By: Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere VSM
Corruption in the Defence Services (“Services” hereinafter) is nothing new. However, it never was and is not anywhere near the sheer, breath-taking magnitude of corruption in civilian administration that has made the public disgusted with governments. In present times, the reach of the media into Services activities is matched by the means available to “insiders” – Servicemen (serving personnel of all ranks) and Ex-Servicemen (Veterans of all ranks) – to communicate with the media to expose corruption. Thus, there are frequent reports in print and electronic media concerning corruption. The corruption reports involving senior and very senior ranking Services officers appear to be on the increase, though perhaps in the past, incidents went unreported for one or more of several reasons.
Such reports and exposés convey a negative image of the Services to the public at large, with the result that the national service rendered by the Services in their primary and secondary roles, and the notable deeds and sacrifices of individual Servicemen, is effectively negated.
One major difference between the Services and the civil administration is that crimes and offences are dealt with expeditiously in the Services under military law, while prosecution under civil and criminal law takes years, sometimes decades. This is not generally known to civilians, and the media fails to highlight this partly due to ignorance and partly due to the Services neglecting to periodically communicate with the media. Military law prohibits individual Servicemen from communicating with the media, but Ex-Servicemen suffer from no such restriction. In this context, there are two streams of thought: One view is that Ex-Servicemen exposing corruption amounts to letting-the-side-down, or disloyalty to one’s regiment or the Service as a whole. The contra view is that exposure of corrupt persons and corrupt practices in the Services, and especially including Ex-Servicemen who actually project the Services image in public life, is necessary to show the Services as an organization which seriously addresses the corruption issue, whereas state and central governments are wilfully negligent.
To offer a simile, a dark room cannot be cleaned of dirt; opening the windows and doors admits light and permits cleaning. Thus, throwing light on corruption allows cleaning of the system, whereas keeping the doors and windows shut allows the dirt to breed more dirt. Exposing corruption has several benefits. One, the guilty can be brought to account as they must. Two, the loss can be assessed and made good. Three, the system can be “updated” to discourage corruption and make it more difficult and risky. And four, the genuineness of the intention of cleaning the system and keeping it clean is made known. If the Services are to regain their erstwhile stature in the public eye as a relatively corruption-free organization, exposure of corruption cases is necessary. It is worth repeating that Ex-Servicemen are more in the public eye than Servicemen, and they contribute significantly to the public image of the Services. Hence exposure of corruption among Ex-Servicemen is necessary in the larger Services interest.
The fact of corruption is often known to people working with the corrupt official, but there is insufficient or no proof of corruption, and the person who knows often cannot muster the courage to ask questions to bring the corruption to light. Many RTI activists have been murdered, and the whistleblower or the asker of questions is always at personal risk, howsoever minimal. Further, the “knower” of corruption, especially in the Services context, is often a junior officer, JCO or NCO, at an initial disadvantage, especially as he can easily be harrassed, victimized or accused of ill-intentions by the officer whom he exposes.
Corruption by serving officers is known within units or formation headquarters, and often is the subject of “barrackroom discussions” among soldiers. Such discussions, enabled by social media reports of corruption in other units and formations in the Service, together with misuse or unauthorized use of resources for personal gain by officers, is a major factor in unit morale, and indeed of morale and discipline in the Services as a whole.
During service, an officer is expected to keep the safety, honour and welfare of his country, and the honour, welfare and comfort of the men under his command, in that order, uppermost in his mind when taking decisions. This credo does not change even after he retires from active service. Thus corruption by a re-employed officer, involving stealing from or depriving subordinate ranks or their widows of authorized benefits for personal gain, is a violation of the officer’s credo and doubly reprehensible, deserving stringent action. However, lesser acts of moral turpitude by retired officers, like falsely claiming undeserved or unauthorized benefits, also need to be condemned.
There is another category of wrong-doing which is virtually impossible to prove as money or material corruption. This is occurring in several Records Offices of various corps or regiments, whereby certain Records Officers deliberately and repeatedly place obstacles in the way of old pensioners or their widows obtaining their rightful benefits, which were denied to them on account of careless, incomplete or omitted documentation at unit level or Record Office level, through no fault of their own. This is definite violation of the officer’s credo and amounts to professional corruption, even if money or material corruption cannot be proved. This has a very adverse effect on the morale of serving soldiers, and a debilitating effect on military discipline. Yet, this writer’s experience is that senior officers who have been apprised of this are strangely reluctant to set the system right.
The military rank of the (whistleblower) Ex-Serviceman who exposes corruption is not important; what is important is whether the expose and the facts cited are genuine. Nevertheless, among some in the Ex-Servicemen’s fraternity, especially those who believe that exposure of corruption “lets the side down”, there exists a feeling that the rank of the whistleblower does matter. This is unfortunate because it has the unintended effect of keeping wrong-doing under wraps, permitting guilty persons to get away with criminal corruption, increasing discontent among subordinate ranks, and further denting the public image. Of course, false or unsubstantiated charges, or charges motivated by personal ill-feeling or enmity, need to be eliminated, and persons who make such charges deserve to be punished for damaging the reputation of the officer accused of corruption.
There are instances of corruption involving serving and retired officers that are being exposed, but unfortunately, perhaps because of the “letting-the-side-down” syndrome, Service headquarters and senior retired officers take little or no action, and so the matter gets to the media (especially the electronic media) which blows the matter up and severely dents the image of the Services, besides also making truth the first casualty. The solution for the current state of affairs is only more transparency and institutionalizing the aim of cleaning up the system.
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere, VSM (Retd) was ADG DV in AG’s Branch, Army HQ, New Delhi, 1994-96. His contact details are:
Address: 475, 7th Main Road // Vijayanagar 1st Stage // Mysuru-570017