The much discussed message of the new Navy Chief outlining norms of behaviour and conduct expected from his force is just that – a message of expectation and intent from a Service Chief on assuming charge. Besides being a vehicle of communication, the message is a mentoring guide to serve as a reminder of what has always been the ‘normal’ and still continues to be, for the large majority of people in white.

          Readers are quick to draw interesting conclusions and make judgements on the way people in uniform are ‘behaving these days’. These tend to make sweeping generalisations of behaviour and by extension, of character. Regrettably, there have been instances of ‘deviant’ behaviour that may have come to be regarded by some others as ‘acceptable’ and therefore, this timely message from the Chief red-flags certain deviations. This, however, should not be interpreted to infer that such deviations are rampant and to use a new-age cliché, they are certainly not the ‘new normal’.

          “Stop Fawning, Needless Ceremony…” The media really knows how to point people in a direction that shapes opinion even before the unsuspecting reader has had a chance to read the first sentence. But a discussion is welcome. There cannot be smoke without fire. The question that begs answering is ‘Why do such deviations happen?’ ‘And what happens when they do happen?’ Honest answers to these questions will place the debate in perspective and reduce chances of ‘branding’ faujis as a ‘fawning set of people’, eager to please the brass.

          That the rank and file has been reminded of the proper social and ceremonial practices to be followed in the force is not new. Reminders are necessary as people change and times change; whereas defence forces are judged against more idealistic standards of behaviour and conduct than what is common practice in the civilian world. What is new is that this message has ‘leaked’ to the media in today’s age of pervasive media and the ease with which information flows at the tap of a screen. Any morsel of information today can become ‘breaking news’ and if such news can be given a controversial spin, the more its ‘newsworthiness’. Therefore, here we have a section of people concluding that the norms of Naval conduct have gone to such dismal depths that requires the Navy Chief to ask officers and men to behave or else…

          A reality check does indicate infrequent instances of personal conduct of individuals deviating from the normal. The majority of such instances are ‘seen through’ by discerning juniors and perceptive seniors. But if a person in a senior leadership position does not walk his talk, the junior often is left with just two options – bear it in frustrated silence or raise a fuss and kiss his prospects goodbye. It is easy to preach that unethical or incorrect conduct must not be tolerated but faced with this rather unpleasant choice, there are no prizes for guessing what a junior would do.

          The responsibility of ensuring correct practices lies squarely on the senior leadership. They have to walk the talk and create mechanisms to institutionalise these practices. Poor examples in the past have been the result of a feeling of ‘entitlement’ just by virtue of attaining a rank or position, heavily inflated egos, playing favourites or encouraging coteries, exercising undue interference over staff processes, a sense of self-aggrandisement where special treatment is demanded, senior officers’ wives often wielding a lot more influence over matters that should not even concern them and similar reasons – mostly to do with the exercise of power, influence and authority.       

  The fact that the majority of juniors are either not directly concerned with any misdemeanour at senior ranks, as well their preferred choice of silence and compliance also makes them complicit in deviation from norms. It is also entirely possible that grooming and mentoring of juniors on appropriate conduct needs improvement so that they can discern deviations and represent to their immediate senior. A system of ethical fearlessness and transparency is the call of the times. The onus is clearly on the top brass to set examples of propriety and demand the same from every individual down the line. Senior officers cannot afford to suffer selective amnesia and forget norms of conduct that they expect their subordinates to follow. They have to walk the talk and motivate subordinates to follow them through personal example. This is the only way that violated normals will be restored.