on to claim there was widespread abuse of this facility.
Since British times, Sahayaks have been assigned to Army officers because in combat, he bears a grave burden. To act as his buddy in combat, provide him fire cover and ease his administrative burden, a Sahayak or buddy was assigned to him. There are Army rules that prohibit any misuse of this facility. This soldier, who was a low medical category with an indifferent disciplinary record, was now seeking instant stardom by becoming a trade union leader and hogging the limelight. He got plenty of it. He and his wife went on a hunger strike and spoke of dharnas. It left us aghast. Has the Army come down to this? Agreed, social mores are changing.
For the past three decades, the demand to abolish the Sahayak system has been heard every now and then. In fact, the Army Headquarters had written to the Ministry of Defence, asking for the reinstatement of the erstwhile Non-combatants Enrolled system to perform the duties of Sahayaks and relieve the combat soldiers of such tasks. This media hype of inciting some disgruntled men to defy military authority and adopt civilian agitational methods was most dangerous and disruptive of military discipline. You are free to take up your grievances and there are time-tested redressal mechanisms.
However, becoming a self-anointed spokesperson of other soldiers and going to the media with such demands is against the Army Act and rules. It is, as the Army Chief pointed out, a punishable offence. Iron discipline and implicit obedience of orders is what distinguishes an army from a civilian mob. That does not, however, condone any wrongdoing on the part of any officer. Even Generals have been court-martialed for wrongdoings.
Quite understandably, the Pakistanis were delighted by this spate of videos. I got a number of calls from Pakistani TV channels to come to their programmes to discuss the issue. Their venom and delight at our discomfiture was palpable and evident.
It is perfectly legitimate to be concerned about any lapses in the administration and welfare of our soldiers. But the problem was extrapolating from isolated and localised incidents to paint a generalised climate of collapse and generate ill feelings between the officers and men across the board. This could have dangerous repercussions, and our channels must display restraint and maturity in dealing with such sensitive issues.