Gallantry Awards: need for common yardstick
by Surjit Singh on 02 Feb 2009 5 Comments

“Honours and awards distinguish the mediocre. While the superior are embarrassed by them, the decoration itself gets devalued when awarded for lesser deeds”

The Param Vir Chakra (PVC) and the Ashok Chakra (AC) are the highest gallantry medals awarded in India. The essential wording for both these decorations is the same; they are granted for “most conspicuous bravery or act of daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice…”

The only difference between these two supreme decorations is that while the PVC is granted for acts against the enemy, the AC is given for similar acts in peace time. The investiture ceremony of both these medals is performed on the Republic Day parade and the monetary compensation admissible is of the same order.

Till date about 40 brave hearts have received AC, though we do not have a comprehensive list of their names readily available. The PVC awards are well documented, and only 21 soldiers have been awarded the highest decoration so far:
# From 1947 to 61 : Six (including one in Congo)
# The 1962 Indo-China Conflict : Three
# The 1965 Indo-Pakistan War ; Two
# The 1971 Indo-Pakistan war : Four
# Clashes with Pakistan in Siachen and Kargil : Six

Statistically speaking, in the 61 years since independence, exactly 61 men have qualified for the highest honour; one per year. Now, if eleven persons receive it in 2009, it is surely a significant departure from the norm!

Norms for Evaluating Courage and Valour

Those who have dealt with the Pay Commissions understand the systematic manner in which jobs are evaluated and functional relativities established to assign pay-scales to different posts. No such exercise has been conducted for measuring or estimating bravery or courage. Perhaps it is not possible to do it either.

But, over the years, the military has evolved some kind of general norms for grant of medals and decorations which has found general acceptance. These decorations are granted to individuals, but it is well known that the award recognizes the action of the unit and the regiment to which the soldier belongs.

Thus, when a medal is granted, the whole unit is proud of it, since no one fights alone. The overall number is kept within limits to retain the sanctity of the award. Thus, if four PVCs were awarded in 1971, it roughly signifies the importance attached to that war. Notice that the above pattern reveals a balanced picture.

Now, if we give eleven ACs in a single year, it seems to convey the impression that during the last year the threat to national integrity was three times more than what we faced in the 1971 war. Would any one buy that story?

Tyranny of the Printed Word and Television

The Mumbai episode was blown out of proportion for two reasons. One, the two affected hotels entertain high-profile guests and two, the media coverage.

The general public was led to believe that something of great significance had happened. The 10-odd irregulars were able to instill fear of a greater magnitude than the entire armed forces of our adversary! And then politics took over. The results are there for everyone to see. We have created an imbalance, the ripples of which will take quite some time to fade out.

Disregarding the courage of valiant survivors

There is another more serious imbalance in this list. All eleven medals have been awarded posthumously. Was there not a single man who showed courage and survived to tell the tale?

There seems to have been a definite bias towards ‘martyrs’ while preparing the lists. It may be noted that of the 21 PVCs awarded so far, six were granted to soldiers not killed in action. (One of the six survivors succumbed to frost bite in Chinese captivity).

This was equally true of the Victoria Cross (VC) awarded by the British. More than one-third awards went to living soldiers. In fact, three went on to win a second VC. It deserves menton that it needs greater skill to survive in the midst of fire than to fall victim to bullets. At the Academy they taught us: “A good soldier does not die for his country. He makes the enemy die for his!”

Need to evolve a Common Standard for Gallantry Awards

Courage cannot be measured, weighed or counted. Awards are, and will forever remain, the exclusive preserve of the personages who sit on the awards committees. But just as we have, as a nation, evolved grades for jobs and posts, and also created a ceremonial table of precedence for apex ranks, it is imperative that some standards be created for determining gallantry awards.

I do not know whether military officers form part of the committee that determines the winners, but if they are not represented on the awards committees, this is a serious lacuna. Getting killed or wounded in an ‘operation’ cannot be the sole determinant of valour or courage and must not be allowed to become a dominant factor in granting supreme gallantry awards.

And if media coverage is allowed to sway awards committees, then soldiers who perform similar feats under the following situations will remain unrewarded in preference for acts of ‘conspicuous’ bravery:

# Counter insurgency in remote areas where a low-intensity war has been continuously raging for the last four decades and several hundred soldiers are killed or wounded every year. The press and the media give them scant coverage. A soldier getting killed in the Valley gets less than two column centimeters in our national newspapers. 

# Pilots of service aircraft perform heroic actions as a routine. On an average, ten to twenty of them make the ‘supreme sacrifice’ every year. The fighter pilots have the option to ‘eject’ and save themselves, but many of them die in an effort to save the aircraft or prevent it from crashing in populated areas to save civilian casualties. Many others make miraculous landings on damaged aircraft. Each one of them deserves an Ashok Chakra.

# Officers and men who live and operate in high altitude areas face avalanches and landslides routinely. In a single incident in Sikkim in 1982, a whole company was washed away in a flash flood. Several vehicles fell into ravines. Soldiers performed heroic acts to save the victims and salvage war-like equipment. But there was no one, not even birds and animals, to see and recognize their valour. And so they remain unsung.   

# Naval divers go deep into the water on rescue missions. But that is considered a part of their duties. 

Care and consideration for the Living

In the last few years, the balance has tilted in favour of those killed in action or otherwise. There was a time when we used to raise money for the widows of soldiers who died of illness or were killed in accidents, since there was no provision of ‘family’ pension. The pendulum has swung the other way now. The State now bends backwards to look after widows. Their numbers are small, so the government can afford it.

But when it comes to living veterans, our government holds back. The past pensioners get crumbs. The government neither has jobs for them nor proper pensions. And when soldiers die of malnutrition, the family pension is even lower. The families could be justifiably envious of those who died or were killed in the field areas. The need of the hour is to do something for “jo laut ke ghar aa gaye” The present situation is reminiscent of the old saying “Haathi zinda laakh ka; mara sawa lakh ka” (When artifacts were carved out of elephant tusks, the living one was cheaper than the dead beast)

Summing Up

Life is a series of waves. Events swing from one extreme to the other. A few years ago the “Padma” awards went berserk. The list of “Bharat Ratnas” was verily drawn from the political party in power. Then someone went to the court and the award itself got discontinued. Now it has been restored, but has lost its sheen.

Neither the press nor the public takes any notice of a “Padma Shri.” It is my fond hope that the gallantry awards do not meet the same fate. The marching columns in the Republic Day Parade this year were reduced to create space for the award of 11 Ashok Chakras. Now, if all States and political parties start demanding their share in the largesse based on current norms, we may have no parade next year. The “investiture ceremony” might consume all the time available!

My own solution is, “Please involve military officers in all decisions related with security of our country.” This is far more important than “One Rank One Pension” and resolution of pay anomalies. In fact, non-inclusion of a service member is the root cause of much that ails our system.

Major General Surjit Singh (retd), AVSM, VSM, is a distinguished soldier and has been the Army Member of the Pay Commission; his email is

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