Sometimes soldiers lie, cheat, steal, rape, pillage and run away in the face of danger. They mutiny, kill their comrades, betray their country and commit suicide. And sometimes, they also misuse privileges.

Any Army in the world, including the Indian Army, has such instances amongst its ranks. The key is to appreciate the infinitesimal occurrences in comparison with the rest of society, and the swiftness and severity with which the Army deals with such breaches.

The Indian armed forces, like most armies of the world, has its own laws. Appreciating the circumstances under which soldiers are expected to function, and the limits to which the call of duty stretches them, these special laws are meant for extraordinary circumstances, and have penalties considered draconian in any other profession. All Army officers are taught military law and even the junior most promotions require officers to be acquainted with it. Similarly, the punitive process in the armed forces is lightning quick compared to civilian courts where cases languish for decades. Most court martials deliver and implement their verdicts in months if not weeks.

Notwithstanding all this, there is no doubt that the nature and character of the Indian armed forces is changing. But the reasons stem from social changes in the country, not just in the Army.

Product of society

We do not import our soldiers or officers from other countries. They come from the same stock as India’s politicians, policemen, bureaucrats, businessmen, actors, sportspersons, corporate and government employees. Our soldiers are exposed to the same values that shape the behaviour of the rest of our nation. They grow up as part of a society that elects convicted murderers as political leaders, venerates law-breaking celluloid heroes, holds up as role models bureaucrats who amass massive fortunes, that bribes policemen to be let off a fine, and fetes corporate tycoons who evade taxes as well as arrest.

Our soldiers are part of a society that lionises match-fixers as cricketing idols and proven fraudsters as public icons, that condones the hypocrisy of leaders who mouth frugality while conducting their children’s nuptials lavishly. This is a society that never demands accountability from its leaders, and that worships self-styled godmen who spend their time brokering power and promoting billion dollar businesses.

Our soldiers have grown up in a society whose members do not know what the ranks in our armed forces are, or the dates of the wars India has fought. They grow up among our educated elite who can point out San Jose or San Francisco on a world map but have no idea where Siachen is. They grow up listening to the jingoism of television celebrities in air-conditioned studios who want to fight till the last drop of someone else’s blood. They see strident demands being made of including women in combat arms of the armed forces, while stadiums during women’s sporting events go empty. They watch political mileage being drawn from military operations as well as apathy towards wounded veterans and war widows. They hear their leaders mouth equity when more than 80% of our national wealth is controlled by less than 1% of its population.

This is the society our soldiers come from.

The canary in the mines

But Indians cannot appoint soldiers as the nation’s standard bearers and absolve themselves of every crime – whether it is in committing or condoning them. Our Army is dragged into one controversy after another as if the rest of the nation is pristine and virtuous when, in fact, the rot has set in so deep that terms like justice, fair play, honour, accountability, sense of propriety and even truth, seem ludicrous.

The Army is the last bastion of our nation. It is that canary in the mines whose flailing should warn us of putrefaction in our social values and its concomitant damage. There is no denying that the Army is not a holy cow and must be equally accountable for its conduct as any other public institution. Of course a few officers misuse their privileges. But the answer does not lie in portraying scant instances as the general rule. When a dog bites a man, it isn’t news. But milking an incident of a man biting a dog for television ratings doesn’t do the Army or the nation any good either. Our adversaries leverage this self-castigation to deepen schisms between military and civil society.

Building a respected brand

Having said that, the senior leadership of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence cannot abdicate their responsibility of strengthening their organisations. They have failed to build the brand of the armed forces and vacated that space for banal topics and self-appointed military spokespersons – many of whom have nothing more to offer than high octave chest thumping with the national anthem as background music.

The heroism, trauma and valour of our soldiers at our borders or the struggles of our ex-servicemen go unobserved, while theatrics by armchair strategists garner prime time. Our strategic discussions are conspicuous by the absence of doctrine options. Our parliamentary steering committees seldom review defence preparedness. Our defence public sector units run truant with their much vaunted projects, with zero consequences, and our universities are devoid of military or strategic studies. Despite being one of the most experienced armies in the world, there is hardly any account of our battles – especially its critiques. As a nation we are averse to discussing our strategic fiascos and therefore fail to learn from them.

This is not a brand that will attract talent, and without talent, slowly but surely, our armed forces will lose their élan, chivalry, intellect and effectiveness. And soon sycophancy will replace professional advocacy in our military discourse.

The headquarters of the Army Training Command nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas promotes the concept of the scholar warrior. That brand of the armed forces is increasingly giving way to one that is perceived as an aggrieved, belittled and parochial brand with political ambitions. This does not bode well either for the Army or the country.

The author is former CEO NATGRID, and group president Reliance Industries. His Twitter handle is @captraman. All views are personal.