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By Evading Accountability, Indian Military Suffers More Losses Than Those Inflicted by Enemies

About 1,600 soldiers are killed every year in India due to accidents, suicides, and ailments. It is due to the prevailing mindset that the conduct of defence forces can't be questioned results in such avoidable deaths.
Indian army soldiers. Photo: Facebook/Northern Command-Indian Army.

The Indian military is frequently hailed as the last defence of India. It is more than just the defender of the territory; it is the protector of the constitution itself. As for its size, the ministry of defence gets about 13.18 % of the total budget, catering to about 1.4 million active personnel. Given such importance, it is only natural that it is made accountable to the people of India.

However, The Times of India, reported in 2003, “The life of an Indian army soldier comes cheap. The US-led coalition forces lost just around 150 personnel during the Iraq operations, but almost 2,000 Indian army soldiers were killed or wounded during the 10-month forward deployment along the Indo-Pak border last year.”

“What else do you expect? We have to soldier on, even without basic necessities like decent helmets, proper webbing or bulletproof jackets,” retorted an angry young major. In 2016, the Hindustan Times reported, “Of 1,000 soldiers lost in Siachen, only 220 fell to enemy bullets.” In 2017, it was reported that accidents, suicides, and ailments kill about 1,600 soldiers every year.

Surely, something is amiss. What is missing is accountability, buttressed with transparency.

The present system allows the Indian armed forces to have layers of opaqueness that completely kill any notion of transparency. A right to information (RTI) application once sought the broad distribution of periods among the main areas of training provided by the National Defence Academy (NDA). The particular three-year training is the basic training provided by the Indian armed forces, which is also attended by cadets from numerous foreign countries. The RTI applicant wanted data to support his claim that despite the claim of NDA being the “cradle of leadership”, it simply does not ‘train’ cadets for leadership. The application was refused on the grounds of national security. When probed for an explanation, it was offered that disclosing the topics would lay bare the operational concepts of Indian armed forces! Of course, this is pure humbug.

Seeking transparency in Indian institutions has always been an uphill task. The 2023 report of the World Press Freedom Index, by Reporters without Borders, shows India’s slide from 150th position in 2022 to 161 in 2023. Yes, 161 out of just 180 counties, a slide of 11 positions in just one year! In the same period, Pakistan improved its standing from 157 to 150th position.

Also read: Exclusive: Army Officer ‘Wilfully Suppressed’ Info That Could Have Prevented Nagaland Killings, Says SIT

India’s defence ministry has already denied sanction to prosecute Indian Army officers who were involved in the killing of civilians in Nagaland’s Oting in December 2021. The army accepts that its personnel killed six unarmed civilians, but says they did so “as a case of mistaken identity”. That’s only one side of the story. Whether it was punishable or not can only be determined by law, but the government protects the killers from facing the law.

Can seeking transparency be easy in such a climate? Equally, is anything more important than striving for it?

A culture of impunity 

Accountability is not a matter of just rules and regulations. Attempts at transparency are resisted less by the government and more by the mindset of citizens themselves. The reigning mindset is that ‘our boys are doing all they can in difficult circumstances, hence they ought to be thanked for what they manage to achieve, rather than be questioned for what they could not’.

The right mindset, however, should be that while they indeed must be thanked for what they achieve, they must also be held accountable for their lapses. It is important to note that those who create the problems in the first place and those who pull the chestnuts out of the fire later are not the same groups of people. In our desire to focus only on the second group, the first group manages to slip away from public scrutiny. They just live to cause more damage yet another day.

Take the contemporary example of the labourers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand. While we must applaud the efforts to rescue them, the organisers must be made to answer how they went ahead with the tunneling work without taking even the most basic precautions. One NGO has rightly filed a PIL, alleging that at the time of construction of the tunnel, geological investigation of the area was not done properly and norms of digging a tunnel were not followed.

Rescuers at the mouth of the Silkyara tunnel. Photo: X/@KirenRijiju

In the recent past, there have been numerous instances of this type. The Sikkim Chungthang dam disaster was an ‘I told you so’ moment. Everyone knew what was happening. Do you even remember the sinking Joshimath? Even after so many incidents, no heads have rolled. They just don’t in India.

Operational inefficiency 

How is the army faring in all this?

Officers constitute just 4% of the army. However, their casualty rate in anti-terrorist actions is disproportionately higher, more than 10%. While we must commend our officers for their bravery, it mustn’t stop us from also questioning why so many officers, trained for years in expensive institutions, fall prey so easily to teams of 1-3 terrorists. These terrorists are ill-trained, hold rusty equipment, and are surrounded by the Indian army on all sides. Further, these casualties are taking place not in terrorist-led ambushes or chance encounters, but in intelligence-led deliberate operations.

Indian army soldier. Photo: Facebook/Northern Command-Indian Army

At the level of fighting efficiency, the two recent incidents are quite revealing. In the Rajouri incident, two officers were killed. In the Kokernag incident, a commanding officer, a major and a police officer were killed. Both incidents were deliberate operations launched after definite intelligence. The Kokernag incident also saw militarily unacceptable behaviour by troops in contact. They broke contact and did not evacuate the injured police officer for hours, who finally died of excessive bleeding.

A look at any television debate after such incidents invariably shows army generals loudly thanking the deceased officers ‘who led from the front’. The generals conveniently forget that officers leading search parties are not the way it is taught in army training institutions. These operations are to to be led by soldier scouts, followed by a bunch of other soldiers led by Havildars and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs). If a Commanding Officer, or other officer, is forced to overrule this technique and himself lead strike elements, prima facie it appears that he realises that the scouts, Havildars and JCOs are unfit for their jobs. If the reason is something else, the army must be forced to provide that reason. When martyrdom becomes more important than skill, one remembers General Patton who once said, “No bast**d ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bast**d die for his country.”

Also read: Pulwama Attack: Kin of Slain Jawans Demand Answers from Centre, to Hold Protest March in Delhi

In television debates, most generals offer a line that the army learns from all events. Is it so? If it were, the number of officers and jawans being killed would have declined, not increased.

The Army Training Command has a centre for learning lessons called CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learnt). In 2022, it was revealed to an RTI applicant that CALL had not produced any output in the last two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Surprisingly, 2020-20222 was the period in which the Indian army was involved in several skirmishes with the militants in J&K as well as the Chinese on the Line of Actual Control.

In any case, enforcing accountability is not a dictum that every military person questioned by responsible citizens must be punished. All it means is that if things went horribly wrong, they must provide an explanation for what they did – or did not do. It’s only fair that those who fund the military be allowed to ask questions about how their money is utilised, and how their children go to death.

Has deterrence worked? 

Has the non-transparency helped the army be more effective? What has been the demonstrated effectiveness of the Indian army?

From 1947 till 2023, India used its armed forces very frequently. In 1948-49, Pakistan intruded into India. In 1962, the Chinese did. In 1965, Pakistanis again intruded. They did so again in Kargil in 1999. China, too, has steadily encroached on Indian territory from the 60s till now, i.e., 2023. This shows that deterrence of the Indian military has never worked. No adversary takes the Indian military seriously.

Kargil war. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to this century. After the Indian strike at Balakot, it was expected that Pakistan would get the message of Indian military might and would be deterred. But it chose not to. The very next day, it attacked the Indian mainland, using its Air Force, in broad daylight, on February 27, 2019. Against that act of war, it was India that chose to do nothing about it. India did not attack back.

If our only achievement is that we have not lost to Pakistan, it is not a satisfactory outcome for the money spent and sacrifices made.

Indian armed forces have never faced tough questions about its performance. Enquiries, even when held, fail to hold the guilty accountable. The debacle of the 1962 was indeed investigated in the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report. but the nation has still not been shown that report, in “national interest”. The Kargil War debacle was never investigated. Yes, seen from the defence perspective, it was a major debacle. The fact that India managed to win back the lost territory is not as relevant as is the fact that large tracts of critical importance were conveniently lost to a known enemy, without as much as one bullet being fired. That’s plain inefficiency. Unlike the 1962 war, this debacle was not even subjected to an enquiry. A committee (Kargil Review Committee) was indeed constituted, but it was not to study why and how the intrusion was allowed to happen. It was merely to “examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future”.

Armies do a difficult job in war. Combat requires actions to be initiated which have a low chance of success but must be taken anyway. It is legitimate to fear that in such a scenario, the looming threat of public enquiry might over-deter the decision makers. Here we must differentiate between decisions taken during actual combat and those taken in the intervening years of peace when armies are systematically trained and equipped for those short periods of actual combat.

‘Combat immunity’ and due care

A case came up in the Supreme Court of the UK; in fact, it was three cases clubbed into one. In case one, some soldiers in a tank died because of some other soldiers of the same force firing on them, mistaking them to be the enemy. In cases two and three, soldiers died in two separate incidents of IED blasts damaging their Land Rover vehicles. In these three cases, families of the soldiers filed for compensation from the employer of the soldiers – the ministry of defence. In case one, the appellant claimed that the tank used by the deceased lacked features that could have prevented the incident altogether. The deaths directly resulted from the soldiers not having been provided with adequate recognition and situational awareness training, which would have helped avoid the friendly fire.

The main claim in cases two and three was that deaths were a result of using the wrong instrument for the task. The Land Rover vehicle did not have adequate protection against the known dangers of that area. It was argued that a more potent vehicle, suitable for the area, should have been used.

Also read: Should the Defence Ministry Be Sued for the Deaths of Soldiers?

The UK MoD pleaded ‘combat immunity’ – that it should be given a sufficiently broad scope to cover all acts or omissions alleged to have caused death or injury during combat operations. It also pleaded that it would not be fair, just, or reasonable to impose a duty of care on the M0D in the circumstances of those cases.

The Supreme Court ruled that the army indeed has the right to decide what equipment they want to use in combat. Thus, the doctrine of combat immunity was upheld. However, the court went on to clarify that the doctrine should be construed narrowly and not extended beyond its established scope of actual combat operations, to the planning of and preparation for active operations against the enemy.

The court said that the combat immunity is only for actual combat and does not hold for decisions which are taken far removed from the pressures and risks of active operations against the enemy. Therefore, the admissibility of the claim of negligence, or death due to lack of proper training and protection measures in equipment used, was tentatively upheld.

All employers have a responsibility of due care over their employees. When a civilian contractor sends a construction worker to work on a scaffolding, it is mandated by law that he provides a helmet, a harness, and training on how to work safely while on a scaffolding. If the employer fails to do so, he is liable for any ill effects of his lapse. He has the obligation of ‘due care’.

The pressure of due care can be made to work in two ways – reactively and proactively. The reactive part of pressure comes into play as the liability to compensate. But must we wait till some damage occurs, or is it better to take measures to avoid the chances of such errors? For this preventive action to even start, a close watch must be maintained on the functioning of the system. This is known as ‘due diligence’, made possible only by transparency. It maintains positive and constructive pressure on employers to act with ‘due care’ and ‘due diligence’, so that harm is avoided, rather than later compensated.

The citizen being the watchdog of the army is the option – the only option left. It can be done.

It is not the law or even the government that will prevent setting up such a system in India. Jammu and Kashmir LG Manoj Sinha recently spoke of transparent and accountable governance. “Public audit ensures that every rupee is well spent for the purpose of bringing about a change in the lives of the people,” he said. Indeed, every rupee spent on defence, too, must be subjected to public audit. This will not only change the lives of soldiers but also spare the lives of so many of them.

As already brought out, difficulties arise more from the mindset of citizens themselves. They will see it as an unfair burden on an army which is up against such heavy odds. However, it must be shown to them that the odds against the army come not only from the adversary but equally from the system. Whatever parts of the system increase those odds must be treated as the enemy and dealt with equal ferocity.

The guilty must not be allowed to escape under the cover of those who actually sacrifice themselves for us.

Col Alok Asthana is a veteran. He is the author of the book The Red Pill on India and Indian Army 2023He can be contacted at alok.asthana@gmail.com.

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