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A conspiracy of silence is growing among retired service officers who speak to the media, for fear of being harassed by officialdom. The handful of veterans who consent to comment critically, albeit reluctantly, request anonymity in anticipation of a backlash from their service, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the national security establishment, or all three.
Adverse comment prompts a ‘solicitous’ call from a still-serving service colleague, a ‘concerned’ MoD official or even an intermediary, conveying undisguised disapproval. This is enough to spook the ex-serviceman off ever interacting with the media again.
One retired officer, who recently commented critically to The Wire on a questionable but officially celebrated project, faced vituperation bordering on abuse from his serving seniors. Like scores of similarly singed victims, he has since adopted omerta.
“Retired military officers are highly reluctant to speak to journalists on prevailing service concerns,” said Colonel Ajai Shukla (retd). If they do, they are unwilling to be named, said the soldier turned journalist, who is consulting defence editor with Business Standard.
Other correspondents concurred. “It’s rare to find retired service officers willing to be quoted on any contemporary military matter, and most certainly not on the record if they are in disagreement with it,” said Nirupama Subramanian, national strategic affairs editor of Indian Express. Even accessing veterans willing to speak off the record has become difficult, she lamented.
“There is palpable fear today among retired soldiers about talking frankly to journalists and even more so about critiquing governmental policies,” said a three-star Air Force officer. The few who did so either lapsed into silence thereafter, or resurfaced to eulogise what they had critiqued earlier.
Many such worthies, including some former service chiefs and grizzled two and three-star officers, were convinced that unprejudiced comments to the media could hurt their pension payouts. Though withholding pensions is legally untenable, this bogey has ensnared ex-servicemen’s perceptions, forcing them into radio silence.
But however unsustainable, these fears were not entirely unwarranted.
In May 2021, a government notification had banned retired security and intelligence officials from commenting critically in the press on current policy without prior official clearance. They were also prohibited from publishing on subjects within the domain of the organisations they had served, without prior state approval.
To ensure compliance, the government had amended Rule 8 of the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules 1972, rendering payouts subject to “future good conduct”. Loosely translated, this fiat from the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, connoted that officers violating its highly nebulous guidelines jeopardise their pensions.
These instructions, which also invoked the Official Secrets Act, were vague and imprecise, thereby providing the authorities leverage to browbeat retired security personnel for impartially purveying their domain knowledge. Almost immediately, reasoned censure of the government’s national security policies ceased. Soon after, pension-related apprehensions percolated into the vast body of ex-servicemen, who too became careful not to express viewpoints that weren’t unashamedly laudatory.
“Even the slightest criticism of any wrongdoing by the services, the MoD or any related entity, or of the government pursuing flawed policies, is equated in official circles with being anti-national,” said a former two-star Indian Army officer. Not even the slightest dissent is tolerated and veterans were successfully muzzled, he declared. The Damocles’ sword of pensions had ‘clinched’ the argument.
Conversely, said a one-star army officer, a pliable media had assisted the government in perpetuating a “fairytale” of the infallibility of the MoD and the services, despite glaringly obvious flaws. “In most instances, media portray them as incapable of either inefficiency or the remotest incompetence,” he said. Official access is blocked for any reporter or media concern finding fault, and reinstated only after dutiful penance.
“There is largely fulsome praise in the media regarding the functioning of the armed forces, the defence establishment and associated projects like atmanirbharta,” said a former Indian Navy officer. No questioning or criticism, especially by veterans, will be tolerated, as the government’s sole objective is to reinforce the myth of infallibility, he lamented.
Darbari unctuousness had spawned a new crop of retired junior and mid-level armchair gladiators, evidently with official connivance, to counter adverse criticism that may have slipped through the cracks. In their unrestrained zeal, these ersatz warriors regularly create a fantastical national security structure on television screens, which appeals to growing nationalist fervour.
And though there was a recent spike of criticism of the Agnipath tour-of-duty scheme by a few retired army officers, it was swiftly neutralised by more than twice as many ex-servicemen lauding the initiative, reportedly under official patronage.
Military sources told The Wire that at the government’s behest, three-star commanders, especially from the Army, were tasked by their headquarters to ‘interact’ with veterans to convince them of Agnipath’s efficacy. “Prompted by the MoD, the services’ effort was to enforce a wider consensus over Agnipath, about which even serving officers were sceptical, but unable to voice their reservations or disagreements,” said a former three-star IAF officer. Gentle coercion appears to have worked. Disapproval of Agnipath has morphed into acclaim and applause.
Now, the phalanx of senior army veterans ― several of whom had served in Ladakh along the LAC ― offering media comment on the pyrrhic pullback by the PLA from the Hot Springs area, are conspicuous by their absence.
Prominent former three-star Army commanders who had earlier questioned the government’s clumsiness have mysteriously lapsed into silence, presumably under governmental pressure. These well-informed veterans left it mostly to civilian analysts to evaluate the situation.
To quote Martin Luther King Jr, in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends ― in this instance, the service veterans.