The first thing every cadet passing through the hallowed portals of the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla learns is its motto: ‘˜Service before self’. If the goings-on at Mumbai’s ironically mis-named Adarsh Society have even a kernel of truth in them, today’s cadets now know that at least some of their senior-most officers apparently couldn’t help but be directly or indirectly complicit in inverting their pledge.

Almost all the senior defence officers named in the Adarsh Society’s list of infamy were once young and idealist cadets at the Academy. Have they held up this leit-motif of what was once arguably the only institution in the country above reproach?

The three former service chiefs who bought apartments in the Adarsh Society have returned them insisting they did not know that the land was meant for Kargil martyrs and their families. They have pleaded for an investigation to bring out the truth. Fair enough.

We will know the results of the probe soon enough and people shouldn’t be held guilty until proven otherwise but talk to any serving or retired officer and all you hear is anguish and anger. Individual wrong-doing will be established by the CBI’s investigation but from the facts in the public domain it is clear that there was massive collusion between politicians, bureaucrats and at least some defence officers.

The system failed and it failed because some of those concerned on the top were either involved or turned a blind eye. Neither is excusable.

The Army is currently court-marshalling two generals for the Sukhna land scam case. Sukhna is a peanut compared to the Adarsh Society. In Sukhna, no land was actually exchanged the 71 acres in question did not belong to the Army and no money changed hands either.

The Army only gave a no-objection certificate for constructing a school on land outside the military station that it did not own and the accusations pertained to the then Military Secretary allegedly helping a businessman friend. In Adarsh Society, land under the Army’s control if not actual ownership was not only given, but apartments were built and sold, contravening regulations and security considerations, as the Western Naval Commander has pointed out.

At some point in the paperwork the drawing power of Kargil was also used by the wily promoters as they worked the system to get permissions. If India’s top generals did not know this, perhaps they should have.

The reputational damage to the defence services is immense and the only thing to do now is to act swiftly and decisively against anyone who did not hold up to the standards of their uniform. They bore the responsibility of not only doing the right thing but to be seen to be doing it.

Part of the reason for the massive public outrage this time is that defence officials seem complicit in this scam. We never expected any better from politicians or bureaucrats: we are almost immune to such stories. With the men in uniform somehow a different moral register applies, at least in our collective imaginations.

This is why strong action is needed against those culpable including terminating the services of the guilty among serving officers and withholding pensions of the guilty among those who have retired if for nothing else but to restore the morale of those currently in service.

The Army, along with the Railways, is the largest holder of land in the country. Cantonments and military garrisons were historically always built away from the cities, for strategic reasons. Military garrisons were designed to exist in their own self-contained bubbles but in recent decades as our cities have expanded, the two worlds have begun to collide and overlap considerably.

This deeper process of urbanisation has meant that temptations that did not exist earlier are now increasingly commonplace. This is why, it is also important to put in place clearer rules governing defence estates or enforce existing ones with an iron hand.

Two decades ago the cult classic Jaane Bhee Do Yaaro cemented the image of Mumbai as the city of the organised land-grab, its biting satire beautifully chronicling the contractor-bureaucrat nexus. If Jaane Bhee Do Yaaro was made a decade ago, it would arguably also have included a greasy politician in the regulation khaadi to complement Satish Shah’s memorable Commissioner De Mello. Now we need to make sure that the Jaane Bhee Do Yaaro of the future does not include a figure in olive green.