Friday, 9 August 2019

The military’s ethical imperative in the here and now

The Indian military is noted for its professionalism. A significant aspect of professionalism is adhering to military ethics. Military ethics mean sensitivity to and adherence of the soldierly Dharma. Dharma is not easily translated into English, but can for our purposes here be taken as social obligation devolving on an institution on account of its societal mandate. Members of institutions are to abide by the code, making for a personal duty. The approximation of the military to the ideal is an indicator of professionalism. Professionalism is itself a product of expertise of the military in provisioning security for society and the state; it’s stepping up to fulfill its advisory function on account of its expertise; and the corporate interest accruing from military needs, in turn predicated on its mandate.
The reputation of the Indian military being such it is easy to see that it scores high on adherence to the military dharma or code of military ethics. The credit for this must go to the military leadership through earlier generations. The inter-generationally transmitted traditions, values, attitudes, conduct and behavior have withstood the test of times, crisis and conflict. Consistently the military has rated high in societal esteem, both anecdotally and in socio-metric surveys. They have been sorely tested by the changes in society and political culture of late. Even so it is taken as one among the few institutions, such as the higher judiciary, left with reputation and dignity intact, while peer institutions ranging from the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, national universities etc have succumbed.
With this introductory standard setting view of the military’s record thus out of the way, it is important to record that the military too unfortunately appears to be doddering, if not quite being on its last legs yet. There have been sorry episodes in the past when its members have not measured up or it has fallen short as an institution, for instance in the VK Singh ‘date of birth’ case as far as individual shortfalls are concerned and, institutionally, in privileging corporate interest (reputation) over military justice, in cases as Machil and Pathribal. However, lately these ‘aberrations’ are multiplying in frequency and severity, and therein lies the necessity of this article as reminder on the centrality of professional military ethics in maintaining the military’s professionalism.
The gravamen of the argument here is that the military’s dharma referred to cannot countenance a military lying to its client, the Indian nation, even if put to it by the intermediary government. The ultimate principal in a democracy are the people. The government is an agent. An agent cannot ask its instrument, the army, to lie to the people in a democratic setting. Instances of lying (dealt with below) are at hand, indicating an unacceptable and costly slippage.
In the military’s eye perhaps there is a hybrid war on with Pakistan, of which of information war is an intrinsic part. Information war entails being economic with the truth where necessary. This is fair enough if the target of mis/disinformation is the opposite side. It cannot be that the target is the Indian nation itself. Believing otherwise is to take a step in ending democracy in which the people preside over an accountable, elected government. The government cannot usurp more powers than it has been delegated by the principal, the citizen-voter. Lying upsets the chain of accountability, since the citizen is deprived of the measure to exact accountability. 
Let’s take a stark example. The army has joined lied to the citizens of this republic only last week. It is by now self-evident that the military’s take on a heightening of the Pakistani proxy war at a press conference in which a threat to the Amarnath Yatra was highlighted was a lie. It completely contradicted the earlier release of statistics that there were no infiltration attempts and no infiltration this summer. It is difficult to believe that merely the recovery of a cache of military hardware could lead to the overreaction of cancellation of the yatra, induction of several thousand troops and the lock down that followed. Clearly, the military was playing handmaiden to the government in shaping the environment for its questionable constitutional initiatives in parliament. The moot question is whether, and to what extent, a military can play along with a ruling party’s political and ideological agenda.
It bears reminding that the shaping of the environment was being done for a blatantly political action of the government, putting in place the conditions for fulfilling its manifesto pledge of scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A. This would naturally have had security implications that the government’s security minders were sensible enough to apprehend. But for them to have the military play out a charade as preparatory actions is up for debate. As to whether the military was in the know as to what was intended is not consequential. In case it was in the know, it was participant in a political act, losing its apolitical sheen. If not, then it had no business putting out a lie and should have told off its political minders.
The security threat levels were magnified by the corps commander. He lent the authority of his uniform to his task. There was no duty of obedience that mitigates this. Taking cue, retired colleagues – mostly his predecessors in the chair he occupies – took his thesis forward on national television that a national security threat had developed. This was then justified to clamp down in Kashmir and to undertake illegitimate constitutional initiatives of questionable legality.
If the corps commander was put to it by superiors, it implicates the northern army commander. It is well known that he in turn is in the run for elevation as army chief, for which reports have it the government has started its scrutiny of potential candidates. The army commander had in an earlier instance at the end of elections got into an unnecessary public debate with his retired predecessor on the definition of the post-Uri ‘surgical strikes’, holding the untenable position that these were unprecedented. If the army does not stick to the straight and narrow military ethic, it opens itself up to speculation over personal interest – as brought out in this paragraph. This damages its corporate interest in maintaining an apolitical reputation in a democratic setting.
Clearly, there is an institutional loosening on the ethics front. The tone and tenor on this was set early in the tenure of the army chief when he tacitly justified the ‘human shield’ episode. Poetic justice caught up, with his blue-eyed boy caught in a case of sexual exploitation and abuse. The army chief’s example has not been lost on the commanding general in Badami Bagh. He has recently made unilateral doctrinal innovation in promising to ‘eliminate’ those holding the gun, whereas the doctrinally-compliant term used so far has been ‘neutralise’. The latter assumes multiple ways, including non-kinetic, for removing a militant from the fight. The former does not. Threatening citizens is as bad as carrying out the threat, especially so as the youthful ‘threat’ – by the corps commander’s account – lasts merely a year on the run.
This is the situation on the ethical front as the army contemplates the backlash that the constitutional initiatives are likely to attract. Best-evidenced by the preparations made, these have been made with full knowledge that the outcome could be bloody. Future research will reveal the input of the military into the decision. For the moment it can be conceded that the military was perhaps not asked for an opinion. This is in keeping with the manner the military is kept out of the decision loop on national security matters historically. Sensibly, it has kept out of frontline population control to follow, for which the paramilitary has been pumped in.
The army must keep watch on the paramilitary who are likely to trigger happy, particularly since the army commander appears to have been placed in charge. A photo depicts him chairing an overview meeting, indicating the pecking order. Where that leaves the adviser home is moot. In short, the army can yet redeem itself in a sensitive and empathetic response to the reaction of the people to the mischief being played with their destiny, for which it must exercise firm control over the paramilitary. It needs mention that the paramilitary are not known to be imbued with any ethos of societal obligation. It should not take another information war – as is playing out on television screens now – to sweep under the carpet what might unfold after Friday prayers, Eid prayers and on ‘Independence’ Day. Over the longer term, the army must make its information war and hybrid war thesis compliant with its role and status in a democratic polity and society.