Before joining active service, an Indian soldier – all ranks of the Army, from jawan to General, and their equivalents in the Navy and Air Force – takes oath as follows:
“I will bear true faith and allegiance to the constitution of India as by law established and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully serve in the regular Army of the Union of India and go wherever ordered by land, sea or air, and that I will observe and obey all commands of the president of the Union of India and the commands of any officer set over me even to the peril of my life.”
Thus, the soldier’s obedience is to the president of India and his loyalty is to the constitution of India.
While the serving soldier is governed by military law in addition to every other law which governs every citizen, certain fundamental rights available to every citizen are denied to him by Section 21 of the Army Act and the Army Rules “because of the nature of duties performed by the members of the regular Army and for the maintenance of discipline among them”. Specifically, Army Rule 20 prohibits “political and non-military activities”.
Over the decades, the command structure of India’s armed forces has preserved the highest standards of professional conduct and performance, and the apolitical character of the serving soldier.
Back in 1932, a Field Marshal advised young Indian Army officers:
“The young Indian man of education seems very attracted by politics. May I urge you to remember that politics do not, and cannot, find any place in army life. An army can have no place in politics. Once there is any suspicion that an Army, or any part of it, is biased politically, from that moment that Army has lost the confidence of the nation which pays for it. It is no longer impartial, and that way lies chaos and civil war.”
A 2019 survey of public opinion relating to politics, society, and governance, revealed that people trust the Army the most, with the judiciary next. The least trusted are the police, government officials, and political parties.
India’s public recognises the apolitical nature of India’s armed forces, as a criterion for trust.
Soldiers on leave
The Army has the legacy problem of short-staffing of officers, and post-COVID-19, among personnel below officer rank. The Army has maintained operational capability and readiness, at the cost of increased stress during active service. It is established that stress is a prime reason for suicide among troops. Leave is a de-stressing, precious time away from the extreme rigours of service, when soldiers spend quality time with family and attend to matters that spouses were unable to do.
Ensuring soldiers’ leave is a responsibility of military commanders, essential for individual and unit morale, far more than a welfare measure or part of terms of service.
In this well-understood situation, the Army Headquarters directed – although the word used is “recommended” – that “every soldier proceeding on leave volunteers to choose any subject/domain as per own interest/competency and the felt need of one’s local community, and engages citizens, thereby making an individual contribution to the Indian Army’s nation-building effort”.
Short-staffed units are to provide soldiers with literature, to use for their “voluntary” efforts on social, civic and patriotic themes, such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, etc. The unit will monitor compliance using photographs and videos which the soldier takes. Pressure to comply will cause stress during leave, and anxiety on return to duty station, perhaps defeating the purpose of leave.
The soldier-on-leave “voluntarily” promoting government schemes can be negative for the Army’s morale and functioning.
On October 9, 2023, the Ministry of Defence directed defence establishments to set up 822 geo-tagged ‘selfie points’ in nine cities, to “showcase good works done in defence”, and “attract public attention”.
The armed forces are to set up and operationalise 100 ‘selfie points’ under government-defined themes of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Sashaktikaran’, and send “action taken reports”.
The scheme, using the armed forces to promote and advertise government policies, has an obvious political purpose.
India’s armed forces are subordinate to control by the Union government of the day. However, the government should consult the service chiefs (or the Chief of Defence Staff) before issuing directions such as soldiers-on-leave “volunteering” to promote government schemes, or establish “selfie-points” for the same purpose, because they impact the soldier and the service. It will never be known whether the government consulted the four-star top brass, or if consulted, what they advised the government.
Even earlier, the four-star top brass had complied with directions to arrange yoga mats on Raj Path (2015) for the government to set a world record, and clear garbage thrown by Himalayan pilgrimage tourists (2017). Both these tasks were within the ambit of duty and competence of other agencies.
Getting soldiers to do such tasks indicates the government’s step-motherly attitude towards the armed forces. Other examples are: death and disability benefits to soldiers made lower than for their civilian counterparts; denying non-functional financial up-gradation (NFU) to the armed forces although the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) receive it; and delaying the payment of OROP arrears ordered by the Supreme Court.
It is the duty of military top brass to convince the political leadership to not pass orders which are political in nature and intent, or impact adversely on the soldier and the service, and thereby on national security. This is easier said than done in the best of times, but under the present dispensation, it is much more difficult. Notwithstanding the difficulty, when the military leadership fails, the armed forces get politicised by default.
The government’s “soldier-volunteer” and “selfie-point” initiatives for political purposes are measures which politicise the armed forces, since the government cannot be unaware of the Army Act and Army Rules, which prohibit political activity.
Senior military veterans have expressed concern about the deleterious long-term impact of politics on the morale and cohesion of our armed forces.
Central and state governments prepare development plans and schemes to benefit the people, but advertising them is the ruling party’s political agenda. Soldiers promoting government schemes is unambiguously political activity. When it is ordered by the highest military authority in compliance with government directives, it politicises the armed forces. The government would do well to cease using the Army for political purposes, and the military top brass would do well to maintain the apolitical nature of the soldier and the service, in the interest of national security.
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM retired as additional DG (Discipline & Vigilance) in the Army HQ AG’s Branch.