A recent mutiny by the men of Ladakh-based 226 Field Regiment Artillery against the highhandedness of their officers has served to focus attention on the highly depleted state of discipline in the Indian army. The humongous force is currently besieged by a spate of unsavoury incidents, reflecting poorly upon the entire spectrum of command hierarchy and reaching right to the institution’s pinnacle. Gone berserk over the severe beating of an enlisted man, assigned to a major as a valet, the men of the 226 Field Regiment rampaged through the town of Nyoma looking for the five Majors of their unit, who had fled and taken shelter there. Only the hasty intervention by the Leh-based 14 Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane, and his promise to initiate disciplinary action against the regimental officers involved in the episode, pacified the men enough to enable their return to the barracks.

In military culture, such large-scale incidents of insubordination are extremely rare and are handled with utmost alacrity and dispatch whenever they occur, since they are indicators of dark undercurrents. As recent developments have shown, there is no dearth of straws in the wind that amply indicates a sordid state of affairs in the Indian army. The rot is deep-seated and its source is embedded among the top crust where unbridled ambition and lack of integrity in senior officers continue to poison the attitude of lower ranks as well.

This is manifest from a well orchestrated and incessant campaign involving top officials of the Indian army, who are bent upon disgracefully kicking out the outgoing Army Chief, V.K. Singh - retiring this month - and paving the way to facilitate the climbing up of their chosen men to the highest rungs in the chain of command. The contrived controversy over the Indian Chief’s year of birth, which curtailed his tenure of service by one year, ignored the fact that 1951 (as against 1950) was accepted as genuine and true when he was considered for promotion as Lieutenant General and then General; this was only one step in the campaign against him.

On January 16 this year, a night before General Singh moved the Supreme Court on the issue, unspecified sources leaked in the press the move of two army attack formations towards New Delhi without notification; suggesting by implication that the General conveyed a threatening reminder to the government to concede to his request. This was a total fabrication and yet again, a confidential letter addressed by the General to the Prime Minister, highlighting the operational imbalances that impinged on the state of readiness of the Indian army, was also leaked to the press by his unseen detractors. These incidents reflect the state of institutional rot in a culture based on discipline, integrity, loyalty and fairness whose outfall is certainly going to get percolated to the lower rank and file.

The morass of intrigue and deception to grab top slots in the Indian army is explained by a petition moved by the Ex-Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Ramdas, and a clutch of retired generals in the Supreme Court, asserting that instead of promoting merit, intrigues were afoot to engineer the rise of pre-selected individuals to top positions. According to the petitioners, the chain of events were triggered by the ex-Indian Chief General, J.J. Singh, who was the prime mover to manipulate the early ouster of the incumbent Chief, in May 2012, in order to make way for the rise of Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, currently the Eastern Army Commander, as the next COAS.

It is interesting to note that General Bikram already has two court cases pending against him, which compromise his integrity and honour; rendering him ineligible for the highest slot. The first is for his involvement in a fake encounter in the IHK in 2001 and the second relates to a command failure during 2008 due to widespread rape and sexual assault by the contingent under his command while on a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. Despite these blemishes, it is a measure of his clout as an up-and-coming favourite to lead the Indian army that his designation to take over as the next COAS was announced three months in advance, rather than the customary two. Such brazen and blatant promotion of the morally tainted, as old soldiers would affirm, is bound to have a derogatory impact on the discipline down the chain of command to the last enlisted man.

The absence of moral courage, integrity and all-pervasive sense of impunity at the top echelon has percolated to lower command levels as well where the sweeping unaccountability provided through draconian legislations, like AFSPA, has become a major reason for the weakened bonds of discipline amongst officers and men. The AFSPA grants impunity to the army personnel against prosecution while on counterinsurgency operations, permitting the killing of civilians on mere suspicion that they might commit a violent act or even for the violation of prohibitory orders. The result is a spate of extrajudicial killings and even when the soldiers are caught red handed in cold blooded fake encounters, they cannot be prosecuted for want of sanctions from the government, as envisioned in the AFSPA. The unbridled use of unaccountable powers is well reflected through the fact that such government sanction to allow for proceeding ahead with 42 cases was denied in the recent months, provoking the Supreme Court to remark: “You go to a place in exercise of the AFSPA, you commit rape, you commit murder, then where is the question of sanction?”

The decay in the moral fibre of the army officers is evident from the endemic corruption, which has become a corollary of the culture of impunity and lack of accountability. Ever since the 80s, corruption has remained a hallmark in all major defence purchase and the trend has only intensified in the recent days duly reflected by scandals such as the Tatra truck case, the Sukna land scam and the Adarsh Housing Society scandal. While India goes on a military shopping spree in the next five years spending approximate $80 billion, this culture is likely to manifest itself in a more prominent manner.

The revolt by the soldiers of the Artillery Regiment in Ladakh should not be shrugged off as an isolated incident because it is reflective of the decay and rot that has seeped into the rank and file of the Indian army and is a product of the culture of impunity that has taken root over the years, through their employment in the counterinsurgency campaigns. It might be a no-holds-barred, cutthroat manoeuvring for the top slot in the army, intrigues to undercut the stature of the incumbent Chief, rampant corruption, fake encounter, custodial deaths or incident of mutiny; a close scrutiny would reveal a common thread provided by the political acceptance for the ruthless suppression of urge for freedom in Kashmir.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.