A paradigm of our social norm aims for universal ‘good’. Sarva Jana Hitaya,cha our scriptures advocate, and also Sarva Jana Sukhaya Cha. Surely that seems to be a good goal to strive for. Unfortunately, both these words – hita (benefit) and sukha (happiness) – are subjective concepts. Benefit for an individual can often mean the opposite for a group that the individual belongs to. Choice of actions for an individual in such situations of conflict becomes a matter of personal ethics.
Our men in uniform constitute a group where loyalty to the immediate group forms the bedrock of it’s existence. This loyalty is nourished by a sense of justice prevailing over his immediate society that brings happiness and peace of mind to the individual soldier. If for any reason the soldier feels deprived of this sense of natural justice, it immediately affects his piece of mind. His commander cannot allow this to happen, as any reduction of faith on the supremacy of organizational justice impinges on the strength of loyalty of the soldier and reduces the inherent strength of the unit.
Unfortunately, the soldiers are also human beings; and as the saying goes, to err is human. Therefore sometimes situations arise through human failures where dispensation of equal justice to all becomes difficult. I remember one such occasion when I got into such an uncomfortable situation as a Commanding officer. The story was as simple as it was complicated.
I was commanding the Black Archers in Chandigarh. In November or December 1968 I was informed that I would have to relocate my unit from Chandigarh to Hindon. Such moves are common and are routinely executed. I was happy the the movement warning was given to me in good time. I had about three months to plan and execute the move. I loved my unit. It was a very happy outfit. So much so that seven out of my 12 married officers were expecting additions to their families. The first one had just arrived. The second was due in December. This child belonged to my Adjutant. I was included in the happy group too, but my child was expected in February. Both these happy events clashed with our planned movement activities. I advised my adjutant to send his wife for confinement under parental care while I arranged for Leena to go down to Kolkata and make my mother look after Leena’s confinement.
When my Adjutant went home to leave his wife under better care for her confinement, the charge of the adjutant’s office was temporarily passed to a young officer. Such temporary appointments are normal and forms a part of training for the young officers. As I have stated earlier, the move of the Archers was to be a fully planned peace-time action. Both the dispatching station Chandigarh and the receiving station Hindon were participating closely with each other for the move. In course of time, Hindon sent a query to Chandigarh asking for the number of married quarters that would be required by the Archers on their arrival at the new station. The query was referred to the Archer’s HQ by the station HQ. The query landed on the desk of this young officiating adjutant. On seeing the query, he picked up the telephone and spoke to the officer in charge officer’s married accommodation (O i/c OMA) for the station. The unit adjutant requested the O i/c to send a list enumerating all officer holding married accommodation and all officers on the waiting list for an allotment of married accommodation to Hindon. In the eyes of the young adjutant, he had responded promptly with a comprehensive and accurate list of requirement of accommodation to the next station. Unfortunately, he was wrong. The permanent adjutant had reasoned that since his wife was going away for a long period of time, and since she was certainly not required to come back to the old station after her confinement, it would be sensible for him to pack-up the household and hand his allotted quarters to the station. He had not inserted a request for an allotment of quarters at Chandigarh at a future date; he knew that by the time his wife would be ready to come back to him with the new born child, the unit would have moved to the new location. Thus when the Officer i/c Married Accommodation executed the telephonic instructions of the unit adjutant, the name of the permanent adjutant was omitted from the list of accommodation required that was sent to Hindon. This lacuna was not discovered until the unit arrived at the new location.
The new station tried to be as accommodating as possible. It had provided houses to every one mentioned on the list sent by the dispatching station. It was not their fault that no house was allotted to my adjutant, who also happened to be the senior most Flight Lieutenant in my unit. The fellow was disappointed, sad, and inconvenienced. On arrival, when we realized the Faux Pas, the only possible remedy was to offer him permission to live out under own arrangement in a hired house in the town. His working hours as the unit adjutant was normally longer than what it was for the other officers of the unit. His house was quite far from the station. There was a newborn infant at home. His only mode of conveyance was an old scooter. All in all, he was severely inconvenienced. To him it seemed to be an inequitable load dumped unfairly on him. By implication, the unit had failed to protect his rightful social dues. He did not complain officially. His performance was not affected by this unfortunate situation. However, his unhappiness was perceptible. It was not good for the unit.
As the commanding officer of the unit I found myself in an unviable situation. I did not like to accept denial of social justice to one of my officers. The station could not help me out; no permanent house for a Flight Lieutenant was vacant within the campus. I couldn’t alter the allotment of houses already announced and occupied without appearing partial between my officers. It was an ethical problem. The easy way out would have been to call in the aggrieved officer and to apologize for the hardship caused, talk to the station commander and arrange for an out of turn allotment of house to this officer at the next opportunity and accept the degraded environment for the interim period. I did not like to do that. Then an idea germinated in my mind. This could be, I thought, an opportunity to teach my boys the need for ethical action in military leadership.
I called for a meeting of the married officers of the rank of flight lieutenant. I explained the situation to them and explained how we had landed up in a situation wherein one or the other officer would feel deprivation of social justice. I then gave them a task. They were required to debate whether any corrective action was necessary and if yes then what that action to be. The decision had to be arrived at by consensus. Any and all decisions would be acceptable including one stating ‘no action necessary’. Once a decision was arrived at by consensus, they were to go home and talk to their wives. If any of the wives were unwilling to accept the officers decision then the decision would be considered null and void. In such a case, I would take my own decision and inform them about it. I then left them alone in the conference room and walked out.
It took my boys less than fifteen minutes to come to a decision. The junior most in protocol seniority for married accommodation ‘volunteered’ to give up his flat in the campus for the adjutant. He was at that moment with out a personal vehicle. He calculated his available resources and found that he will be able to buy a scooter. However, after such a purchase, he would be short of money to furnish the ‘security deposit’ that would be required to hire a civilian house. His friends pooled in and collected the sum required for hiring of his house. His newly married bride had no objection to this arrangement. Peace prevailed in the unit.