“Sanj, can you grate half a coconut for me before you leave?”
Any person who takes positions either side of the ‘Service Before Self’ debate must see this picture – a serving officer walking that fine balance between family and nation, grating coconuts in his ‘palatial house’! This picture was captured by our then 10-yr old son who found it rather amusing that his dad, a naval Commander, test pilot & Joint Director in IHQ MoD (Navy) was doing this @ 7AM in the morning!
At 7:15AM, I would’ve been rushing to catch the ‘Army Bus’, an air-conditioned service the Indian Army started in the new millenium to transport officers in style & comfort from their living quarters to IHQ MoD.
It was not always like that. It is believed that a pointed query from a ‘passed-over’ officer brought about this change. He questioned how the daily struggle of army personnel travelling in sub-standard, dilapidated, DTC-quality buses would boost the army’s flagging recruitment campaign even as a ‘do you have it in you’ recruitment campaign screamed from hoardings around town.
Soon, a fleet of air-conditioned buses with the Indian Army insignia rolled into service. Wisdom dawned on the authorities that charity begins at home. Your officers and men are your biggest brand ambassadors. And they are highly impressionable.
Whither Time, Tide & Tradition?
Few recent developments left me pondering whether ‘service before self’ still underpins our conduct in uniform and outside of it. While young officers and men continue to inspire us with legendary courage and acts of valour, some senior brass have done grave injustice to the institution with their self-aggrandisement and sense of entitlement. Today, Lt Cdr DS Chauhan laid down his life fighting a fire onboard aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya while some very high ranking officers are approaching courts with unreasonable grouses. It is a stark contrast.
Are we seeing a slow erosion of values in the military, the bar for conflict of interest and ‘self over service’ being lowered ever so blithely as to go almost unnoticed? ‘Caesar’s wife’ must not only be above suspicion, but must also be seen as being above suspicion. That was the staple we grew up on.
Let me highlight with three anecdotes and leave you to decide which model obtains on ground today.
Two young naval commanders were flying to the US for a highly-specialised training course. Courtesy an ill-conceived & rampantly-misused privilege available to government officials flying the national carrier, we duly upgraded to ‘Business Class’ on our full-fare ‘air warrant’.
As we enjoyed warm ‘Maharaja’ service, our attention was often drawn to a Director-level lady official from civil services in the adjacent aisle seat. She was teaching ‘Gurmukhi’ – the revered script of Sikh religion – to her personal servant (quite apparently a minor, Circa 2006), accompanying the official in business class, as per some protocol drafted & approved by their own ilk.
Alongside her in ‘J Class’ were two Commanders in their prime years who had to chase files for weeks to get approvals for the foreign deputation. This included knocking at the doors of many Under Secretaries, desk officers, IFAs, Joint Secretaries, all the way up to the Raksha Mantri (RM). This is reality even today.
Now consider this. A former General who headed the world’s second largest standing army few years ago has been selected as High Commissioner to the Republic of Seychelles. As of 2019, Seychelles has a population of 95702 – comparable to a corps of Indian Army. The High Commissioner’s post for that country is tenable by a Joint Secretary-level official. But be that as it may. Protocol is for mandarins of the MEA.
Anyone who has ever worked in MoD will attest that such appointments are hardly ever handed on a platter in a system where files have to be ‘chased’ for weeks to even send a Lieutenant abroad for training. Yet, many before him have taken up such offers after reaching the pinnacle of military service. What message does this send to the next rung of leaders or the men whom they have commanded?
Through slow erosion, the armed forces of India today have already been relegated in status to something unrecognizable from a few decades ago. Tasks that Master Chief Petty Officers, Subedar Majors & Warrant Officers did earlier are being fielded by Majors and equivalents. Commanders carry files to junior officials and desk officers under the naivete of being ‘proactive’, duly egged-on by their Principal Directors or Commanding Officers.
Is it any surprise if this system returns Generals who become junior Ministers of States, or High Commissioners to an atoll smaller than an army garrison?
What hope can we then hold for issues like Non Functional Upgrade (NFU) hanging fire in those very corridors? What’s the point tweeting images of dilapidated, MES-maintained quarters and bunkers in shell-ravaged posts of Siachen Glacier to a community that doesn’t know subedar from tehsildar, or colonel from a kernel? Won’t they be chuckling at how our senior lot glibly succumb to low hanging fruits?
When the government anointed the next Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) superseding another serving Vice Admiral, I wrote a congratulatory piece welcoming the first helicopter pilot from IN to have ascended to the top office. Almost like an epiphany, I wrote in that article, “we expect only grace from you. Wise men never quibble over seniority or date of birth”.
Well, it was not to be. The superceded admiral approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT). The tribunal, with equal alacrity, sent the admiral’s application tossing out the same window, asking him to seek redressal within the system likes of him had themselves curated.
It doesn’t end here. Recently, it was reported in media that one of the admiral’s family member had been accomodated in Naval Officers Mess ‘Kotah House’ in Lutyen’s Delhi for over a decade. This is gross violation of any existing rule of military accommodation. I have known widows who have been asked to vacate their service quarters by the same system once they fall ineligible.
Kotah House comes under the ambit of Controller of Personnel Services, a junior Vice Admiral-level post in IHQ MoD (Navy). Over the 11-year travesty of accommodation rules, many officers and their families have been bundled out of their quarters. But not this family. Can all those CPS who turned a Nelson’s Eye raise their hands please?
‘Why’ is not hard to figure if you know the ‘who’. Recall the CNS who after his tenure from 2009-12 headed far west as the High Commissioner of Canada, a position that could hardly have been obtained without ‘hot pursuit’ or currying favour with bureaucrats and ministers.
After completing the diplomatic assignment, the admiral took up an academic position in US Naval War College, Newport. While he is free to pursue his calling, how does it behove a former naval chief to be on the payroll of another country? Is there such a dearth of intellectual engagement here in India that Service Chiefs after remitting office have to seek foreign shores for mentoring their leaders? Younger brothers learn a lot from elder brothers in Indian families.
Today such examples can never remain under the carpet for long. Even sailors and jawans are on WhatsApp. When the ‘seniority’ applecart was upset by recent government’s decision, should the officer in question have gracefully accepted or gone to court? The answer is blowing in the wind. So is brazenness.
During my short service tenure of 23 years, I have seen some extraordinary leaders and fine examples of ‘service before self’. I will recount one, just to leave you readers with a good aftertaste. All hope is not lost. For every self-entitled mannequin in South Block, there are ten examples of 24-carat leaders in the armed forces. ‘Geeps’ (name available on request) is one of them I knew. The final anecdote is a small tribute to him.
Professional and meticulous to a fault, tall, handsome Geeps was a fine example of an officer and gentleman. As the Commanding Officer from whom I received my ‘watchkeeping ticket’, his standards, whether at the con of a ship, on parade or on the sports field, was something that always soared out of young officers’ reach.
These days, every ship is allotted one or two vehicles. Not in 1996. Often a single vehicle serviced one or two ships then. It could well have been ‘CO’s car’. But not so for Geeps. He would drive down in his old, pastel-green Maruti 800, park it in the earmarked slot outside South Jetty when others used to drive all the way up to the ship’s gangway. I do not recall a single occasion where he broke a rule just because he could. His car was his car and the ship’s car was ship’s car.
He sought permission from the PMC to bring his graceful family onboard and hosted a simple dinner where NOTHING extra was prepared or ordered for.
When as officer-in-charge of Sports Fund, I extended a ‘temporary loan’ (within my delegated financial powers) to the Officers Welfare Fund held by a fellow Malayali, Geeps’ sharp eye picked the ‘error of commission’ in a routine audit. Promptly, both OI/Cs were ceremoniously marched up to the Commanding Officer and administered a stern warning.
The amount in question was a few hundred rupees. But, this level of propriety was the rule, not exception, before some senior officers without scruples took high office.
Once considered a rising star and safe bet for at least a 3-star admiral, Geeps was superseded in a sudden turn of events. He quietly put in his papers, walked out head held high, his spine and conscience intact, not a word out of tune. In the week before hanging his uniform, Geeps hunted down telephone numbers of people he served with, called each of them to personally express his thanks and warm wishes. Some like me who hadn’t even kept in touch were left speechless.
Guess what? If I ever sight him in a crowded marketplace or naval institute, I will rush to shake his hand, my heart brimming with pride that I served under leaders like him.
Contrast this with today’s lot, some of whom have politicians and lawyers on speed dial. Some are still left chanting ‘seniority is sacred’ through megaphones. Last I checked, it was faith, trust, morals, ethics, service decorum, loyalty to a higher cause, etc. that were sacred. When did this change? Forgot the cadet’s prayer already?
Leaders, please breathe, practice and live what you preach. Shed the sense of entitlement.
The world is more transparent than you know.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo from www.kaypius.com.