Date: 21 Feb 2009


Revisiting civil-military relations: The ever supplicant 'fauj' in India

http://www.southasi amonitor. org/2008/ Nov/news/ 1ip1.shtml

C Uday Bhaskar


[Over the years, the Indian military as an institution has been progressively downgraded in the hierarchy of government and within the caste-system of the state]
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Since independence, India's civil-military relations have always been perceived as the exception to the rule, specifically in the regional context. Neighbouring states such as Pakistan and Burma experienced different kinds of military domination over the civilian establishment. Even Bangladesh, after the assassination of Mujibur Rehman in 1975, joined the norm and the military became the dominant constituency.

This distinctive Indian trait, wherein the military internalised the tenet of civilian political supremacy in a seemingly chaotic but robust democracy, has been the subject of considerable study and has on occasion been referred to as a 'puzzle'. Many complex reasons have been advanced for this abiding pattern of the emergence of a totally apolitical and professional military. This even endured during the brief interregnum of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi where in fairness to her, she made no attempt to involve the Army in her support.

The credit for ensuring this sanctity of civilian political primacy must go to the early Indian leadership - both political and military - who were influenced by the Gandhian spirit of the times. Then General KM Cariappa, the first Indian Army Chief, symbolised the apolitical and subordinate stance which the nascent Indian military leadership readily accepted as an article of faith. In contrast to what was happening in Pakistan where the Army loomed large, Pandit Nehru and his colleagues such as Sardar Patel and Rajagopalachari, among many others, had a stature and aura that commanded enormous admiration across the country.

In retrospect, it may be said that in the early decades, the concept of civilian supremacy to thwart a possible coup was taken to extreme ends, and the civilian elite kept the Indian 'fauj' at a disdainful distance. Perceived as the last vestige of the Raj, the Colonel Blimps were confined to the cantonments and Nehru is alleged to have famously observed that free India with its commitment to peace did not need a large military - which was necessary at best for aid to civil power during natural calamities and ceremonial duties to receive visiting heads of state!

The first 15 years of the civil-military relationship were strained at the political level and Nehru's left-leaning defence minister, the acerbic Krishna Menon, exacerbated the divide. Concurrently, the senior bureaucracy ensured that the military was progressively nudged out of the framework of higher defence management. The original Ismay Plan had envisioned the creation of a top military structure that would advise the political leadership directly while allowing for commanders-in- chief to look after operational duties. In an ill-advised move, the service chiefs of the time opted to wear both hats - that of individual C-in-Cs of their respective services and simultaneously Chiefs of Staff.

This led to the gradual distancing of the military as an institution from the Government of India. This is how Admiral Arun Prakash (retd), till recently Chairman Chiefs of Staff and Chief of Naval Staff, opines of the original Ismay intent:

"However, not only did this not happen, but within a short period of its implementation, the senior civil servants of that period intervened to completely distort the concept of 'civilian supremacy' to give it their own interpretation of 'bureaucratic control' over the armed forces. This was done by the simple expedient of designating the three Service HQ as 'Attached Offices' of the Department of Defence, giving them (as per the GoI Rules of Business) a status exactly on par with organisations such as the Salt Commissioner, Commissioner for Handicrafts, Central Reserve Police Force…"

Inept political handling of the Army in particular culminated in the debacle of the 1962 war with China, and soon thereafter, the political apex realised that the morale of the military had to be restored and the widely respected and quietly competent YB Chavan assumed office as the defence minister.

During his tenure, there was regular institutional contact between the minister, the service chiefs and the senior bureaucracy of the ministry, with the cabinet secretary also participating on occasion. But this normative style of functioning was short-lived and was enabled more due to the persona of Chavan.

The institutional chasm between the military and the civilian leadership grew and Indira Gandhi's own political insecurities did not allow an able and visible defence minister to emerge on the Indian scene. It was perhaps this chasm that led to the Indira Gandhi-Sam Manekshaw exchange in early 1971 about how to conduct the war for Bangladesh.

But paradoxically, even Manekshaw, for his characteristically confident posture, when it came to purely professional military advice, accepted the dictum of political supremacy and told the prime ministers that he would resign without a murmur if she so desired it. To her everlasting credit, Indira Gandhi went along with the military advice rendered to her and the rest is history.

It is instructive that the civilian establishment took the same Manekshaw, who gave India its most decisive military victory to task, for his off-the-cuff remark about what would have happened if he had opted to go to Pakistan after partition, and relegated him to obscurity till his demise in July this year.

India has had almost four decades of conventional peace barring the 1999 Kargil war, and while the Indian Army has been increasingly tasked with internal security duties, the military is still marginal to higher defence management and has little direct say in foreign policy or internal security formulation. Civilian control, increasingly exercised by the bureaucracy - be it the Ministry of External Affairs or the Defence Ministry - is the prevailing pattern and is a far from desirable situation. It is pertinent that the Kargil Committee Report headed by the doyen of the Indian strategic community, K Subrahmanyam, observed rather caustically:

"India is perhaps the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are outside the apex governmental structure…the present obsolete system has perpetuated the culture of the British Imperial theatre system of an India Command, whereas what we need is a National Defence HQ…the status quo is often mistakenly defended as embodying civilian ascendancy over the armed forces, which is not the real issue. In fact, locating the Service HQ in the Government will further enhance civilian supremacy."

Over the years, the Indian military as an institution has been progressively downgraded in the hierarchy of government and within the caste-system of the state that has evolved, the civil servant of IAS pedigree being the truly blue-blooded, twice-born Brahmin with the IFS diplomat as a distant second. Among the uniformed fraternity, the police as represented by the IPS is emerging as the more preferred career option and this is reflected by the fact that the Indian Army alone has a shortage of over 11,000 officers, while the number of young Indians who aspire to join the civil services and the IPS is growing.

If the institutional interface between the Indian military and the civilian dispensation as represented by the political apex and the higher bureaucracy is limited, it is non-existent with the elected representative. Today the defence ministry and the defence secretary mediate almost all civil-military interaction and the ' fauj ' remains the eternal supplicant. The total subordination of the Indian ' fauj ' by the civilian entity is in direct contrast to the primacy that the Pakistani counterpart has appropriated. Neither exigency is desirable for the equipoise that is being sought.

The Friday Times, 17-23 October 2008.