Lt Gen responds to Express editorial

The Indian Express had an excellent lead editorial in today's edition regarding the letter written by the Chiefs of Staff Committee to Defence Minister AK Antony, requesting him to hold the Pay Commission for the defence officer cadre in abeyance until certain anomalies had been addressed. Predictably enough, it hasn't gone down well with a lot of senior officers. Anyway, decide for yourself -- here's the editorial, and following it is a letter of reaction written by a senior retired officer Lt Gen SK Bahri to the Express today, a letter he copied to me. First, the editorial:

EXPRESS EDITORIAL: It's the uniform

India’s defence services should now be paid more. The cabinet cleared the Sixth Pay Commission’s recommendations for new pay bands for defence employees on August 14; on Monday, the defence ministry officially sanctioned the implementation of the cabinet’s suggested changes. The cabinet went well beyond what was recommended by the pay commission, except, unfortunately, in the matter of severance packages — which would have helped the armed forces’ growing pension bill — and flexible hours. In particular, the concern that lower ranks were not being given enough of a raise has been addressed. It was doubly disappointing, therefore, that the seniormost uniformed officers in the country have written to Defence Minister A.K. Antony demanding that the pay rise be put on hold.

There are a hundred jokes in the services about how difficult it is to get the army, navy and air force to agree on anything. For the leaders of the three uniformed branches to join each other in writing to their civilian superior, one would think that something of earth-shattering import needed to be addressed. On discovering what it is, however, all notions of what the three service chiefs consider an earth-shattering crisis might need to be revised. In essence, the chiefs are upset that senior ranks in the armed forces are not being paid an amount commensurate with what they believe equivalent ranks in the IAS receive. (The pay commission held sharply differing, and more rational, views on what constituted an equivalent rank.)

The armed services do indeed see a steady leaking of talent. However, so do other services. The problem is that by grounding their complaint in a spurious comparison to the IAS and the IPS rather than as a reasoned exposition — using labour market analysis — of how higher pay might stop that leakage, the armed forces come off as depressingly petty and bureaucratic. Senior soldiers obsessing over points of order and the order of precedence is not going to help that leakage; worldwide, what keeps soldiers in uniform is not parity with civilian administrators but a sense that for what they do they receive recognition of a unique order, and that the uniform itself ensures they will receive a certain dignity and respect. When the seniormost of those wearing that uniform write letters of the sort that the defence minister just received, that hope receives a small jolt.

And now, that letter of response from Lt Gen SK Bahri to the above editorial:

Dear Sir,

I am rather pained at the insensitivity of your editorial. Distilling our grouses against the continuous decline in our status to "obsessing over points of order and precedence" is unfair and glossing over reality. It seems you are oblivious to the manner of functioning of the armed forces with the civil services. If we were to be only responsible for the external defence of the country we would be confined to our cantonments and be least concerned with how the civil servants keep upgrading themselves.

The reality is that we have to function alongwith them on a day to day basis. Be it maintenance of law and order, counter terrorism operations and aid during disasters. I will give you three instances:

a) In 1969, our regiment was deployed in Ahmedabad during the communal riots. A Superintendent Police (SP) was attached to us as a liason officer. He was wearing a major's badges of rank. My CO who was a Lt Col had 20 yrs service while I as a major, his No 2,had over 16 years. The SP was very respectful to us both. However, a week or so later he came wearing Lt Col's badges. We congratulated him and asked him over for a drink in the evening. He however shied away saying that it was hardly worth a celeberation as orders had come that all officers with more than 10 yrs service can wear a Lt Col's badges, without any effect on his salary. But he continued giving due deference to those senior in service to him

b) In 1974, I was posted back to Ahmedabad as a Lt Col, in the Division HQ. We were called again to tackle law and order during the Nav Nirman agitation led by Mr Jaiprakash Narayan. We had a Brigadier attached to the Police Commissioner.. The latter, though he wore the badges of a Brig was drawing less pay than a Colonel. Let that pass. But Deputy Commissioners (DC) wearing the badges of Lt Col were attached to each sector, looked after by a CO of an infantry battalion. Once there was a problem in one sector and the DC promptly informed the CO about it. The CO told the DC to hold the situation with his police till he arrived with his troops. When the CO reached the spot he found that the DC had not moved from his temporay office and taken no action. CO lost his temper and ticked him of rather strongly. That evening at the Sector Commanders conference the DC raised the issue that the CO had been rude to him, even though they were of the same rank! The Brigadier, who used to preside over these meetings clarifed to him that though they may be wearing the same rank, the CO was senior and had the right to tick him off for dereliction of duty. Imagine the situation at present in Ahmedabad. The Commissioner Police wears a Lt Gens badges, a rank not worn by an army officer in the whole of Gujarat. In 1974 IG Police Gujarat wore the same badges as my Division Commander ie., a Maj Gen's. Then the IGP used to come to our HQ. Now not even the DC comes to the office, leave alone the Gujarat DGP!

c) In Aug 1972, HQ Southern Command was busy pulling out of Pak territory occupied by it during the 1971 war. We were occupying the PWD Rest House in Barmer, Rajasthan where we had set up a camp Command HQ. We suddenly got a notice from the local Deputy Commissioner that we should vacate the Rest House immediately. The AQMG of the Command HQ, a Lt Col, was sent to tell the DC that we hoped to vacate it in another fortnight. The DC agreed, but pointedly asked him that why couldnt the Army send a more senior officer to discuss the matter with him. Imagine the DC had 9 yrs service while the the Lt Col had 21 yrs to his credit. Problem was that the Rajasthan Govt had unilaterally issued a notification that a DC will henceforth be senior to a Brig. During the war not only the DC but the Chief Secy used to wait to meet the staff at the Command HQ in Barmer . As soon as the war was over they started to lord over us as though they had won the war for the nation.

The media, politicians and civil servants must realise that when they mess up things, only the armed forces come to their help. In other countries the Services are not bothered by the Govt to pull their chestnuts out of the fire and so seniority and precedence do not matter. In India, during the time of the British, the Services (specially the Army) were integrated in the total Govt heirarchy due to close functioning between the civil and armed forces. The Police was considered a subordinate service of the Army as the latter used to send its physically unfit officers to it. Irony is that even though half the Army is totally commited in aid of civil authority, it has to fight to maintain its equivalance, superiority be damned. Till date the SP in the UK wears the badges of rank of a Capt, same as in India till the 1950s. But now Capt to Lt Col badges are only for promotees from Inspectors. The IPS officers wear them only fleetingly.

The country is heaping humiliations on the Services as a reward for their loyalty and efficiency. Beware, the last straw on the camel's back may soon come. If God forbid something happens, remember you were warned.

Lt Gen SK Bahri
New Delhi

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