Date: 08/10/2013

Poor Civil-Military Relations-Root Cause Of Malaise?


Most democracies have struggled to find a balance in their civil - military relations. Unlike India, more seasoned democracies of the West have learnt to handle frequent disharmony between the two, owing to decades and centuries of deployment of their Armed Forces in Great Wars and more importantly at distant locations away from their home land. Refinements in processes of Command and Control were thrust upon them due to extraordinary circumstances including the post World War 2 occupation of Germany and Japan. This was managed and run by Military Officers who were suitably empowered and authorized by Heads of elected Governments of their respective countries. There were also occasions such as the Truman-Mac Arthur dispute, during the Korean War, which was seen as one of the most illustrative tools of the civil-military friction in the history of USA.

The Indian scene was quite the contrary. Along with independence came a series of Coup de'tat, in many of the Countries in our region. India alone stood as a shining example of a copy book democracy, with the Armed Forces remaining apolitical all the way. This is no mean achievement, especially given the fragility of so many of our neighbours who had to be subjected to Military intervention in their internal politics. But this 'harmonious' civil-military equation in India, came at a price. The civilian leadership right from Independence began to neglect the dire needs of both the serving and the retired Soldiers. (The term Soldier is used to encompass all three services and their men) Modernization of weapons and sensors, service conditions and health care of serving soldiers and the care that ought to be extended to retired soldiers through reemployment opportunity and compassion towards widows of war veterans etc continued to be accorded less priority.

The politician was never very comfortable with the strict traditions and dress codes that gave the military a distinct identity and character. Consequently,
the sanctity of civil -military relations were from time to time tested. Some of the notable events of conflict were, Nehru-Gen Thimmaya, Krishna Menon- Gen Thapar and later Indira-Gen Manekshaw. The military, however, conducted itself with dignity and discipline. Since the media was not intrusive and confidentiality of sensitive information was respected, matters of dispute remained in-house and appeared in print only when someone wrote a book, years after the event. Leakage of information outside the confines of the Defence Ministry was considered to be blasphemous acts.

Civilian control over the military went through periods of tension without violating the basic tenets of Command and control. Errant and less informed Defence Ministers with personal agenda did try to intervene in routine matters of administration,promotion and land acquisition/ disposal.In most cases direct access of the Chiefs to the Prime Minister, acted as a relief valve. Equilibrium was soon restored when needed.

The discomfort of the Politician continued to grow even as the quality of Politics and politicians deteriorated after mid 1970s'.In order to sequester the politician from assertive soldiers, the bureaucracy was increasingly given the responsibility to decide on most matters military. This was aggravated when some Prime Ministers also held the Defence portfolio in addition to many other Ministries. On such occasions, RRM's chosen to fire- fight on day to day activities, were quite incompetent and relied heavily on the bureaucracy. Consequently,the service Chiefs had to stand in queue to meet the Prime Minister. Earlier, they had the liberty to walk in and out of the PM's office when necessary.

After the Rajiv Gandhi era which enjoyed better civil-military relations, the country was subjected to a grave economic crisis which resulted in shelving of all major modernisation programmes for nearly a decade. Matters Military were relegated in priority till combat efficiency began to erode.

Another major factor that has had deleterious effects on civil-military relations is that Armed forces deployed to restore law and order in poorly administered and terrorism infested states of India including Kashmir, found themselves permanently deployed with no solution on the horizon. Troops so deployed are exposed to politicization owing to the nature of the environment and firsthand knowledge of political exploitation and machinations.

A series of events thereafter led to reduction of the status of the soldier in society: until Kargil restored some aspects of neglect, when the electronic media brought the war to the drawing rooms of our citizens.

The first serious review to study what led to Kargil was entrusted to late K Subrahmaniam, the well known expert on strategic affairs. The team formed under him consisted of experts drawn from the retired community as well as people of considerable experience in their respective domain. The then Government, ensured that the study was carefully vetted by a competent group of Ministers, who in turn formed Task forces to address the issues that would lead to successful implementation of the broad recommendations submitted by the Subrahmaniam Committee.

By a twist of fate, Tehelka expose exploded in the face of the ruling party. George Fernandes was forced to step down. The second 'coincidence' occurred at this point in time. The External Affairs Minister was given temporary charge of Defence. In a short stint, he proved that perhaps he was the most perceptive and far sighted Raksha Mantri that independent India had seen. He was an acknowledged scholar with a Military background and an author of one of the best written books on Defence of India. He had already appointed Arun Singh, former RRM in the Rajiv Gandhi Government as an advisor to EAM.

Arun Singh, was perhaps one of the few corporate honchos brought into Government, by Rajiv Gandhi, based purely on his passion for matters Military and unparalleled knowledge of how the Military and bureaucracy ought to function. The far sighted RM now holding fort for his colleague who had stepped down, promptly selected Arun Singh to head the Task Force on Higher Defence Management. Arun Singh had substantial knowledge on how the Ministry of Defence functioned and he had a rare insight into knowledge of the Military including its modernisation. Arguably, independent India had perhaps not seen a Civilian with this capability. He was also the leader of the team which produced a document titled The Committee on Defence Expenditure(CDE), for the VP Singh Govt. The only occasion when he came out of a self imposed ban, after his abrupt departure from Rajiv's cabinet.

Having been made the leader of the Task Force on Higher Defence Management, Arun Singh left no stone unturned to bring to light a whole range of changes and reforms that would have made India a very potent and effective force to reckon with.

Based on facts and drawing from experiences gained by developed nations of the West, this report contained far reaching reforms that made the bureaucracy and some uniformed officer, both serving and retired, very nervous. As long as Arun Singh continued as an Advisor in the South Block and the EAM was holding temporary charge of Defence, they worked as a well oiled team. Implementation of all the recommendations moved flawlessly and rather speedily. Red tape and delaying tactics at all levels were dealt with firmly and decisively. It appeared to be the turning point in Indian Military history. It was not to be.

The next episode is quite inexplicable. Prime Minister Vajpayee for reasons best known to him stopped the most important reform of all. Integrating the Armed forces under a single Chief, was stalled by him. All the progress made until then came to a dead halt.

Enter George Fernandes after he was cleared of all charges and Arun Singh quit his post as abruptly as he did, when he left Rajiv. Another coincidence? One will never know until one of the main actors writes about it one day.

The greatest opportunity to cleanse the system of all its malaise was thus lost. Needless to say no further reforms were carried out by the new Govt. The bogey of the CDS becoming an all powerful entity reappeared. Equations and pay and allowances of Soldiers were distorted. Post Vietnam- like scenes were witnessed on the streets of Delhi. Soldiers returning medals, the age row of a Chief and now the spectacle on Television on the VK Singh episode, which makes India look like a banana republic, are all symptoms of a disease caused by Poor Civil- Military relations.

The sad part is that, all of it was caused by uninformed Ministers, a leaderless bureaucracy which is equally uninformed on matters Military and conniving Soldiers who were too parochial and petty minded to waste a golden opportunity for reforms.

No reforms of the armed forces have been successfully planned and executed by the Soldiers themselves. They have been thrust upon them, ala, Maggie Thatcher, the Iron Lady and the Gold Water Nichols act in USA.

As Arun Singh often said, "Those who have vision have no power and those in power lack vision on matters Military".

(Suresh Bangara, former C-IN-C of Southern Naval Command and presently Vice President Nav Bharat Democratic Party.)


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