Apparently the last bastion of probity in this country is under siege - from within. Allegations of corruption and other irregularities against the seniormost ranks of the army have been cropping up with alarming regularity of late. In the last two years or so, one has heard of a serving Lt Gen facing court martial, a Maj Gen being punished for sexual harassment and CBI raids against another Maj Gen who was slated for promotion. And now the latest scandal to hit the headlines involves no lesser people than the Military Secretary and a Corps Commander/ Deputy Chief designate.
A wide range of pertinent issues crop up when discussing this highly regrettable state of affairs. The very first issue is - why is it so surprising or seemingly unacceptable that corruption is creeping into the forces as well. There is a school of thought that holds that with corruption having made such deep inroads almost everywhere else in the country, how could the armed forces remain unaffected? After all, we come from the same stock, live in the same society and are constantly exposed to our cousins in the civil services or elsewhere with their 'upar ki kamai'. And then, we are no longer insulated from the rest of the society as our predecessors during the Raj and till a long time thereafter were. So it is only natural that the bug of dishonesty travels to the uniformed fraternity. Since integrity may also be lack of opportunity, and opportunity in the services is normally restricted to the upper echelons, that's where the bug ultimately strikes.
Logical as this argument may be, corruption in the armed forces must not be explained away so easily as it has ramifications above and beyond those that it has in any other walk of life. Some of these are obvious, others not so.
The very first and obvious issue is the criticality of retaining the fighting edge of armed forces, unencumbered by impediments such as corruption, for the very survival of the nation. While each of the arm or instrument of state compromised by corruption damages some aspect of national well-being, a blunted sword arm could jeopardize its very survival. Particularly in the current security scenario within the country and its neighbourhood.
And there is no doubt that the blunting effect of corruption will be many times over in the forces than in any other organisation. While the babu and the policeman is dealing with the common public as its 'customer' or 'client', the military commander's primary responsibility is towards the men he commands. The edifice of the armed forces is built on the foundations of honour, 'izzat', mutual trust and respect and similar values more than anything else. It is not the monthly paycheque (sixth pay commission notwithstanding) that compel a soldier to summit icy slopes against enemy fire and plant the standard atop a conquered peak. Its these values, and the unshakable faith in his commanders up the chain. Imagine if the same soldier has reason to believe that the people involved in planning and supervising the operation are acting on motives that are anything but kosher, would he still be willing to risk his life and limb to carry out their orders in letter and spirit? Not likely.
Another facet which causes corruption to be of a greater cause of concern in the armed forces than elsewhere is the complexion of their system for promotions - the steep pyramid and the intensely competitive environment for career progression. For every officer who is promoted, 2 to 5 (depending on the level /rank) are passed over. The appraisal system is also notoriously subjective, since absence of tangible deliverables results in assessments often being on the basis of personal impressions and opinions of the assessors. Therefore, a proliferation of less than honest individuals at higher echelons will unleash a vicious circle. Such people will prefer juniors with similar inclinations over more upright ones. This would lead to self perpetuating immorality - a warped process of natural selection as Darwin must never have imagined. This will cause a geometric progression of corruption, accelerating the process of the blunting to a breakneck speed, and causing despondency and resentment in the silent majority of upright individuals left behind in the rat race for promotions.
These factors, combined with the immense trust and affection that the ordinary people repose in the armed forces vis a vis any other institution, are reasons enough to view the phenomenon of corruption therein very very seriously.
A quick addendum prior to conclusion. There is a section of opinion that most of the cases of alleged corruption are fabricated or greatly exaggerated by the media. But the reasons for such fabrication itself are a matter of introspection. As was probably the case in a particular Corps where all the Maj Gens vying for the single vacancy of Lt Gen were reportedly playing the proverbial crabs, pulling each other down through allegations and counter allegations of questionable dealings made anonymously or through proxy . Such antics underscore the intense competition amongst too many people fighting for elusive rewards of higher ranks using all possible means to gain an edge over their comrades at arms, and the damaging impact on the overall image and effectiveness of the armed forces.
There is therefore a case for 'zero tolerance' of corruption and any other forms of irregularities within the armed forces in general and the senior officers in particular. How would such a policy be enforced is a whole subject for debate in itself. A start can probably be made by making it mandatory for all generals to declare their assets, a la politicians and judges.