119 years of Trust A Soldier's Diary THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, September 5, 1999

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Old soldiers never die
By K.S. Bajwa

WHEN we say that old soldiers never die, we seek to invest our soldiers with an aura of immortality. The creed of a soldier has the imprint of eternity or is it that for valour human chronicles are sharply etched and invested with eternal youth in the otherwise fickle human memories. Then follows a strange contradiction! The notion that old soldiers fade away, seems to banish them into oblivion. Why this romanticism and disdain? Do we only enshrine the creed and the courage and let the standard bearer sink into insignificance? Perhaps this contradiction bears witness to the love-hate relationship that has nearly always existed between the nation and their soldiers.

We lionise them when they stand four-square with their daring and sacrifice between the nation and disaster. We extol their virtues and weave ballads round their gallant deeds. After every victory, the nation, in its euphoria, is generous with its hurrahs and hugs. Then, we forget our men in uniform. Like Roman gladiators, soldiers too, in times of need, are fed on the heady wine of adulation and promise of a niche in the annals of history. The poor souls give their all to realise too late that they have been cast aside as empty shells.

His very visible identity has been constantly under siege and he has been losing ground. What has been even worse is that hardly any lateral mobility is conceded to the armed services.

Do we subscribe to the belief that after years of integrated development, highly qualified service officers and men cannot be employed to advantage in the administrative infrastructure of the country, its utilities and public undertakings? Soldiers are largely confined within their tightly structured organisational shells. When, at the end of their service, they emerge from this insulation, their exposure and experience is considered to be too narrow in its content. And there is another grave disadvantage. Wars are few and potential threats only perceived by the very knowledgeable. The expertise and skills developed in the services cannot be directly utilised in the political power game. Consequently, behind the very real, but vaguely perceived, shield of security that he helps to create, a soldier, unlike the bureaucrat, does not figure in our current value-system of favours and political investments. Frequent changes of location, extended tenures in remote border areas and an intense mono-directional involvement with the military ethos, leaves little scope for growth outside the service.

When the time comes for him to hang up his spurs, and that too at a still vigorous age, it leaves him with a host of fading memories of his relevance and not a great deal else besides. For senior soldiers, the change is truly traumatic. The ceremony that goes to emphasise organisational solidarity and heighten the mystique of command often spawns inflated egos. In many cases, nostalgia becomes a prop; a state of rejection of the present and a sense of denial of the future. Senior soldiers would do well to equip themselves with humility they climb the ladder.

Pensions, even though liberal, are not always adequate. Meagre savings get devalued by inflation. To top it all, immediately on leaving service, housing, transport, electricity, fuel, water and all other necessities cost more. In fact the additional economic burden is much more than the decrease in expenditure as a result of leaving the service. For most old soldiers, finding work is both an economic and a social necessity. Every one of them has to seek gainful employment and embark on a second career. Tending roses and gracefully fading away in the sum has become a pipe-dream.

Even for those, who have enough to live on, life is hard. With an exploding population, ever increasing shortages of even bare essentials of life and falling standards of public utilities and services, mere day to day living claims a large chunk of the available resources and effort. To obtain a telephone connection, secure a gas cylinder, to arrange for a ration card and avail of any kind of service (public or private) is burdensome. In the armed forces, most of these services are in-built. When cut off from these facilities immediately on retirement, it takes time and patience to find your way around. Perhaps the services would do well to start serviceco-operatives to take care of problems of modern living for those who shed the uniform after a lifetime of service.

Take payment of pensions for instance. There is a well-conceived procedure, which is set into motion at least six months in advance of the date of retirement with the intention that the payment of pensioner benefits commences on the very next day. In reality, there is a wide gap between the concept and the practice. Invariably, there are delays, even when all prescribed steps have been taken in time and the criteria fulfilled. There is even careless wrong direction of correspondence, which compounds delay.

It needs to be remembered that the golden generations exercise considerable influence on the minds of the prospective soldier and lest they shy away from the services, the older men must be well cultivated.

What are the old soldiers’ assets? A tidy and a disciplined mind, honesty of purpose and a tenacity of endeavour are some of his attributes. Combined with these are competent skills, which can be lent to serve a large variety of purposes. Leaders have expertise in management of men and materials. Admittedly, much of it can be classified as of a general nature, without specific direction and specialisation. Given a chance, it is a fertile bed for multi-directional development. However, the system of selection for employment is based on recognised academic handles. In the absence of any accepted equation, the learning and experience in the services, does not carry acknowledged value. A small beginning has been made by one or two universities, but this needs to be

expanded to cover all types of training and education in the services. Even the soldiers aspiring to find a place in trade and industry, are considered alien to their sub-culture; they do not speak the same language.

Read any advertisement for jobs vacant and these all end up with the condition "five to 10 years experience in a similar assignment". The anxiety of employers, concerned with a profit motive, to find manpower, which will be productive from the outset is understandable. Identification of service skills, which can be effectively utilised outside; orientation of basic expertise into packages, readily saleable in other spheres and a well-orchestrated sales promotion for the retiring manpower is needed. If necessary, scope of training schedules and course should be enlarged to cater for job placement on retirement.

Throughout the service tenure and more specifically in the last two to five years before retirement, specialised training should be arranged, with the aim of rehabilitation in view. May be then servicemen would be more widely accepted as against the present opening largely confined to industrial security. This would tone up the human responses both inside and outside the service. The additional expenditure, which will only be marginal would bring in rich dividends.

There are a number of old soldiers who nurture the latent spark of industrial enterprise. In pursuing their ambitions they face a series of hurdles and even some blank walls. The first major problem is to overcome the mental block created by the opiate of insularity and near total security of life, while in service. Obtaining inputs of information regarding product selection; technology and the manufacturing process; supply of machinery organisation of finances; trade practices and marketing is a major operation. There is a medley of government agencies claiming to provide these inputs. As happens in the case of government, most of their data is in regard to trade openings, which are already successful. Growth of a fresh venture, in an environment that is saturated is discouraging. Moreover, to find your way around and maintain direction in the maize of government, most of it quite unnecessary, saps endeavour. Having somehow overcome all the initial hurdles, these soldier entrepreneurs soon find out that they are ill-equipped for our economic activity.

In the midst of our moral and material contradictions, he faced serious dilemmas of conflict between the cherished values of his erstwhile calling and a desire like everyone else to lead a life of reasonable comfort with dignity.

Two of the most potent rubs with the old soldiers are inadequate pensions and lack of housing. Most countries in the world recognise the limitations imposed on the soldiers for their post retirement resettlement. Beside the very attractive inducements for voluntary long term enrolment, opportunities for acquiring a house, through contributions, often heavily subsidised, are offered.

In respect of pensions, most countries allow upwards of three fourth, or more commonly, full last pay drawn. We fall short on this account too. What is even more illogical is that the periodic gains in pensions do not fully apply to those who retired before a certain date; as if an arbitrary date can discriminate between the value of service before and after. No wonder, there is a visible streak of self-serving interest amongst the soldiers. There is a growing outlook of compromise with professional values, which otherwise demand full moral and physical commitment.

Why must the soldier receive any preferential treatment? India lies in a geo-strategic shatter belt. Contending global interests have introduced crisis potential into our strategic environment. Our policy of non-alignment and growing power status attracts formulation of hostile options around us. Potential pressures and threats lurk under the surface. We cannot, therefore let our guard down, if we want to pursue our chosen path of social and economic development. Our policy initiatives would lack credibility, if we did not have a dependable security shield and a convincing power status. For all this we need deeply committed soldiers, insulated against social and economic dilemmas.

While patriotism and higher moral values are the bed-rock on which commitment is founded, an elitist culture is essential to sustain it in the present-day world and more so in India. Mere appeals to moral values by our policy makers, who do not practice these themselves, sound hollow.

Most servicemen acquire a job orientation and look for fresh employment. A sizeable number would like a gainful self-employment. There is a need to prepare both categories towards this end, while they are still in service. There are also avenues of employment in which soldiers can be employed as such. Paramilitary forces should draw bulk of their man power from the armed forces. Such a step will benefit both services and the nation.

What of the old soldiers themselves? I have met quite a few of them recently. Still vigorous, morally uncompromising and upright, many of them have been sidelined by the centrifuge of our society. Not many are fortunate enough to find avenues where their talents are utilised, in keeping with their attributes. All, however, are doing their bit to enrich life around them.

None of them looked faded or about to descend into oblivion. Perhaps we would do well to more purposefully bend the values represented by them to the service of the nation and not wish them to fade away. Back

This feature was published on August 29, 1999

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