Army Doctor Transferred in Middle of Pandemic Says A Lot About India’s Civil-Military Ties

ile photo of CDS Gen Bipin Rawat visiting the Army Base Hospital in Delhi Cantt
File photo of CDS Gen Bipin Rawat visiting the Army Base Hospital in Delhi Cantt | Twitter/adgpi

In India’s military history, sacking a field commander during the course of a battle has been rare. Even if done, it is usually the judgement call of the top military leadership and not of a politician. That norm has now been shaken in a different type of war – by the sudden removal of Major General Vasu Vardhan, the Commandant of Delhi’s Army Base Hospital, who was a critical field commander in the military’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The authority to take such a decision rests with the defence minister. The official justification that it is a routine transfer and merely a part of a larger human resource management exercise will not fool anyone and is an insult to basic intelligence. The medical pedigree of Maj. Gen. Vardhan is impeccable. He is the topmost pulmonologist in the Army, a branch of medicine at the forefront of the war against the pandemic. His professional competence was not in question and he had only three more months to go before retirement. Some attempts are being made on social media to tarnish the image of Maj. Gen. Vardhan by questioning his administrative abilities.

From my personal interaction with several recovered Covid patients, it is clear that the Base Hospital’s handling of this challenging situation has been commendable. The performance of the hard-pressed staff has been widely praised.

There is definitely more than what meets the eye.

What about military ethics?

It is well known that the Commandant was faced with a severe shortage of beds, medical support facilities and staff. It is possible that the Commandant’s transfer was provoked by his resistance to accommodate non-entitled persons or provide critical medicines in short supply to persons not authorised but who perhaps were being sent by the Ministry of Defence with the Directorate General of Armed Forces Medical Service (DGAFMS) acting as a conduit. Such unreasonable demands could also have been made by the military. Whatever the actual detail, Maj. Gen. Vardhan stood his moral ground when asked to carry out actions that were unauthorised and violated ethical and professional standards.

The Commandant could have crossed paths with the Army brass, the political leadership, or both. If it was only with the Army, the Ministry of Defence would have certainly questioned the removal, and the file would never have been processed and cleared with such speed. Postings of Major Generals and above require the defence minister’s signature. Even if the Army leadership had objected to the move, they must have been overruled. But the military’s top leadership can be exculpated, only if they have put their objections in writing and tried to hold the hand of a subordinate who has taken an ethical stand. If the military has not objected in writing or the Ministry of Defence has decided despite written objections, then the matter suggests a certain degree of politicisation of the military and exposes the merging of military ethics with that of the civil society.

It can be reasonably assumed that after being Commandant of the Army Base Hospital for 18 months and with only three months to retire, it is a punishment posting. A tool that is well known and used to put people in their place, and which politicians routinely use to keep the civil services in check. Percolation of such practices into the armed forces would be severely harmful to its institutional culture, which is on a different plane altogether.

If the above explanation is indeed true, the Ministry of Defence’s actions are ethically questionable and bring to the fore the pathologies that afflict India’s civil-military relations.

An ethical failure

As explained in my column last week, the danger wrought by politicisation of India’s military is not so much of a coup, but one in which the constitutional gap between the military and party in power is narrowed and misused. Parenthetically, the medical component of the armed forces under the DGAFMS is placed directly under the defence secretary in the Department of Defence and all attempts to place it under the Integrated Defence Staff have been successfully thwarted. 

It is an open secret that due to structural proximity, over a period of time, the higher military medical fraternity has established a reciprocal and cosy relationship with the civilian power centres in the Ministry of Defence. The civilians are believed to be provided mostly unauthorised access to medical care especially in the premier Research & Referral (R&R) Hospital in Delhi. Reciprocally, postings, promotions and approval for premature retirement are taken care of.

The structural relationship of the medical services exposes the pathologies of the proximity and control in civil-military interactions. The recently created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and induction of uniformed personnel in integrated civil organisations like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) could be similarly infected if lessons learnt from the medical services experience is ignored. For, eventually, the ethical fibre of the uniform should not fray when blended with civilian moral values, which are far less stringent.

The Ministry of Defence has taken an action and is hiding behind a body of seeming falsehoods. Since the official reason is that it is a routine move, the file contents can be known through RTI. If the Army has not objected and the Ministry of Defence has also not questioned the move, the falsehood stands exposed. It also exposed if the Army has objected and the Ministry of Defence has overruled. Agreeably, once the defence minister has authorised the posting, the Armed Forces have no option but to implement it. 

Regrettably, it seems that the military leadership has opted to be part of the cover-up and this is reflected in its detailed official statement. The defence ministry and the Army’s reaction to the transfer of Maj. Gen. Vasu Vardhan signals to all others the price that they will have to pay if they do not bend even though their stand upholds the highest and precious value of the uniform – its ethical rectitude. The politico-military reaction is an ethical failure, the resonance of which will reverberate down the line.

Between obedience and conformity

The ultimate strength of India’s armed forces is its spirit of sacrifice, and of unfailingly placing the nation before self. While soldiers on the front line are duty-bound to risk their lives, the military leadership is expected to play a role as exemplars who protect the military institution from the negotiable morals that are frequently observed to be the normal fare in our society. It finally boils down to their willingness to sacrifice personal gain in terms of promotions and postings, which the civilians control.

The heart of the problem is the growing ability of politico-bureaucratic authorities to bend the rules and the simultaneous failure of the military leadership to stand their moral ground. Though Maj. Gen. Vardhan’s case can easily be dismissed as sui generis even as the official explanation passes it off as a routine HR move, the warning signs may be ominous. Over a period of time, such signals from the top hierarchy can only weaken the military’s ethical fabric leading to the moral factor losing its weight to reflect in personal behaviour. What requires to be understood is that obedience to authority and conforming to questionable morals are two entirely different things.

The potential toxic combination is of the political leadership’s inappropriate actions being supported by the ethical frailty of the higher military leadership. The combination could be dealt with by appointing a defence minister with a military background who is known for their ethical credentials and professional competence. In the existing ambience, the civil-military module requires political support to deliver quick and effective results. Fortuitously, unlike the dynamics of civil society, military’s special legal provisions and disciplined character make it feasible to rein in ethical weakness that could have seeped into its institutional culture. All it requires is for the higher military leadership to set an example and ruthlessly implement it.

There is indeed a fine line between obedience and conformity in civil-military relations. Obedience is mandatory but conformity by the military to the ethical value system of civil society could be deleterious to India.

Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. 

Views are personal.