The last time Samba was in the national headlines was when the Delhi High Court acquitted some of the accused officers from the infamous Samba spy case of the 1970s with full honours. That case is still being fought in the Supreme Court but for no fault of its own, this cantonment town near Jammu is now once again in the news for the wrong reasons with yet another unit showing afflicted with discontent.

S what exactly happened in the 16 Light Cavalry Regiment and what does one make of it? A jawan gets a phone call, asks for leave in a state of emotional stress and commits suicide when it is denied. Angry jawans then confront officers forcing senior commanders to rush in and intervene. Is this an isolated case or can we see this as yet another example of a general decline in the army’s standards of discipline, leadership and order? Why shouldnt we, especially as this incident comes just two months after the terrible standoff between officers and their men in an artillery regiment in Leh? Are we now seeing a pattern of officers losing control, of soldiers being more rebellious and the army becoming a less cohesive force? Is the last great standing institution of the indian state, one that remains a neutral bulwarks of the nation’s foundations, now on a trajectory of irreversible decline?

The army is certainly at a crossroads but it is important to see the Samba case in context. First, suicides in the uniformed services, with the stresses of long distance relationships and the restrictions on family housing, even in peace stations, are not new. This was always an ugly underbelly of the Army except that a lot more news comes out into the open now.

Secondly, any army is a product of the society it serves and the social context around the army has long changed. The old army model of cantonments was predicated on a principle of isolation; the cantonments were designed to be islands, separated from the chaos of rest of the country, content in their order and in their discipline. As our cities have expanded, most Cantonments are not outside the city limits any more, but well within them. The physical shrinking of distance between the army and the world outside has been complimented by an even larger disruption: the cellphone and the information revolution which means that soldiers are now much more connected to the outside world, their families and the pressures and pulls of society outside their self enclosed regimental walls.

With the splendid isolation of old gone and aspiration levels in its rank and file rising higher, the changing social matrix demands higher and more sophisticated levels of leadership but precisely at the time when this is most needed, we have had a steady deterioration of the officer class speeded up by a governmental neglect so malignant that it has now reached a serious crisis point.

At its heart this is a question of status and standing. Notions of izzat and hour are the backbone of the defence services and we expect our soldiers to be above the general rut that afflicts the police, the bureaucracy and the other arms of the state. Yet, how can you expect a soldier to adhere to a different code when we ourselves don’t give them their due: in terms of honour, status and remuneration.

Take for example, the anomalies in the Sixth Pay Commission which have created real disparities between the army and other services. The most glaring of these is the grant of what bureaucrats callnon-functional upgradation to officers in Group A organised services under the central government. To simplify a complex issue, in layman terms this means that Group A officers can now be awarded the grade pay and allowances of IAS officers with a two year delay but not army officers.

This gradual erosion of the defence services in the pecking order of official India has been on for decades but as long as the Army continued to be isolated from the rest of society it was manageable. Now with greater integration and much more openness of information, such disparities are one to lead to a general sense of discontent and malaise.

We will only get the soldiers we pay for and the time has come for a course correction. A professional Amy deserves to be treated professionally and not excluded from higher decision making. The Naresh Chandra committee has forcefuly recommended a new beginning by integrating the armed forces in to the defence ministry and personnel issues such ‘one rank one pay’ cannot be allowed to hang forever

Manmohan Singh would have many things in his mind as he prepares his ninth independence day speech but none with such far reaching consequences as the wider sense of despair and neglect in india’s armed forces. Surely, time has come to act.

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