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The Rediff Special/Admiral J G Nadkarni (Retd)

There is not and never can be, such a thing as a ‘strike’ in any armed force; it can only be mutiny, with or without violence.

The punishment for mutiny has also been stated in unambiguous terms in the Act. Every person 'who joins in a mutiny...' or even 'does not use his utmost exertion to suppress a mutiny...' shall be punished with death...' Of course, one does not remember anyone being put to death in India for participating in a mutiny.

After the famous mutiny which took place in the Royal Indian Navy, later wishfully called 'a spontaneous patriotic uprising', the government appointed a Commission of Enquiry. Unlike today’s never-ending commissions this particular body submitted its report within three months. The concluding paragraph of the report stated, "We feel strongly that it must be brought home to the men of the Royal Indian Navy and indeed to all armed forces, that there is not and never can be, such a thing as a ‘strike’ in any armed force; it can only be mutiny, with or without violence."

Contrary to public belief, there have been any number of minor mutinies in India’s armed forces in the past 50 years. Fortunately most of them have been without violence. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi most mutinies are in the form of hunger strikes when participants refuse to take food. Except for a few, no mutiny has received publicity. Indeed with our distaste for facing problems head-on and ostrich-like penchant for looking the other way, we have euphemistically called them anything but a mutiny.

In the navy, for example, there was the infamous 'Topass mutiny' of 1970 when some sailors in the Western fleet refused to clean latrines after the abolition of the navy’s Topass branch. Bad man-management led to a similar type of mutiny on board the cruiser Mysore in 1972.

Mutinies bring both redressal and reprisal. The 1797 mutiny made William Pitt’s government sit up and take notice. More than 50 officers were sacked. At the same time, the ringleaders, led by one Midshipman Parker, were rounded up and treated very harshly. The Topass mutiny led to the repeal of the unpopular decision to abolish the Topass branch. The Mysore mutiny resulted in the appointment of a Board of Enquiry, as a result of which a large number of participants were sacked. It was also the end of career for a number of senior and promising officers.

In the case of airmen, although the government was quick to appoint a committee led by the defence secretary, there has been no news of action taken against the erring participants. Silent or secret action brings few results.

There have been any number of apologists for the recent events at some air force stations. Some have tried to blame it on the results of the Fifth Pay Commission. Some on the lack of leadership at the highest level. Some on the existing environment of laissez faire in the country.

If the technical officers and airmen felt they had been pushed to the wall to resort to these extreme but unwise measures, let them ponder over the condition of the Royal Navy seaman in the famous 1797 mutiny at Spithead.

Though hanging from the nearest yardarm is no longer the only punishment for such an offence, mutiny still has to be dealt with in the most expeditious way, and in the harshest possible manner. There can be no compromise on that score. Nor can it be argued that the matter be treated differently because the wives are involved. Though wives do not come under the Army, Navy or Air Force Act, they are a part and parcel of the service. They enjoy all of the serviceman’s perks and privileges. Therefore, by their action, they are directly responsible for their husbands’s careers.

These incidents have shown the true colours of the rebellious airmen. First, fearing reprisal, they had taken shelter behind their wives's pallus. Later, on finding the air force not taking any retaliatory action, they were emboldened to take up the cudgels themselves and gherao senior officers.

Unfortunately, the number of self serving and selfish officers today far outnumber the men of integrity and character. This is an extension of the problem facing the entire country. We need leaders who, instead of paying lip service to it, really embody the Chetwode code as enshrined in the Indian Military Academy and paraphrased below:

Your country first and foremost,
Your men next
Yourself last every time.

Admiral J G Nadkarni, the former chief of the naval staff, is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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