Preserving the ruins of a colonial military

Because we love to hate ourselves while walking in the shoes of the colonial masters. We treat our own people with the same contempt and distrust as the British did. Our laws governing publication of a book and a newspaper, a theatre show, policing, postal matters, vehicle registration are same or directly derived from the nineteenth-century British laws which were created for a subjugated people to be strangulated for wanting to be free. They treated Indian Army men inferior to the firangs and gave them discriminatory salaries, using them as tools to strengthen colonial rule, yet the Indian Army celebrates with honour their predecessor British officers, Raising Days and Victory Days. That’s our sense of a national legacy of heroes and war-victories. It’s nothing but a manifestation of self-negation overpowering self-realisation.

It will be a rare occasion when Pragmatic Euphony quotes an RSS ideologue. But, this argument by Tarun Vijay concluded a vigorous discussion between Pragmatic and a co-blogger. The discussion emanated from a PIB press release about ‘Release of a book on customs and etiquettes’ by senior army officers. The book

is a semi-official treatise on how an officer is expected to conduct himself not only when on parade , but more importantly when off parade. Paying of compliments, the dress code, the esoteric art of table manners, the procedures to be followed during Dinner and Regimental Guest Nights, the Officers dress Code, and a host of customs and rituals, which have since time immemorial acted as a unifying and driving force amongst the Services, have been encapsulated in language easily understandable by the professional soldier as well as the layman. This latest edition also contains a chapter on etiquette for the Lady Officers and another on etiquette on the Golf Course.

Most of us fallaciously equate and misread the customs and etiquettes to be the traditions of the Indian army. Customs are ‘Accepted or habitual practices’ and etiquettes are ‘Rules governing socially acceptable behaviour’ that form a miniscule part of the organisational traditions. Pragmatic Euphony happened to peruse this atavistic codex which is solely about prudish behaviour by Ladies and Gentlemen in the Victorian era. Most of these customs are quaint and archaic that reinforce Indian military’s lack of evolution in the post-independence period. Such anachronistic practices breed a false sense of superiority among the uniformed personnel and divorce them from their roots – the civil society, military’s true m√©tier.

The operative part in the expression ‘Indian defence forces’ in this context is ‘Indian’ – for the ‘defence forces’ bit is implicit. The Indian military today is a Timgad, trying hard to preserve the detritus of its British origins. The British had insulated its imperial army from the civil society to provide an aura to this last vestige of colonialism. The British army has certainly changed beyond recognition since then, but the Indian(and its sister armies in Pakistan and Bangladesh) continue to bleat about the virtues, customs and traditions of a bygone era. There is nothing wrong in taking pride in the traditions and history of an organisation, but we ought to question their relevance today to the society, country and the organisation itself at large. A modern India doesn’t need a military that is disconnected from the civil society and is unable to capture the imagination of the masses.

A contrarian view is that the military is doing a fine job, operating within the constraints of our social- political- bureaucratic system. A number of reports on indiscipline and corruption in senior ranks have been inundating the media for some time now. It is often heard that the military was always like that; it is just that we are hearing much more about it due to proliferation of the media. There might be an element of truth in this contestation as two Major Generals were courtamartialled for corruption during J&K operations, way back in 1948. The sparring incidents among the senior ranks during the leadup to and as a fallout of the Chinese debacle are well documented to need any repitition.

However, this argument does not hold much water when we consider the dramatic increase in the gravity, quantity and frequency of such incidents. Moreover, if the situation has been this perilous all along, why were no steps taken to redeem the situation so far. The culpability, on both counts, lies with the hoary organisation.

John Kotter’s diagnosis and prescription in his HBR article¬†’Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail’ emphasises that -

…much of what separates successful firms from the rest arises from the non-contractible aspects of employee decision making.
…that in the absence of continual changes in management practice, organizational philosophy and restructuring, even highly profitable firms tend to suffer from managerial sclerosis and declining profitability.

The Acorn congruently articulates[via email] that

change is necessary; but cultural changes are the most difficult ones. Tearing down cultural walls, especially in a revolutionary way, creates a flux that can weaken or permanently damage the whole institution. The challenge is to firmly but slowly guide the organisation onto a different worldview.

The Acorn effectively silences many an inspired soul who ululates ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ – A total revolution. Anyways notwithstanding being branded a communist, time has proved that the products of JP’s total revolution were mostly drecks and charlatans. It is a nice heretical romantic dream to bawl about; but we need to ascertain certain real workable options that have to succeed against insuperable odds. Where do we start?

At the top of the agenda is defining the organisational philosophy; starting upwards from the raison d’etre for the existence of the Indian army, to its relevance to the nation and society today and finally on to its institutional imperatives. This is a very difficult and painstaking task for an organisation that draws its strength largely from its past. The army acts and delivers on the basis of expectations of its past glories, not to fulfill its present role and mandate.

What is to be done to redeem the situation thereon? Pragmatic Euphony is seeking the definitive answer to this vexed question. If such an answer does exist, it is bound to bristle all those brought up on the notion of military’s superiority over every other civil and corporate institution. Nevertheless, the quest continues and Pragmatic Euphony invites you to join in this wonderfully exciting and explorative journey.

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5 Responses to Preserving the ruins of a colonial military

  1. Apollo September 30, 2007 at 12:28 pm #

    Pragmatic,

    this is not just an army problem.I have been to many of these hallowed institutions dating from the colonial era and quite shocking to say that they are all caught in the same time wrap.

    In Windsor Manor in Bangalore there are still pictures hanging around the walls showing Indians serving their white masters. These ppl are actually nostalgic about that time!

    In st josephs european high school or many of those elite schools around residency road in Bangalore the British might still not have left at all.

    A Pakistani columnist called the left over intellectual elites of the Indian sub-continent as a new Slave dynasty. very apt term indeed.

  2. Pankaj September 30, 2007 at 10:22 pm #

    I agree with Acorn on this matter, which happens to be an agreement with most ‘pragmatic’ way to bring about change. A slow and methodical change brings about a smooth transition and incremental result. Revolutionary changes are, most often than not, costly. I would like to think about this issue as a business like matter. Every business needs to work with its employees, and the senior (by employment) are the toughest to bring around to change. Small memos, departure from the past practices in the meetings or occasions that warrant attention etc. can be arranged without much hoopla. This will ruffle some feathers. But, as long as it is made with an invisible hand (read visionary in the defense ministry, a beurocrat may be better suited than a politician), there will be very few to blame or point at for a change that has occurred. It may even take a generation to bring about this change from mostly bottom-up. This approach may inculcate the change in the new recruits and it will be more palatable after 25 years.
    I respect the armed services for its discipline and organization and think that the change should be made gradually so as not to disintegrate the institution.

  3. chandra October 3, 2007 at 9:06 pm #

    I have to agree with Pragmatic. It’s time to let go Victorian era stupidity. Etiquettes are good, but they have to be based on and evolved from Indian etiquettes. It has been two generations since the British left. Based on Pragmatic observation, it doesn’t seem to be changing. Defence forces still seem to think they are masters of ordinary Indians.

    But that type of perversity exists in others as well. If one follow Indian way of mannerisms, they are automatically assumed to be non-secular with a religious tint. So to prove one’s secular credentials they have behave like a British or an American forgetting that their own etiquette is based on religion tradition too. And of course by doing so think they are better than ordinary Indians.

  4. aaa October 14, 2007 at 6:13 pm #

    Army has been following british tradition even after freedom that is why they are performing better you look at the condition of rest of all indian organisation all of them has become just a parasite on indian corporate world.

    just keep asking for pay commission and keep earning under the table money

    sau ke sau beiman phir bhi mera bharat mahan.

  5. S.Sistla December 27, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    When creativity fails us we seek to follow examples for self preservation. Borrowed practices survive in regimentation thus do not evolve. Stagnant societies cease to create (economic) value and tend to perish in isolation. Perhaps the perspective for the discussion can be set differently.

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