Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor had said, “The badge of rank that an officer wears on his coat is really a symbol of servitude to his men.” One of Alexander the Great’s leadership qualities was the ability to place his men first. He was great not only because he was good but because he believed that the service of men was his foremost responsibility. Today most of the serving officers, soldiers and veterans are pained to see grieving parents of Col Navjot Singh Bal, Shaurya Chakra, travelling more than 2000 kilometres to bid farewell to their solider son who incidentally was a highly decorated officer of the Indian Army. The condolences that poured on the untimely demise of Col Navjot Singh Bal is a testimony of his soldierly qualities and how he was respected by men and officers even those who did not know him. They know well that for him winning took precedence over all, there were no grey areas. “None Almost”!
What surprised me was that the military leadership of the fourth largest Army in the world could not give sanction for airlift to the grieving parents from Delhi to Bangalore, because the military bureaucracy did not want a precedence to start. In fact all traditions, ethos and comradery that is displayed by men and officers in peace and war is a precedence that was set up by those who were ahead of us. Never leave a fallen or wounded soldier behind in war is a precedence that was started by field commanders’ centuries earlier and is being followed even now. Was it not a precedence set by Major Shaitan Singh when he and his men ignored the option to withdraw from their position in Rezangla and preferred to fight last man last round and 114 men laid down their lives while defending Rezangla. Was surgical strikes not a precedence set by these young men when they crossed into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to strike at the terror camps? I am afraid that current military leadership want men and young officers to set new precedence of gallantry but withdraw themselves when it comes to set precedence for an insignificant administrative mundane action with no threat to life or limbs.
Let me quote two of my personal examples how military leadership of my growing up time in the army often trashed military bureaucracy and paid scanty respect to the rules that prevented them to take actions for the welfare of men under their command. I was a young captain posted as Instructor in High Altitude Warfare School in 1991. I was scheduled to get married on January 18, 1991 and due to unprecedented snowfall the flights were cancelled and road was blocked. I could not even move down from Gulmarg to Srinagar since road was blocked. Only four/ five days were left for my marriage and Mrs Persis Bulsara wife of (late) Brig FFC Bulsara asked me during the lunch time may be 13/14 January, “Narender when are you leaving for your marriage”? I replied Madam, “I don’t think I will be able to reach home in time so I will ask my parents to postpone the marriage”. She literally gave a dressing down to the Commandant (Late) Brig FFC Bulsara for not doing anything to ensure that I reach home in time for my marriage. Same day Brig Bulsara spoke to the AOC at Agra and requested him to do something and drop me at Chandigarh or Delhi or Jammu. Well next day an air force helicopter came to pick me up from Gulmarg to Srinagar and another helicopter was waiting at Srinagar to drop me at Jammu.
The second incident was when I was commanding my unit in Jammu & Kashmir. One of our comrade had laid down his life while I was the Commanding Officer of a Rashtriya Rifle Unit in J&K. His family was staying in separated family quarters at Jammu. His in laws had come to stay with their daughter. The family desired that the mortal remains be taken to his ancestral place in Chennai. Apart from his wife and child, his in laws had to be sent with the mortal remains. When I was told that his in-laws were at Jammu with their daughter, without even blinking my eyelids, I asked the officer who was arranging air transportation of mortal remains that ticket for entire family including that of his in-laws be bought and they be put on the same aircraft. As per army regulations there is no provision for payment of air travel for in-laws. We set this precedence and it was followed by my successors whenever there was any such case. The regiment paid for the air travels. One may argue that the in both above cases rules were compromised, but then so be it. That’s why we are soldiers, else there won’t be much difference between us and coded algorithms. It was also a question of setting precedence, but I thought this is least we could do for a fallen comrade.
All wars are won by great soldiers by setting precedence of extraordinary actions in the face of enemy for others to follow. My question to military leaders is that, if you expect these young officers to disobey conventions, set precedence of unparalleled bravery, are you not responsible to also set new precedence when it comes to standing for the men and their families. The rank badges you wear are not to make you slave of rules, but to keep it aside when you are required to stand for your men for ethical use of authority. There are numerous examples in history when precedence was set against the rules. We are the ones who make the rules; we are the ones who have to find the humane fine print between the lines. Your rank on your sleeves is given so that you have the power to read that fine print and take a decisions and stand by it. If you can’t – who will!
I am sad to say that military leadership has failed Col NS Bal, SC, in his death and set a precedence for future military generals to hide behind rules for not standing with the grieving families of soldiers. It is a precedence that has shown that military leadership of today is slave of rules and fear taking decision on such mundane issues. The military leaders must remember that wars are not fought by rules, wars are won by those generals who throw rules to the wind and disobey every convention.
Least the CDS, generals and marshals could have done is to give a ride to the old grieving parents to Bengaluru and not add agony to the grief by keeping them on road at this age for 3 days. It is unprecedented time, the old parents would have never asked for this small act of kindness from the organisation, had flights been operating. In fact military leadership is known for rising under such extraordinary situations. It would have been even a great cause for a general/ marshal to get sacked for doing this small act of kindness to a hero of this army. I am not judging, but we need to introspect that should military leaders set precedence for good cause or set precedence of being a slave to the rule books. Military Decisions can never be taken based on algorithms, Col NS Bal ,SC went beyond all textbook tactics to achieve his team objectives, I am afraid his leadership failed him and his parents when the time was right to reciprocate.
The time has come for the Generals to ponder on what Victor Hugo, a French poet, once said, “In history where goodness is a rare pearl, he who was good almost takes precedence over he who was great”
Rest in Peace Col Navot Singh Bal, Shaurya Chakra
Brig Narender Kumar is a Distinguished Fellow at Centre For Strategic Studies and Simulation United Service Institution of India New Delhi-110057 Twitter- @narry13