The three service chiefs have written to the defence minister asking that the decision to implement the Sixth Pay Commission be put on hold until their apprehensions – relating to parity of service personnel with bureaucrats – are addressed. This was apparently greeted with a great deal of consternation and Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express wrote an editorial questioning the motives behind the service chiefs writing this letter. Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Ashok Joshi then wrote a column in defence of the armed forces, where he tries to explain things from the armed forces’ point of view.

Many see India’s Defence Establishment as an anachronism. I’m not so sure about that. We do not live in an ideal world, and while I’m all for a world that’s peaceful and where we solve our problems by talking to each other, as things stand today, we need our armed forces. Here are two reasons why:

1. The increasing presence of terrorist and fundamentalist forces in the neighbourhood and at least one militarily strong, hostile and hegemonic neighbour that from time to time lays claims to Indian territory and makes incursions to back those claims.

2. 7600 kms of coastline, 2 million sq. kms of Exclusive Economic Zone, islands over 1200 kms from the mainland, deep-sea oil, maritime interests…..the list goes on.

Ok, this is what the armed forces are for. What do they actually do? Well, apart from 1 and 2, they have been involved in Counter-Insurgency Operations in J&K, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura for decades now. They are regularly called upon to assist (meaning do everything) during natural disasters. And they are called upon – with increasing frequency – to deal with problems the civil administration can’t handle. Which pretty much means every time 10 people or more get into a fight.

My – admittedly simplistic – thoughts on this matter are fairly clear. While the armed forces are technically supposed to tackle an act of external aggression, the fact is that over the last 20 years or more, they have been actively doing the job of the civil administration. And the consequences have not been pretty. Without condoning any excesses and violations, it is important to note that the Army has been trained to use lethal force against its enemy – in theory, a foreign aggressor – and it’s a soldier’s job (I don’t think there’s any nice way of saying this) to kill in a war. The point I’m making is this – by training and psychology, soldiers are just not equipped for internal security duties that require the use of force. And making them do it only results in the sad consequences we are only too familiar with.

Yes, the armed forces – like every other institution in India – have been the victims of decay and corruption. They have had their share of scams and scandals. But still less than any other – and I mean any other – institution in this country. And, unlike in Pakistan, our defence establishment has always been subordinate to civil authority, which is as it should be. The chiefs’ letter to their civilian boss only underscores this point. And while, as Mr. Gupta says, the uniform commands respect, I think what the chiefs meant in their letter was for the other branches of government to also show defence personnel that respect. Because respect is relative. Certainly, to my mind, they are more deserving of this respect than a politician, bureaucrat or policeperson.

That’s not the point of this post, though. The point is that it is difficult to deny the fact that the armed forces are earning their keep. India needs them, perhaps more than we need the police, who, when they’re not screwing citizens over, seem to have been relegated to either guarding houses of politicians or directing traffic. We should remember that while politicians and bureaucrats sit in air-conditioned conference rooms to debate solutions, it is the service personnel who guard our borders, protect our maritime interests, battle terrorism, rescue civilians from floods & earthquakes and restore order in civilian areas. And lose lives in doing so. And since we seem to have made a habit of asking them to do our jobs for us – and put their lives on the line for us – surely their demand for parity is not that unreasonable.

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