Looking back at 65 years of India’s independence, three issues stand out in the context of Civil-Military relations:
First, the continued apprehension at some levels in the government and in the media, about the intent of India’s Generals and the fear, though largely exaggerated (as the front page story in a newspaper earlier this year had shown) of a military coup.
Second, the bitter inter-services rivalry that continues to hinder triservice cooperation and the efficient functioning of India’s military machine.
And finally, the absence of military awareness amongst India’s politicosocio elite in particular and the public in general, that has kept the military marginalised.
While, it may have been fair to assume in the early years of independence that India could also go in the direction of many post colonial countries, where the military toppled civilian governments and put out instead, a “man on horseback” (as the sociologist SE Finer referred to military dictators) in charge. But military’s intervention is a consequence of the failure of politicians to govern legitimately, as was the case in Pakistan with first military intervention under General Ayub Khan 1958. So Pandit Nehru put together certain checks in the system to keep India’s military outside the policy process, fearing to some extent fear a coup, a fear that Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was also paranoid about. But India’s armed forces must be also given credit for never ever threatening the established political order as was the norm in neighbouring Pakistan. However, successive generations of politicians and bureaucrats have kept alive the bogey of “a possible coup” essentially to keep the military marginalised. Therefore, the recent front page report of a newspaper suggesting General VK Singh, then army chief, had initiated troop movements from Agra and Hissar on around January 15, 2012, to brow beat India’s civilian establishment, (as relations between him and the MoD were perhaps at its worst).
The Defence Ministry rubbished the report, though it shows that such negative sentiments exist even now about our armed forces. In fact, the Naresh Chandra task force on National Security has gone on record to say that “the heads of the three services charged with the command of the armed forces and responsible for National Defence as what and as conduct of war; have neither been accorded a status nor granted any powers in the edifice of Government of India”. The report is referring to the elaborate set of rules known as “Government of India Allocation of Business Rules” issued in 1961, by which India is administered, and the three service chiefs find no mention in it. They are thus excluded from the formalisation in the Indian security policy! The second and equally glaring issue is the inter-services rivalry that continues to plague the Indian system. As each service wants to portray its own indispensability, with each service Chief wanting to be the first ever Chief of Defence Staff, claiming how the role of his service is more important than that of the other two services, and in the bargain leaving the nation only half prepared to deal with contingencies that we need to prepare for. The bureaucracy is only happy to watch this feud, with amusement. Those services chief’s, who continue to claim (as the last of Air Chief did) that there is complete harmony at the highest level and therefore, a CDS is not required for now, are only telling half the truth.
The historical view is that Nehru and Krishna Menon didn’t use the air force even in the worst stages of 1962 Sino Indian conflict, for fear of escalating the war, despite the loss of precious lives and territory. But was it just that or also the absence of inter-service cooperation in those dark days? And in the 1971 war — Lt Gen Jacob has gone on record to say, that — the then army chief, General Manekshaw was not on speaking terms with IAFs top brass. Even in the Kargil conflict, an insider tells me that in a meeting of top security officials, the then air chief and the army chief, almost came to blows due an initial reluctance of the IAF to support ground operations during the Kargil conflict. No wonder that the Naresh Chandra task force has pointed out that though measures such as the creation of an integrated defence staff or a tri services Andaman Nicobar command were have been implemented, since the Kargil conflict, much more needs to be done on “issues relating to a Chief of Defence staff and the integration between the Ministry of Defence, the services headquarters” and other Arms of the Government.
More importantly, while each of India’s three services has gone to great lengths to put together their own individual doctrines, there is still the need “for a combined armed forces doctrine”. This is a cause of dismay to those of us who wish well for India. Finally, the absence of strategic mindset and thus the minimum use the military inputs in devising National Security strategy, has led to India’s responses particularly against Pakistan, appear effete and weak. The National Security Council is the fiefdom of IFS officers, with military advisors kept in the periphery. What makes national security the privileged domain of only our diplomats? Clearly there disconnect exists between where our political leadership gets its inspiration from, and an understanding on how to project power. An eminent American observer once said to me that he could count the few Indian politicians who understood strategic issues, on the fingers of one hand! And though politicians cannot always be expected to know the art of war — at least one army chief confided to me that even a Prime Minister had little understanding of what India is militarily capable of — there is a general lack of interest in military strategy. We cannot rise and dominate world affairs only on the strength of our economy, as the Japanese have realised only too well.
Military might therefore, is a must for a country with ambitions of being on the high table of nations. But this lack of understanding and awareness of our strengths is even more amongst our people. What little there is, is limited to the memory of television coverage of the Kargil conflict, which incidentally involved force levels that were less than a 20th of what India can bring to play. Our armed forces are greatly to be blamed for this, obsessed as they are, with secrecy and therefore wish to show little or nothing about their history and achievements. The military is thus a mysterious animal that our civilians prefer to ignore, and move on. The little coverage that the military gets is, through the writing of retired officers and the superficial television news items brought out on occasions like Republic and Independence Day or Vijay Divas on Kargil Day. There are absurd rules that further this culture of secrecy, with the bureaucracy in South Block keeping the military on a tight leash.
This must end, if the armed forces are to get public recognition in respect from the people of India. And to begin with, we must establish museums in Delhi and other key cities with large presence of serving and retired military personnel, and make it easily accessible to our people, by putting these outside the cantonment areas, so that entry for civilians is easier. Cities like Washington and London are great examples of how museums have created a culture of respect for the armed forces. It is about time we involve our people in celebrating our military might.
— The author is an erudite scholar on strategic affairs