The Indian Army’s Role in Nation Building
India’s army has seen its role as the nation’s “ultimate weapon” diminish.
The Indian nation should have been able to look back at the country’s journey from 1947 and justifiably feel proud of the progress it has made so far. Unfortunately, the overwhelming mood in India today is that of gloom, despondency, and low self-confidence.
Institutions have been systematically emasculated, some even destroyed. The country’s economy is in the doldrums. The rupee is in a free fall. Experts say that the economy will improve and the rupee will also recover.
Since I have no expertise in those matters, I am willing to go with the optimism of the sarkariexperts. But as a student of India’s armed forces, my worry is more long term and I am going to try and highlight the dangers inherent in this development.
It essential to understand why the soldier (in the broader sense) is pivotal for the wellbeing of a nation-state. Military scholars may quote Sun Tzu often when it comes to military strategy, but my favorite is the worldly-wise Chanakya. Centuries ago he told the king of Magadh:
“The Mauryan soldier does not himself the Royal treasuries enrich nor does he the Royal granaries fill… The soldier only and merely ensures that… He is thus the very basis and silent, barely visible cornerstone of our fame, culture, physical well-being and prosperity; in short, of the entire nation building activity.
The Indian nation state has, however, forgotten Chanakya’s advice. The Indian soldier today stands at the crossroads, confused about his status in the society and unsure about his own role in a nation led by “faux peaceniks” who will compromise national security for short-term gains like a Nobel Peace Prize. The havoc wrought by an indifferent polity and insensitive bureaucracy to India’s armed forces and changing societal norms, has hit the ordinary soldier hard.
The society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. They may pay lip service in times of crisis but that’s it. Bihar politician Bhim Singh’s utterly tasteless remark that “people join armed forces to die,” in the wake of the killing of five Indian soldiers on the line of control, is symptomatic of the bitter reality. Although forced to withdraw his remark, the Bihar politician symbolizes how a large section of Indian society view soldiering.
An Ultimate Weapon
A local politician, a thanedar, seems to command more clout in society today. This has often led to a loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie called Paan Singh Tomar depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.
And yet, from disaster relief in floods, tsunamis and earthquakes, to rescuing an infant prince from a deep tube well, and from quelling rioters in communal strife to being the last resort in internal counter-insurgency operations, the Indian Army is omnipresent. It is, what I have said time and again, India’s Brahmaastra — an ultimate weapon.
The versatility, adaptability, selfless attitude and resourcefulness of the Indian Army have allowed it to be what it is today: nation builders. Viewed in the context of India’s immediate and extended neighborhood, the Indian Army’s stellar role stands out in stark contrast to its counterparts in other countries.
Remember, Indian and Pakistani armies originated from the same source: the British Army. And yet, six decades since they parted ways, there couldn’t be a bigger dissimilarity in the way the two have evolved. As they say, India has an army while the Pakistani Army has a nation.
Despite India’s increasing dependence on the army to pull its chestnuts out of the fire time and again, the Indian Army has scrupulously remained apolitical. It has put down fissiparous and secessionist forces within India with great cost to itself over these 66 years. It has protected India from within and without.
The Indian army also has a unique distinction of helping create a nation (Bangladesh) in the neighborhood and then quietly walking away to let the people take charge. By contrast, the Pakistani Army has never really allowed democracy to flourish in its country. Instead, it has created a military-industrial complex that has spread its tentacles in every aspect of governance. Even today, the Pakistani Army does not let go of any opportunity to undercut democracy; it nurtures and treats jihadi elements as its strategic asset against India and the United States.
Even in other smaller nations around India — Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for instance — the armed forces have had to intervene and run the affairs of those countries at some point.
So who or what makes the Indian Army so distinct? Simply put, its leaders and its men and their ethos of “service before self.” From the early days of independence, Indian military leaders — stalwarts like KM Cariappa, Rajendra Singhji, KS Thimayya and later Sam Maneckshaw — led the forces from the front and provided a strong moral center that has remained more or less in tact; some very regrettable instances of moral and monetary corruption notwithstanding.
Since independence, one institution that has remained absolutely free of communalism and divisive tendencies is the Indian Army. When caste and religious differences have beset the country’s politics and society at large, the army has stood firm against these divisive forces. It has thus stood the test of time and has consistently upheld and protected the nation’s constitution with unflinching loyalty, making a major contribution in nation building in the first six decades of India’s existence as an independent, sovereign nation.
However, as India marks its 66th anniversary, I am not so sure if this great institution can withstand the buffeting it receives both from within the Ministry of Defense and beyond.
Why has this happened? Mainly because in India, civilian control of the military has become synonymous with bureaucratic control. The political executive, barring a handful, neither has the knowledge nor any interest in military matters, and therefore, it depends completely on inputs from the bureaucrats who continue to mold the political leadership’s thought process according to their own perceptions on governance and administration.
Admiral Arun Prakash, former chief of naval staff and a prolific commentator on national security affairs, has this to say about the equation between the Ministry of Defense and Service Headquarters:
“Two major factors have contributed to the systemic dysfunctionality that we see in the management of national security affairs. First is politician’s detachment and indifference towards matters relating to national security, because this is not an issue that can win or lose votes. “Since politicians have not considered it worthwhile establishing close and cordial relations with the leadership of the armed forces, it is not surprising that when faced with a crisis or problem, politicians finds themselves at a complete loss. A related factor is the total reliance that the politician places, for advice, decision-making and problem resolution on transient, generalist MoD civil servants, drawn from diverse backgrounds. This, despite the chiefs and the highly specialized Service HQ (SHQ) staffs being at his disposal for tendering advice in the management of national security.”
The effort to cut defense services down to size had begun immediately after independence. Before 1947, the status of the commander in chief (C-in-C) in India was second only to that of the Viceroy. As a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, he was also the de facto defense minister. He was served by his uniformed principal staff officers (PSOs) and the defense secretary who, incidentally, was below the PSOs in the order of precedence. The role of the Defense Department was not to examine proposals, or to sit in judgment over the Army Headquarters, but was restricted to issuing orders in the name of the Government of India.
Sixty-six years after independence, it is no secret that the political-military interface is all but absent in India’s institutional set up. The armed forces are completely under the day-to-day as well as policy control of the MoD. The desirable politico-military interface is now reduced to weekly, sometimes fortnightly meetings chaired by the defense minister. According to several former chiefs I have spoken to, these meetings are informal, without any agendas or note taking and have no official status — although in theory, the defense minister is deemed to have given policy directions in these meetings.
Former Army Chief Gen. Padmanabhan, who led the army in the crucial period when India mobilized its entire military under Operation Parakram in 2002, has rarely written or spoken about matters of national security since his retirement in 2003.
However, in his book, published in 2005, Padmanabhan had this to say about meeting of service chiefs with the defense minister:
“Even at the level of the defence minister and Service Chiefs, exchanges on major matters of defence policy were few and far between, the Defence Minister’s weekly meetings with the Service Chiefs being used to update the minister and equip him to negotiate questions in Parliament. Often, these meetings were deferred, as ‘more important’ activities claimed the time of the minister… The result was… the greater role and authority assumed by the Defence bureaucracy. The Defence Secretary, with his nearness to the Defence Minister, often began to exercise power on the minister’s behalf and was, quite often, regarded as de facto defence minister. The ‘supremacy of the civil over the military’ was thus effectively changed from supremacy of the political authority to that of the civilian bureaucracy.”
Over these six decades, the bureaucracy continued to acquire disproportionate powers vis-à-vis the service chiefs and now it’s a given that the defense secretary and not the service chiefs, is the single-point adviser to the cabinet on military matters. The defense and cabinet secretaries have a consistent interface with the political leadership, as the service chiefs attend the meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) only if invited.
So the defense secretary, a generalist IAS officer and not the military brass, is responsible for national defense as well as conduct of war. Under the current rules, the service chiefs have neither been accorded a status, nor granted any powers in the government edifice. In the process, it is the service chiefs who were marginalized from the decision-making bodies.
While very few have been able to explain the real reason behind the antipathy against the military displayed by the civil bureaucracy and the political executive, my experience suggests that non-military personnel resent the armed forces because of their evidently orderly and efficient ethos, the tightly bound camaraderie, and their distinct standing in the society. And this is not unique to India. Renowned sociologist Morris Janowitz had famously said: “The intimate social solidarity of the military profession is both envied and resented by civilians.”
So is there a way out of this logjam? Can the status quo ever be broken?
Historically, it is to the credit of the Indian Armed Forces that they have fulfilled their assigned role as an organ of the state, that they have functioned effectively in every role, despite a general lack of a supportive government environment by way of adequate finances, resources, equipment, personnel policies, or higher political direction.
Yet though the average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before, he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders — the officers — will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. The new fashion to dismiss these ideas as outdated must be arrested. Military ethos is not developed overnight and is certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in society. The overwhelming trend to be a “careerist” must be eliminated.
The desire to advance one’s career at any cost, to strive for promotion, even by cutting corners along with the crave for awards as a means to boost chances of attaining the next rank, has become a rampant practice among the officer class. Self-preservation has exaggerated that protection and advancement of career at all levels seems to have become asine qua non for most officers. That must change. And that change must come from the top.
As the wise sage had said to the king: “While the Magadha citizenry endeavours to make the State prosper and flourish, the Mauryan soldier guarantees that the State continues to exist!”
Can we, people in uniform, civil services, politics, media and society at large, imbue this spirit and make the soldier — our bulwark against any potential threat — stronger?
Nitin A. Gokhale, currently NDTV’s Security & Strategic Affairs Editor, is an authoritative defence analyst, author, media trainer and a multi-media reporter with 30 years experience across web, print and broadcast mediums. This article first appeared in Fair Observer