"Army or Armed Mob"?: A Point to Ponder

Discipline in the army, as I knew it
Kamran Shafi
The News, August 26, 2006

Or shall we call it the 'rule of law' that I saw as a young officer in this same army, in which these days if a traffic policeman issues a ticket to a young officer he risks being thrashed by a truck-full of troops which the young lout will have whistled up from his unit lines (this happened to a motorway policeman some years ago). When, indeed, witnesses who might cite an officer for a breach of the law will themselves be dealt with in a harsh manner such as the Multan shopkeeper whose shop was declared out of bounds for all ranks in military parlance just because he sided with a traffic policeman who tried to stop two young officers from riding their motor-cycle up a one-way street.

I was commissioned in May 1966 and because of the just-ended 1965 war found myself promoted to lieutenant within six months, in which lofty rank I very soon found myself the senior subaltern of my battalion, a venerated old unit, then 166 years old. The senior subaltern was a thankless and awful position to find oneself in, in normal circumstances; give it the war and new officers joining units every few months and it was absolute hell. We got two in quick succession -- to speak the truth pretty wild boys -- and by golly did they give me a tough time.

The senior subaltern was answerable to the adjutant for the younger lot's good behaviour in and outside the mess. And so it came to be that virtually every weekend, and sometimes during the week, I was to be found on my bicycle trying to run the two to ground, let us call them 'G' and 'J', whenever they were found missing at dinner in the mess, or when they didn't appear at all, or when they were reported missing from their rooms for any length of time. There was not a police post or police station in Sialkot and environs that I did not know backwards, having been there looking for the two on the off chance that they had been arrested. It was with great relief that we moved to Marala a year later.

And why do you think I went to all the trouble? Simply because, if so much as a police report; not FIR, please mark, arrived in the unit, let alone the CO who lived somewhere up there in the clouds for us lower forms of animal life, the adjutant would have had my hide. What would have happened to G and J was something we could not even imagine. Indeed, most units would have been turned upside down if the police so much as complained about one or two of their officers. It would be unthinkable in those days. For the only thing that mattered to officers was the good name of their units. It was such an imperative to stay above things like traffic tickets or FIRs or being hauled off to the police stations that it was mandatory for all ranks to have lights on their bicycles at night and if someone did not have a bicycle with a light he carried a torch gripped on the handle bar.

How things have slipped, indeed fallen, that today army officers can indulge in the sort of hooliganism such as the incidents narrated above. The point to note, however, is that not only are individual officers less disciplined and more free-wheeling than we ever were, they are actually aided and abetted by their seniors. This is the most shameful aspect of it all. Individual officers can make mistakes, might indeed behave like yahoos at times: they can always be dealt with for there is a section in the manual of Pakistan Military Law for every infringement under the sun. The situation becomes alarming when the higher command gets involved on the side of the transgressing officers.

As an example, how did the shop in Multan get placed out of bounds for all ranks without orders from the local highest commander under whose command the military police work, and whose remit it is to place establishments/areas out of bounds or otherwise? Indeed, how did the officer who had the motorway policeman thrashed manage to fill an army truck with soldiers and have them driven from the unit lines to the police lines where the beating took place? It is not easy to "commandeer" army trucks and drive them out of the mechanical transport parks because every single trip has to be authorised on paper.

Quite obviously, this sort of behaviour springs directly from the fact that the army considers itself above the law for the reason that it recognises its pre-eminence in the country. And with good reason too, for who can blame a young captain for thinking he is superior to a police official when he sees prime ministers and great big ministers bowing and kowtowing to his superiors? Indeed, so many times has the army taken over the country that young officers might be forgiven if they think that it, and therefore they, rule the roost.

This is not a good place for the army to be, for it is bad for the single most important attribute that differentiates an army from an armed mob: discipline. It is time the general headquarters sat up and took notice of infringements that not only give the army a very bad name, they have a deeply demoralising and damaging effect on everybody.

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