Lesson In leadership from new Navy chief

Admiral Karambir Singh, who assumed command as Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) last month-end, has put out “elaborate directives aimed at curbing subservient behaviour, restricting certain ceremonial practices and ensuring equality among the ranks.”  The directives vary from the standard of cutlery and the quality of food based on rank to practices that are not official protocol but have acquired the status of protocol – like wives of officers standing up when seniors arrive at a function. All of the practices sought to be stopped serve to reinforce separation of rank and servitude to the superior in various activities, functions and day-to-day activities of the Indian Navy. The significance of these changes cannot be overstated.

Shorn of all the reasoning that is offered in its support – from the functional to the more fancy and exotic – the system is an insult to the people of India, to our democratic traditions and is a living example of how we as a nation have been unable to fully break away from the chains imposed on us by the British.

That they have come in barely a week after Admiral Singh took over as CNS signals that the Navy Chief comes in from a clear point of view that abhors undue and unnecessary ceremony and servility associated with hierarchy. His position deserves to be supported and the CNS must be congratulated for launching his term with such a momentous announcement.

Undue obsequiousness coupled with undue ceremony (not to speak of exploitation of juniors) is certainly seen a lot in the defence services but is by no means limited to the services. It remains the curse that is all prevalent in the deep recesses of our oversized bureaucracy and it hurts in ways that are not always seen or fully understood. Shorn of all the reasoning that is offered in its support – from the functional to the more fancy and exotic – the system is an insult to the people of India, to our democratic traditions and is a living example of how we as a nation have been unable to fully break away from the chains imposed on us by the British.  Very few among the rank and file have been able to take a stand against these entrenched practices and interests. The standard practice is to protect and preserve privileges, however obscene they are.

Of course, change is not easy and issues are complex, particularly in the defence services, as was seen recently in the way questions were raised on the “sahayak” system in the Indian army which pairs an officer with a “buddy” who helps the senior with his everyday duties, including duties like waking up the officer in time for PT, walking the dogs etc. – in short, a de facto  personal attendant. The fact that a soldier raised a stink on social media by pointing out that he was made to polish shoes, and the fact that the system in essence continues, tells us about what this means to the army and that fixing this obvious malady is not as easy as it might look from the outside. In such a system, senior voices are important, all attempts at change need support and voices from outside the system must equally be encouraged to probe, ask and debate. In that sense, the voice of the new CNS marks an important milestone in the journey to greater professionalism in the services.

Consider some other examples of how heriarcy is enforced and exploited in the Indian system in general, not necessarily in the defence services. A Director General of Police and Additional Director General of Police get as many as six orderlies each. The Bombay Police Manual of 1959 describes the number of orderlies “for personal attendance on officers of the police department” -- policemen who are reduced to servants. Superintendents of Police are allotted three orderlies; an Inspector General of Police is allotted four. In the Reserve Bank of India, senior officers are allotted personal attendants called ‘jamadars’. They wear ceremonial uniform and are expected to hold the door, carry the bag and generally attend to the personal needs of the officer. The senior-most ‘jamadar’ is allotted to the Governor.

The fact that a soldier raised a stink on social media by pointing out that he was made to polish shoes, and the fact that the system in essence continues, tells us about what this means to the army and that fixing this obvious malady is not as easy as it might look from the outside. In such a system, senior voices are important, all attempts at change need support and voices form outside the system must equally be encouraged to probe, ask and debate. In that sense, the voice of the new CNS marks an important milestone in the journey to greater professionalism in the services.

Not even the very dynamic Raghuram Rajan, who has presumably grown-up seeing the use of orderlies since his father was a senior IPS officer, deemed it fit to scrap this false sense of ceremony and utterly wasteful and ugly misuse of people. In the railways, another system that is full of all manner of attendants, it was only earlier this year that the board decided to scrap positions such as cook, butler, bearer, server, jamadar, porter, helper, safaiwala, mali, duftary and the like. The roles continue under new designations that hopefully will set the course for better utilisation of these employees.

The idea of orderlies and in general the use of officially paid and hired servants (that is what this amounts to) originates from the time of the East India Company and the British in India. The thinking at the root of this is well captured in "Observations and Remarks on the Dress, Discipline of the Military", a booklet attributed to an officer from Bengal. The writer notes in a section titled “Orderlies”: “In India, every native…is either a tyrant or a slave…(to whom)…the idea of general liberty, or the natural equality of man, (is) totally incomprehensible or incongruous…when he regards the several distinctions of ranks…as the prescribed ordination of God himself...the strongest security…for regulation of public manners is obtained.” Ranks were to be worshipped, and orderlies preserved, promoted and protected the hierarchy. But even in those days, there was misuse and the “wanton and too general use of sepoys as orderlies” was prohibited.  In 2013, a Parliamentary Committee under Venkaiah Naidu called the orderly system in police forces “quite discriminatory and reminiscent of British colonial era which affects the morale of the forces personnel”. It recommended that the system be abolished completely, forthwith, as recommended by Sixth Pay Commission. The system of course continues.

None of the changes mean that discipline in services that seek to free themselves form the colonial hangover will be marred. As the CNS has correctly pointed out, juniors are expected to be disciplined and respectful but not subservient. The new culture, if implemented well and with national support, will free the leadership of a repugnant culture of yesmanship, will bring up more ideas and advice on the table and pave the way for leadership that can engage with a diversity of ideas. Military hardware can be bought for money but a change is culture that runs deep and challenges a century and more of bad customs needs to be built form inside, brick by brick. That is why this is a challenging change but its rewards will be as deep and long lasting.

(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)