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Jehangir S. Pocha
Out Of The Box

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A comprehensive defence review must be initiated

The CDR should consider giving military officers a greater role in the Ministry of Defence.

The PM must task serving and retired officers and security experts with conducting a thorough audit of the military’s fighting doctrines, equipment needs, procurement strategies and disciplinary problems.

he public spat between India's generals isn't just an ego clash, but a battle for the very heart and soul of the military.

At the root of the conflict between General V.K. Singh and General Dalbir Singh Suhag are rising politicisation, corruption, casteism and criminality in the forces and differences over how to deal with this.

When Gen Singh was Army chief he found Gen Suhag to have ignored allegations of contract killings and dacoity against an intelligence unit led by a Colonel Sreekumar. Even after a court martial found the unit and Sreekumar guilty, Gen Suhag, who was then Eastern Army Commander, merely rapped them on the knuckles.

Gen Singh felt this was enough reason to deny Gen Suhag promotion. The UPA government disagreed. Ties between it and Singh were already roiled by the row over Singh's age, his activism over military preparedness, and the media-created "coup" fracas. So the government set about discrediting Singh and promoted Gen Suhag to Army chief during its final days in power. In a vivid display of caste cabals, the decision was partly driven by the argument that Gen Suhag would be the first Jat Army chief.

The continuing spat over all this is now drawing attention to a much deeper but hidden problem — how some Army units in the Northeast and elsewhere have become involved in drug trafficking, contract killing and other crimes.

Concerned officers are not being reined in or removed. The politician-bureaucrat-arms dealer network in New Delhi loves having a handle on senior officers and compromised ones prove pliable. They don't complain when the military is denied promised funds and equipment. They don't expose how domestic arms manufacturing is being scuttled to help foreign arms companies.

The damage this cabal is doing cannot be overstated. V.K. Singh, now Minister of State for External Affairs and the Northeast, says only zero-tolerance can end crime and corruption in the forces. He wants the new government to overturn Gen Suhag's appointment, insisting this wouldn't be a "political" act but a moral one.

But even this would do little to clean up the larger mess in the forces. Beyond disciplinary problems, the Indian military's fighting doctrines and allied equipment requirements need to be updated. While terrorism is stated to be the greatest threat to the nation, the forces are still focused on fighting major land wars and buying big-ticket items, such as jets, and not drones. Part of the problem is simply inertia. But a move to new, nimbler strategies and cheaper equipment also disturbs vested interests.

It is time the Prime Minister initiated a comprehensive defence review. This should task serving and retired officers and security experts with conducting a thorough audit of the military's fighting doctrines, equipment needs, procurement strategies and disciplinary problems. The CDR should also consider giving military officers a greater role in the Ministry of Defence. Currently, bureaucrats with little military understanding and even less love for the forces call the shots in the ministry.

The CDR should report to the PM and its final report must be made public. Arguments that all military matters must remain confidential are specious. In fact, excessive secrecy is hugely to blame for the military's current problems, which have grown under the veil of "security". The other bogey raised by those resisting truth-telling is that it will hurt morale. But the forces are trained to deal with hard realities and our men and women in uniform already know better than anyone else what some of their colleagues and superiors are up to. For example, in the case of an alleged extra-judicial killing under Gen Suhag's watch, the whistleblower was a fellow officer, Major Ravi Kiran. In fact, a full and public reform of the military will only reassure honest officers.

There is no running away from one last fact. Many of the army's disciplinary problems stem from long deployments in civilian areas, such as Kashmir and the Northeast. Governments that failed to quell political disputes simply stuffed the problem down the Army's throat. The Army is now not just defending India's borders, but fighting for its integrity. This must be formally recognised. Any CDR must ensure the Army gets the funds needed to equip itself morally, mentally and materially to do a job it was never meant to do.

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