Indian cricket great Sachin Tendulkar with former Chief of Air Staff Pradeep Vasant Naik

The Armed Forces will become popular as a career only if service conditions are imporved. Bestowing honorary military ranks on civilians will serve no purpose

The Services uniforms and ranks which are synonymous with sacrifice are earned at the cost of foregoing family and social comforts and above all, the will to shed the last drop of blood for the Nation; and about which Mark Burnett, British film and television producer has said, “When I see someone in a military uniform, I make it a point to approach them, shake their hand and say thank you for your service.” But sadly these are displayed as a ‘fancy dress’ by those who have been conferred with the ‘honorary military ranks’ (HMR); during some odd occasions to show their hollow solidarity with the Armed Forces (AF).

Inherited from the British era, the tradition of honouring civilians in recognition of their services to the Nation has continued after Independence and so far 40 civilians have been officially granted the HMR; the initial recipients being JRD Tata, Singhania, Surjit Singh Majithia and so on.

Needless to say, a great degree of care, objectivity and deliberation was exercised in selecting suitable candidates of whom only 32 were awarded in the first 60 years.

But the last decade has witnessed arcane dilution and relaxation of norms leading to a sudden spate that the AF have gone full throttle and have included eight more in the distinguished ‘roll of honour’ list. Incidentally, three of them happen to be cricketers, and others include an Olympic shooting gold medalist, cinema stars, a physician and a politician.

Surprisingly, by stretching this gesture or shall I say, by flouting the norms, a few local formations have granted these ranks on their own leading to further erosion of the prestige of the ranks.

Also, the tussle of granting this rare distinction is between the Army and the Air Force, while the Indian Navy has been relatively more judicious.

Prima facie, the practice appears to be lopsidedly riddled with a number of lacunae.

First of all, showing extra favour to cricketers sounds grossly biased and partial especially when seniors whose contributions have been at par with these recipients, if not more, are overlooked.

Let us look beyond the ‘willow’ and see that we have equally deserving claimants in other sports as well; Dhanraj Pilley, Dhyan Chand, Vishvanathan Anand, and above all, Leander Paes who holds 54 world doubles titles.

One wonders the wisdom behind sharing the hard-earned respect and fast shrinking privileges with others. This logic is vainly defended with the need to motivate the youth to opt for the AF.

Conversely, going by the recruitment statistics of the last decade, it becomes evident that this has had no such impact because we are still confronted with a critical deficiency of officers in the AF, pegged at 15 per cent,12 per cent and 3 per cent in the Army, Navy and the Air Force respectively.

One would also like to know the ‘return contributions’ that have been made by these awardees to the Services; have any welfare initiatives been launched for the families of the martyrs or the veterans or did anyone ever care to visit our borders to meet the jawans?

Has Group Captain Sachin Tendulkar during his six years in the Rajya Sabha ever raised any questions about the welfare and the modernisation of the AF? The answer to all these questions is a big, fat no. This leads us all to believe that the practice is futile.

Do the AF require outsourcing when they have their own living war heroes- including three living Param Veer Chakra (PVC) holders and the sports legends whose sacrifices and contributions could be circulated to motivate the youth.

Milkha Singh is a case in point; it was only after his biopic that the nation, at last, discovered the forgotten legend who in spite of his monumental achievements, had to contend with a promotion to a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO). Similarly, Vijay Kumar, a valiant Infanteer who bagged silver in shooting during the 2012 Olympics and others who won 10 medals including four golds during the recently concluded Common Wealth Games (CWG) have been forced to be content with the promotion to a JCO. In fact, these individuals deserve to be honoured with the HMR.

As a redeeming act, the least the Government can do is honour Milkha Singh. Alternatively, if at all the Government still considers continuing with this policy, we must rehash the selection criteria, instead of always going ahead with the ‘popularity clause’.

We must reward those civilians who have been supporting and relentlessly pursuing the professional and the welfare causes of the AF. And if we go by this criterion, should we not award Biju Patnaik (former Chief Minister of Odisha), who piloted the first DC-3 Sortie carrying troops to quell the Pakistani attack in Kashmir in October 1947? Another person who deserves this honour is Rajeev Chandrasekhar, whose service to the AF as a Rajya Sabha MP has been monumental.

The regular military officers starting as Subalterns get promotions in a hierarchical sequence on a time scale or selection basis, whereas civilians are directly commissioned as Lt Col/Col and equivalent resulting in adverse effects on the morale of the regular cadre who earn these ranks after clearing stringent service conditions, examinations and strict appraisals.

Incidentally, the AF is the only institution that is unilaterally bent upon demeaning their ranks. Contrary to this, the civil services have not yet shared their privileges with others and have maintained their sanctity. Have we ever seen any honorary IFS, IAS or IPS officers?

We must keep in mind that it is not by dilution of status and sharing of military privileges, but by improving the condition of the Services and granting rightful benefits to military personnel that the AF will be more attractive for the youth and be more popular.

The onus lies with the Government to expedite pending modernisation, professional and welfare projects. In order to salvage the lost glory, the honorary officers must come under the ambit of the ‘performance clause’ and their retention must be periodically reviewed. Of late, the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) has scored over the AF in terms of popularity.

The CRPF and the BSF appointed some celebrities as their ‘brand ambassadors’. This concept is more viable, practical and cost-effective as their retention can be periodically reviewed and fresh faces can be inducted, unlike the HMR holders who become a perennial burden or liability for the AF.