A Matter Of Honour

SYED ATA HASNAIN

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Some years ago I was commanding a Division in Kashmir. One morning I received a call from a senior staff officer at the Command HQ at Udhampur that the Army Commander was upset at the string of non-battle casualties in my formation; two suicides, a vehicle accident, a weapon lost in a training exercise, two jawans dead because of avalanches etc. I stated to the officer that none of these incidents were under my direct control; that while I was morally responsible physical responsibility did not rest with me. I was, however, willing to be removed from command if it pleased my superiors and sent an appropriate message to the command chain. I never heard of the issue again. However, in the wake of Admiral DK Joshi’s resignation as the Naval Chief all this came rushing back into the mental hard disc. The issue is one of physical versus moral responsibility.

Let me start by stating unequivocally that Admiral Joshi is one of India’s finest scholar sailors, a gentleman to the hilt, a man of great virtue and someone who carries the stamp of being a professional to the core. Therefore my heart bleeds to see such a man go. No doubt he has raised the level of honor by many notches for all three Services by his act of resignation taking full moral responsibility for the string of accidents which have occurred in the Navy in the last few months, the one with the INS Sindhuratna being the latest. The morning blogs and papers are full of the necessity of some others also taking the rap for the failures, primarily the bureaucracy and the political level too. It actually boils down to the difference between the moral and physical responsibility, the issue I raised at the beginning of this piece. Who is responsible for what?

Obviously there is nothing black and white about this. Are the numerous crashes of Migs the responsibility of the Air Chief, the AOCs, the Air Force Station Commanders or the Squadron Commanders; not easy to peg. Whose responsibility is the series of negative incidents on the LoC? The failure to provide sufficient intelligence to prevent a chain of terrorist related incidents; whose responsibility was this? In the existence of an amorphous administrative structure can the Military alone bear the responsibility for their failure is the moot point. No doubt that late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri set the highest standards of honor when he resigned as Railway Minister after a serious rail accident involving many lives. However, it does not always pay to repeat such acts for the sake of honour.

Senior military leaders bear enormous responsibility and failures are a part of leadership. It is a question of the quality of failure. It is unlikely that the Navy’s failures are anything more than just incidental, technical flaws with equipment and sometimes with training. Which Service Chief can ever certify that his force is hundred percent trained and can overcome every technical flaw. Failure is a part of the leadership cycle and acceptance of it a part of National maturity; no one is condoning mistakes of intent or refusal to learn lessons from mistakes. Failures occur at every level and in the case of the Military do involve loss of lives. For every such failure or string of failures if leaders have to resign to take moral responsibility we will soon see a situation of administrative and leadership paralysis.

In the Army, I usually point responsibility for failure to two things – sheer incompetence or sheer bad luck. Bad luck has its run and is finite but incompetence is obviously not. If a string of failures is more in the realm of luck than incompetence there is never a reason for resignations; all that is required is adequate stock taking, serious analysis and drawing up of a path towards prevention and thereby success. Admiral Joshi’s case appears to be just that. That all three Services suffer for the lack of appropriate decision making at the bureaucratic and political level with equipment procurement and induction is a separate story unto itself.

There cannot be a better man than Admiral Joshi to set right the perceived ills in his Service. That said, it is unfortunate that there is so much excitement about change in the chain of succession, as if that is the more important issue than the immediate task at hand; of regaining confidence.

I think the rank and file of the Indian Navy will agree with my assessment that Admiral Joshi may have done the right thing by taking moral responsibility for the incidents and apparent systemic failure but his departure from the scene is not going to set right things as fast as his presence will. These are difficult times for India and the least we can afford is to see a competent, clean, strong and effective military leader depart earlier than his time. Yet, Admiral Joshi, you have set a standard so high that you have left a moral problem for all your successors and for India’s security managers at large.

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Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain retired as Military Secretary and earlier led the Chinar Corps.This article first appeared in The Citizen. Views expressed are personal.

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