18/12/2016 3:46 PM IST | Updated 19/12/2016 12:59 PM IST

Shock Within The Ranks As Two Senior Generals Are Overlooked For Army Chief

Could it have been handled better?

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Serving officers and veteran are shocked and disappointed as two of the most senior generals of the Indian Army—Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi and Southern Army Commander Lieutenant General PM Hariz—were passed over by the Modi government.

Instead, the Centre chose to name Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, currently the Vice Chief of Army Staff, as the 27th Chief of Indian Army.

Social media messages being circulated within the military by officers reflect a mood of disbelief and dissatisfaction. Supersession in the armed forces, although not unheard of, is not very common. Instances of supersession can be counted on one's fingers.

Having said that, it is equally true that the Government is well within its right to choose the chiefs of the three services. Also, appointing the most senior officer as the next chief is a convention and not a statutory requirement. The President of the United States regularly appoints chiefs according to his preference. Sacking inconvenient ones is an equally normal practice in the US. And it is no secret that the integrity, behaviour and actions of some previous chiefs— appointed on the principal of seniority—have been disappointing.

READ: In An Unusual Move, Govt Supercedes Two Generals To Name Bipin Rawat Next Army Chief

Could this have been handled better?

Explanations for deciding on Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat as the next chief have raised some uncomfortable questions.

The Government, in a detailed background brief, said Lt. Gen. Rawat "...was found best suited among the lieutenant generals to deal with the emerging challenges." It further said Lt. Gen. Rawat "has handled various operational responsibilities in many areas including along the LoC with Pakistan, the LAC with China and in the North-East." Finally, the background brief says "Lt. Gen. Rawat has tremendous hands-on experience of serving in combat areas and at various functional levels in the Indian Army." Clearly, the Government is indicating that Lt. Gen. Rawat has more operational experience than the others.

The Eastern Army Command, headed by Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi, defends borders with three countries—China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is also tasked to carry out counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam. The Eastern Army Command played a critical role in three wars: World War II, when it acted as the bulwark to prevent a Japanese onslaught; the 1962 Indo-China War; and in the Bangladesh Liberation War. For all practical purpose, it is as crucial a command as the Northern Army Command that defends a major part of the India-Pakistan border. G

Given the Government's reason and the nature of the command that Lt. Gen. Bakshi heads, the logical question is how could someone with lesser operational experience head the Eastern Army Command?

READ: Army Veterans Defend Centre's Move, Say Seniority Shouldn't Be The Only Aspect For Army Chief's Appointment

Allegations of political interference

The decision to overlook two of the most senior generals is likely to fuel allegations of political interference and beginning of politicisation of the military.

The Indian military is apolitical unlike its Pakistani counterpart. The two militaries were born at the same time and came from the same stock. Unlike the Indian military, over the years the Pakistani military has become the biggest hindrance to Pakistan's democratic development.

On the other hand, India's progress and continuance on that path and its achievements as nation have been possible because of its admirable military and political leaders who understood their responsibilities and limits, and stayed on the course. Selecting the most senior military officer as the next chief thus evolved as mechanism to limit political interference or currying favour with politicians for critical appointments.

Does this decision therefore make the military open to political interference? The answer is both yes and no. One, India isn't a tin-pot democracy. It is a mature democracy that can handle upsets. Two, reorganisation of the military is on the cards—much of the political interference will depend on what happens in the course of the proposed reorganisation.

Reorganisation of the military

The Government has decided to "right size" the military. A twelve-member committee headed by Lt. Gen. (retired) BD Shekatkar is on the job. The military follows a steep pyramid structure; as the pyramid narrows, officers are sifted and left behind at regular intervals.

In a 1.3-million strong army, there are only about 80-odd lieutenant generals and only seven army commanders. In the upper ranks—Corps Commanders and above—age is a deciding factor on who makes it to the next rank. As a result, calculations of who would be probable chief a decade later is worked out even as an officer makes to the rank of brigadier or equivalent.

Coteries leading to clan-like behaviour and currying favour for seniors for good annual reports is rampant. Good commanders, who aren't part of the coteries, are more often than not ignored. Cabal-like behaviour —often dictated by whether an officer is an infantryman, a tank man, gunner, signals fighter, transport pilot or an engineer officer—is all too common within all three arms of the military. Therefore, while appointing the most senior officer may have its advantages, it has its drawbacks too.

As the Government sets out to reorganise the military it must ensure a system of promotions that values merit and age equally.

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