Scams & the Army: Silence is not golden

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 05, 2011 10:35 hrs

The Army Chief has been repeatedly stating, both in print media and in front of TV cameras, that the recent 'scams' have brought disrepute to the services.

Apparently he has been referring to the Adarsh Housing Society and Sukna land cases.

Unfortunately, it is the Army Headquarters (AHQ) that is responsible for most of the misconceptions. Instead of coming on multiple TV channels and apportioning blame, the military brass should have clarified the true position to the environment. To an extent, the AHQ has failed the army.

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This writer holds no brief for the individuals involved. It is for them to prove their innocence before the law. In case they are found guilty of any lapses, they ought to be proceeded against.

The aim of the article is only to safeguard the reputation of the army as an institution. A closer look is warranted on the above mentioned two cases before passing any judgment.

Adarsh Housing Society

Handling of the Adarsh Housing Society case by the services has left much to be desired.

The associated publicity has caused immense pain to all serving and retired soldiers and media reports have certainly been unfair to the military as an institution. It was alleged that ignoring security concerns, senior service officers had colluded to swindle Kargil-widows out of their entitlement by grabbing a piece of 'army land' by devious means.

A major TV channel calls it 'Kargil for Profit' scam and keeps insisting that the land was originally meant for Kargil war widows.

As per details appearing in the press, a few officers formed a society and sought allotment of land from the state government for 'serving soldiers, ex-servicemen, Kargil heroes and widows'.

Acceding to their request, the Maharashtra Government sold a piece of land to the society for a sum of Rs 18 crore.

To start with, it was supposed to be a six-storey building as allowed under the local laws. Subsequently, politicians and bureaucrats extracted their share of the pie as quid pro quo for according necessary sanctions and raised its height to 31 storeys.

A few issues need to be clarified here:

i) There is nothing known as army or military land. Ministry of Defence (MoD) is the sole owner of all defence land. Department of Defence Estates (DDE), a civilian agency directly under the control of MoD, is the holder and custodian of records of all defence land.

Therefore, it is DDE that knows the true status of the land allotted to Adarsh Society. The services can neither claim nor deny ownership. DDE, being the official repository of records, is the sole authority in the matter.

ii) Hundreds of similar housing societies, formed by other services (IFS, IAS, IPS, judicial, customs, railways, income-tax and so on) have obtained land from Delhi Development Authority and state governments at concessional rates.

iii) Flats in Adarsh Society were allotted to members against full payment. War widows were certainly eligible to be members but there was no 'entitlement' as such.

One is not aware if any war widow's application was ever rejected. Adarsh was a private initiative of a few individuals and there was nothing official about it.

iv) As regards security concerns, it overlooks family quarters. On the other hand, numerous high rise buildings (including the iconic Hotel Taj patronised by foreigners) provide a much closer view of the naval establishments.

Therefore, it is clear that neither the army is to blame for the disputed status of the land nor any war widow has been 'swindled out of her entitlement'.

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The case boils down to whether the land belonged to MoD or not, and whether mandatory clearances were granted by the state government. Answers should be sought from DDE and the state government respectively.

How can a state government sell a piece of land which does not belong to it?

Once these aspects are understood, the complexion of the case changes radically.

Had the above points been clarified by AHQ to the media, the controversy would not have got blown up and tarnished the image of the services as a whole and the officer-cadre in particular. This failure has resulted in immense damage to the reputation of the services and the previous Chiefs.

Sukna Land Case

Similarly, the media coverage of the Sukhna land case made every soldier sad. The case has been unfairly termed as a scam.

The media's penchant for sensationalism and failure of the military leadership to clarify the issue converted an innocuous matter into a major campaign to tarnish the image of the army.

Facts of the case were totally and intentionally ignored by the media to justify allegation of gross misappropriation. Here again, the AHQ failed to correct misconceptions.

The case needs to be recalled here.

The Corps Headquarters (Corps HQ) at Sukna is surrounded by private tea gardens. An entrepreneur purchased some land to start tea-tourism. The state government asked him to obtain security clearance from the army due to close vicinity. The Corps HQ declined on the ground that the proposed tea-tourism would attract foreigners.

The entrepreneur revised his proposal and sought permission to establish a residential school for girls instead. The Corps HQ issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from security angle.

It was alleged that the Corps Commander was pressurised by the then Military Secretary, who was an acquaintance of the said entrepreneur. However, the Command Headquarters at Kolkata overruled the Corps HQ and revoked the NOC.

The following facts stand out:

i) The land in question was privately owned and the services had nothing to do with it. No defence land was ever involved.

ii) NOC has not been alleged to have been given against any undue favours or money.

iii) Establishment of a school can never be considered a security risk by any stretch of imagination. Every cantonment in India has numerous academic institutions within its limits.

Even Delhi cantonment has over 10 schools. In the sensitive city of Jammu, a leading private school is located just opposite the Divisional Headquarters.

Thus, the whole case entails two issues. One, whether the issuance of NOC was in order or not? As long as it was not granted for pecuniary considerations on quid pro quo basis, the Corps Commander cannot be faulted for exercising his discretion.

Two, did the Military Secretary exert undue pressure on the Corps Commander? The Military Secretary may have recommended the case of the entrepreneur but he cannot coerce a Corps Commander to do his bidding.

Recommending an acquaintance's case, at the most, can be termed as an act of indiscretion and nothing more.

In any case, Indian governance works purely on recommendations - every political leader and bureaucrat issues numerous letters of recommendations every day.

Although the case received huge unwarranted adverse publicity, AHQ made no attempt to set the record straight. It failed to tell the public that there was no scam at all – the land involved was privately owned, no transfer took place and no money ever exchanged hands.

And finally...

The Army’s unique character is due to the fact that it is a highly structured and internally regulated organisation that follows well laid-down norms for the continued sustenance of its distinctive ethos.

Norms can be descriptive (The Dos) and proscriptive (The Don'ts). Norms get evolved due to precedents and conventions set over a period of time. Army draws its strength from well-established organisational norms that drive all facets of its functioning, including the conduct of its officers.

It is a descriptive norm to safeguard the 'character and military reputation' of retired officers. There are understandable reasons for these norms. One, decisions are always taken as per the prevailing circumstances and with inputs available at that time. It is very easy to find fault with them in retrospect with the benefit of hindsight.

Two, a retired officer is never present to defend his actions. Thus, vilifying him amounts to his trial in absentia.

Three, the military as an institution is highly sensitive to the reputation of its leadership. When leaders are shown in poor light, troops wonder whether such officers are worthy of their confidence, thereby threatening the vital trust-loyalty equation existing between the leadership and the rank and file.

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Lest it be misunderstood, it is nobody's case that wrongs committed by senior officers should be defended or brushed under the carpet.

The failure to correct a wrong impression amongst the countrymen has caused immense damage to the standing of the army and its leaders. Forces inimical to the army will only be too happy to see the spectacle of senior service officers being subjected to skewed trials by sensation-hungry media.

The AHQ is duty bound to safeguard the 'character and military reputation' of the officers by truthful presentation of facts. Silence in such cases is certainly not golden as it tantamount to admission of guilt for crimes not committed.

Major General Mrinal Suman, (retd) AVSM, VSM, PhD directs the Defence Acquisition Management Course for Confederation of Indian Industry and heads its Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Service. A prolific writer, he is often consulted by policy makers and the Parliamentary Committee on Defence, and is regularly invited to address various industrial chambers in India and abroad. The views expressed here are his own.)

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