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Tour of duty: The lonely ‘agni’ path

Every soldier is a potential leader and learns the art by following his seniors through successive rungs of junior leadership.

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Presently soldiers can serve for a period of 15 to 20 years or beyond, if he is promoted or chooses to serve despite not getting it. (Photo source: PTI)

By Maj Gen Shashikant Pitre, (Retd)

Majority of soldiers in the Indian Army come from villages. Be it in Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam or Tamil Nadu, there is a common thread between the recruits. He is naive, of tough build and is ready to work hard. This raw material is then transformed into a soldier through age old traditions and customs followed since last two centuries and shaped into probably the toughest known fighting machine capable of launching a determined assault on the snow-clad peak of Tololing, of defending a rugged sand dune in Longowal to repel a heavy armour attack or of foiling the evil designs of a vicious enemy in the arduous Galwan Valley. This profile of infantry soldier is the very soul of the Indian Army.

There are five factors contributing to his successful evolution. First is an unshakable faith in the regimental traditions. In some cases, his predecessors from father to great-grandfather have served in the same Paltan. Even if he is the first to join, he soon falls in line. He considers it sacrilegious to commit any act that would stain his family reputation. He is bound by the immortal bond of ‘Naam, Namak aur Nishaan’ of his regiment. He imbibes the ‘Espirit-de-Corps’ from his seniors in the unit, but this fusion is a slow operation. Second is the process of his ‘blooding in’ and sustained training in combat. This is imparted in his unit by his seniors and through specialist courses at various schools of instruction. It is a gradual and deliberate exercise requiring time. Third is the leadership. Military leadership is a synthesis of talent, foresight, inquisitiveness, prudence, self motivation and daunted determination. Every soldier is a potential leader and learns the art by following his seniors through successive rungs of junior leadership. He takes time to earn his spurs. The fourth is morale. This is a community attribute. Personal courage, endurance, perseverance, team spirit, ‘Izzat’ of the Paltan, self-confidence, immense will power and capable leadership among others, contribute towards it. The bottom line is a long association with the unit. Finally, the fifth is his identification with his comrades through bonds of religion, region and language. There is no gainsaying that the Indian Armed Forces are the epitome of national integration. Yet proximity of religion, region and language is a great catalyst of oneness in an infantry battalion, where the soldiers together face the bullets.

Presently soldiers can serve for a period of 15 to 20 years or beyond, if he is promoted or chooses to serve despite not getting it. He is entitled to his pension only if he serves for more than 15 years. That’s where the bug lies. The pension bills are growing with geometrical progression. In the defence outlay of 2021-22, an amount of Rs 1.2 lakh crore was budgeted for pensions, huge by any standard, which was more than 25% of the total outlay and in excess of the total budgeted amount for Capital Assets. There has been a consistent and justified outcry to limit the expenditure on pensions. The recipe fielded by the Indian Government to achieve this is a new scheme called the ‘Tour of Duty’ or ‘Agnipath’. It entails limiting the service tenure of soldiers to four years including an initial training period of six months. He would get a monthly remuneration of Rs 30000 increasing to Rs 40000 and a terminal benefit of Rs 10 to 12 lakhs, half of which would be contributed by him from his pay in monthly installments. That’s it. No pension, no other retirement benefits, hence no expenditure on their pension! It conveniently overlooks a large number of civilian defence employees, who also contribute to the fattening of the pension fund. The Agnipath is to be trudged by the Armed Forces alone, much that they are used to. A poetic justice indeed! As an aside, not related to its main intent of saving money, the system of drafting soldiers into infantry regiments based on religion, region and language would be scrapped.

It is true that organisations must continue to change in their structure, policies and functioning procedures, lest they decay. Change, as well said, is the only permanent entity. However the goal behind the change and its long term effects must not be overlooked. The main objective of this scheme is to save money of the nation, but at what cost? The training of a soldier in six months would be a mere eye-wash. He would not be able to fuse with his Paltan in a matter of about three years. By the time he approaches it, he would already be looking to his life beyond and be concerned of his future. The soul of an Indian fighting force, ‘Naam, Namak aur Nishan’ would take a serious beating. The standard of junior leadership would receive a set-back. The cohesion of an infantry battalion would be affected. This would tell adversely on the morale of the unit and would seriously impinge on the combat effectiveness of the Army.

The Tour of Duty needs a serious re-look before it is implemented. In any case, money can’t be the prime-mover for a vital change in the basic ethos of a military outfit. It is a bitter truth that second rate money will deliver a second rate army. At this juncture, no other words than those of Sir Winston Churchill’s uttered as an MP in the House of Commons in 1923 would be more relevant, when he said, “The armed forces are not like a limited liability company to be reconstructed from time to time as the money fluctuates.”

(Author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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