The run-up to this year’s Republic Day 2022 was muddied by political discord triggered by the merging of the Amar Jawan Jyoti flame at India Gate, consecrated in January 1972, with the equally hallowed flame at the National War Memorial (NWM) that was erected in 2019. The Opposition Congress party castigated the Narendra Modi government for what it described as the “extinguishing” of history and cast aspersions on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s comprehension of patriotism and sacrifice.
Fifty years worth of memories associated with the eternal flame to the unknown Indian soldier of the 1971 war and going back to World War I (1914-18) will be a closed chapter. A chequered colonial past will now be merged into the contemporary narrative of an independent India and while the rationale is persuasive, the implementation was peremptory. However, the acrimony that has arisen could have been avoided if the government had sensitised the country about this decision when the NWM was formally unveiled and also forged a national consensus in this regard.
The current political contestation in India over matters pertaining to national security and the military is unfortunate, but predictable. In most democracies, the military as an institution and its historical trajectory are often mediated by a larger political compulsion, driven by short-term electoral considerations. Civil-military relations have been the subject of considerable debate in recent decades and every major democracy has forged its own template. The Indian experience is instructive for the policy cues that can be gleaned.
When the R-Day parade, with its traditional pomp and pageantry, marched along a renovated Rajpath on Wednesday, the focus was on the Indian military — an institution committed to defend the nation and flag unto death and which owes its allegiance to the Constitution -– the sacred covenant that the people of India adopted in January 1950. India’s 75th year of Independence will also be celebrated this year, and the correlation between the Indian democratic experience and the military needs recall and review.
Post Independence and the trauma of Partition, the Indian ‘fauj’ was called upon in late 1947 to defend the territorial integrity of free India in Kashmir; but for the gallantry of the Indian Army and Air Force, the political map of India may have been different from what it has been for the last 75 years.
In the intervening decades, the Indian military remained professional and apolitical — in contrast to the experience in many post-colonial nations. The 1960s were a period when military coups were not uncommon and Pakistan and Myanmar (then Burma) are illustrative.
While this anxiety was latent during the Nehru years, the track record of the Indian fauj was exemplary in its professionalism, gallantry and apolitical orientation. The core tenet of a normative democracy, civilian supremacy, has been internalised and the Indian Army, the lead service, remained steadfast in its commitment to these principles and values.
However the civil-military equation has been disturbed on occasion and this has proved detrimental to the larger national interest, as was the case in the events related to the pre-1962 period. Then defence minister VK Krishna Menon shared an uneasy relationship with the Army top brass and encouraged a degree of sycophancy by creating a small clique of officers loyal to him. The net result was a civil-military dissonance, which culminated in the October 1962 humiliation that India suffered in the brief border war with China.
Swift correctives were applied and YB Chavan was appointed defence minister in November 1962 to clean the stables. The China experience served as a caution to the political leadership to restore professionalism within the Army and maintain the necessary equipoise in the civil-military relationship. Subsequently, the emphatic Indian victory in the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh restored national confidence and burnished the profile of the military.
Institutional competence and integrity in India have been progressively diluted or compromised by overt political interference over the decades and the current state of the civil services and the police is indicative of this. Uncritical deference by the senior bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies to the executive and a display of ‘loyalty’ to the ideology of the political party in power (whether at the Centre or in the states) are now par for the course. A similar pattern is now becoming discernible in the judiciary and the erosion of professional rigour by crass political interference in Indian academia is cause for deep dismay.
The Indian military remains relatively insulated from this visible politicisation but certain trends are disturbing. Encouraging unctuousness among the top brass of the military in the guise of civil supremacy and conflating the abiding national security interest with that of the party currently in power or a single leader goes against the spirit of a constitutional democracy and the institutional locus of the military.
To extrapolate from what Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said about rights and duties – if it is the right of the elected representative to claim civilian supremacy over the military – it is also the inherent duty of the political leadership to ensure that the institutional integrity, or ‘svadharma’ of the fauj and its constitutional obligations are not sullied for electoral advantage.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal
This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times at Link