Major General Vasu Vardhan, by all accounts a competent pulmonologist and upstanding officer, was summarily moved out of Delhi’s Base Hospital on May 10

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: The recent abrupt transfer of the commandant of the Army Base Hospital in New Delhi, at the zenith of India’s deathly second COVID-19 wave has, once again raised the wider spectre of ‘fixing’ or penalising upright service officers. This ensues either from not being pliant to officialdom, from pique or simply for exhibiting dissent or even minor disagreement. Questioning and exposing dubious processes or flawed policy too provoked adverse consequences for these officers.

However, in this most recent lamentable instance, Major General Vasu Vardhan, by all accounts a competent pulmonologist and upstanding officer was, after a successful 18-month stint, summarily moved out of Delhi’s Base Hospital on May 10 to the nearby Army Hospital Research and Referral (AHRR), despite his imminent retirement in August.

At the AHRR, the Army Medical Corps (AMC) doctor has been appointed ‘additional officer’ – military euphemism for a ‘non-person’ – in what displeased serving and retired servicemen consider to be a ‘punishment posting’ which, over decades, has now become routine.

Media accounts speak approvingly of General Vardhan’s professionalism and uprightness. Besides being a capable medico, he is also credited with perseverance, and is believed to have not taken even a single day off in recent months when his hospital, like a myriad other across India overwhelmed with virus-infected patients, battled enduring paucities of medical and nursing staff, oxygen and medicine, amongst countless other handicaps. The only exception apparently was the few hours he took off lately to attend his mother’s funeral, resuming work immediately thereafter.

But the muffled frustration and anger this AMC officer’s transfer prompted, led to an Indian Army (IA) statement claiming that General Vardhan had been ‘sidestepped’ to a different assignment to assist him in ‘de-stressing and planning his superannuation’. Rarely known for either its sensitivity, thoughtfulness or consideration, the IA further added insult to injury by incredulously stating that General Vardhan’s transfer comprised an ‘important aspect of HR (human resource) management’.

In response, incensed IA officers dismissed this statement on social media as ‘laughable, ludicrous and to say the least, hilarious’ and questioned whether similar concessions would be acceded to all retiring officers. “Spare us the agony of hackneyed phrases,” declared a WhatsApp post by an unnamed army officer reacting to the IA statement.

A host of other servicemen privately admitted to The Wire that General Vardhan’s sudden removal and attachment to the AHRR was, in all likelihood ‘fixing’ an unpliable officer, who they believed had declined to ‘oblige’ a higher authority, in this instance reportedly a Ministry of Defence (MoD) official. They also warned that the transfer was also a ‘cautionary advisory’ to other serving AMC officers in deadly virus times to uncomplainingly oblige senior government officials, or face consequences similar to, or worse than, what has befallen General Vardhan.

Various explanations abound in the media and the fauji ‘langar’ regarding General Vardhan’s ‘fixing’, eventually coalescing on two accounts; he had refused to provide Remdesivir, the scarce antiviral medication for COVID-19, to an MoD official and other essential virus-related equipment to unnamed VIPs. These allegations remain unconfirmed, but many officers who opted obviously to remain unnamed, agreed that General Vardhan’s transfer was for these reasons and in no way conscionable three months before he retired.

Such arbitrariness was also inexplicable, particularly in the midst of a medically apocalyptic nationwide situation, in which the services planned on recalling hundreds of recently retired military doctors. Earlier retirees had also been requested to make available their services through emergency helplines to try and deal with the pandemic.

“There is a lot that takes place between the lines between the MoD and the services, all of which largely remains opaque,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). There is a significant amount of leveraging that is employed by ‘higher powers’, like the MoD, to secure favours from the services that are not strictly authorised, but slip easily through the cracks in the enduring spirit of quid pro quo, he added, declining to elaborate further.

It’s worth recalling that General Vardhan functions under the Directorate General of the Armed Forces Medical Services (DG-AFMS) which, in turn, operates under the Department of Defence (DoD) headed by the defence secretary. The IA’s adjutant general’s (AG’s) branch that issued the statement regarding General Vardhan’s sidestepping to the AHRR, too is under the MoD’s overarching umbrella. Hence, the stimulus for General Vardhan’s move could well have emanated from the MoD’s South Block corridors following his refusal to provide out-of-turn favours to some of its officials, but were implemented by the AG’s office. By the same yardstick, the transfer could have been prevented by the Army Headquarters, if it had wanted.

General Vardhan’s ‘fixing’, as indeed it appears to be, is by no means a rare occurrence.

Social military gatherings are often a storehouse of information regarding which officer has been ‘fixed’ via the ubiquitous Annual Confidential Report or ACR – the sole passport to promotions – and which one was on his, and now her, way up. It’s also no secret, especially in the army, that pressure on promotions up the greasy, pyramid-like edifice – determined in recent decades on decimal point weightage – had also spawned pitiless competition, initiating innovative approaches to career advancement.

Consequently, it was imperative for all concerned officers to notch adequate grades in their periodic assessments for career progression. Thus, amongst other professional measures, obsequiousness, servility and the effort to please superiors at all and any cost, played a major role. Former Indian Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash recently qualified these mercenary characteristics as an ‘indigenous cultural trait’. Conversely, writing on a news website, Admiral Prakash also conceded that many fine upright and non-pliant officers with obvious potential were denied promotions for either their ‘non-conformity or forthright views’, or both.

It is also surprising that despite the spate of higher defence management reforms, the notion of ‘fixing’ upright and non-pliant officers continues with their seniors, either taking the path of least resistance and choosing not to back them, or meekly opting to obey higher diktats as that, in turn, could be rewarding. This, however, becomes even more astounding as the military collectively posits itself as being distinctive and superior, operating by an elevated ethical and moral code, far higher than that directing the venal and nepotistic civil bureaucracy.

“It’s strange that over years both the military and civil officers are fellow travellers in this regard, using the same ploys to garner the rewards of high office,” said a retired three-star IA officer. He also conceded that competence, efficiency and uprightness ensured little or no immunity from either being ‘fixed’ or ‘chastened’, or at times a combination of the two.

Aberrantly, these assets in India’s officialdom eventually ended up perversely as the rationale for being penalised, he regretfully conceded. Sadly, that had led to a force of yes-men being in charge, he added, declining to be named for understandable reasons.