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The Civil-Military Divide

In the recent controversies over the state of the civil-military relationship in India, the popular narrative sees the military as a victim of control by the bureaucracy and as excluded from decision-making on security affairs. This is a far from accurate representation of the real state of affairs. It is in fact a selective interpretation because it glosses over the fact that the military actually has a considerable amount of say on matters pertaining to national security. And it is an incomplete interpretation because the problematic nature of civilmilitary relations in India cannot be reduced to institutional dynamics within the government. A discussion of the relationship from the early 1950s.

The Civil-Military Divide Srinath Raghavan which was held to have led to the debacle. This interpretation was fl awed. The military went along with the strategy (the “forward policy”) proposed by civilians not because the latter rode roughshod

In the recent controversies over the state of the civil-military relationship in India, the popular narrative sees the military as a victim of control by the bureaucracy and as excluded from decision-making on security affairs. This is a far from accurate representation of the real state of affairs. It is in fact a selective interpretation because it glosses over the fact that the military actually has a considerable amount of say on matters pertaining to national security. And it is an incomplete interpretation because the problematic nature of civilmilitary relations in India cannot be reduced to institutional dynamics within the government. A discussion of the relationship from the early 1950s.

Srinath Raghavan (srinath.raghavan@gmail. com) is at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

he string of recent controversies between the army and the government, culminating in reports about alleged fears of a coup occasioned by movement of troops towards the capital, underlines the growing divide between the civilian and military leaderships in India. This divide is usually a ttributed to a peculiar, skewed pattern of civil-military relations. According to conventional wisdom, the civilians have established an overwhelming, almost strangling, domination over the military. Civilian control over the military, the argument goes, has degenerated into “bureaucratic control” by civilian officials rather than political control by elected leaders. In consequence, the military is kept out of the decision-making processes on security affairs – a state of affairs that has dangerous implications for national security.

Considerable Say

This popular narrative, voiced by several quarters in the past weeks, is at once s elective and incomplete. It is selective insofar as it glosses over the fact that the military actually has a considerable amount of say on matters pertaining to national security. And it is incomplete because the problematic nature of civilmilitary relations in India cannot be reduced simply to institutional dynamics within the government.

Consider first the claim that the military has little say in matters pertaining to national security and that it is deliberately kept out of the decision-making m achinery of the government. In fact, there is a demonstrable increase in the military’s influence and assertiveness on these issues over the past fi ve decades. The turning point in civil-military relations was the war against China in 1962. In the aftermath of the war, the political leadership came under intense attack for having interfered in military matters,

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over them, but because the professional military had no viable alternatives to

o ffer. Besides, many of the key decisions in the run-up to the war were actually taken on the advice of the top military leadership.1 This is not to claim that the politicians bore no blame for the defeat; just that the argument about civilian interference leading to the defeat was wrong.

This narrative, at best radically incomplete and at worst downright false, soon became a morality pageant for the military. The principal lesson drawn from it was the importance of “standing up” to politicians who sought to intrude in professional matters. More importantly, the civilians, frazzled by the war, tacitly accepted this critique. Thenceforth, they restricted themselves to giving overall directives, leaving operational issues to the military. As the then d efence secretary noted in another context, “In the view of the public outcry since the 1962 debacle about the relative role of politicians and the Services and their chiefs”, the military leadership had been given “a long rope”.2

This “1962 syndrome” was further reinforced by the 1971 war against Pakistan. During this crisis the military leadership, especially general Sam Manekshaw, apparently “stood up” and resisted the pressure from the prime minister for precipitate military action early in the crisis. The accuracy of the narrative is another matter. The evidence now available shows that Indira Gandhi was fully alive to the dangers of any hasty military action. As with the 1962 crisis, the veracity of the narrative is beside the point. The point to underline is that I ndia’s convincing victory in the war r einforced the belief that the military worked best when it was given a wide berth on professional matters. The crises of the 1960s and early 1970s prompted the politicians to avoid searching discussions and arguments, and encouraged the military to demand an expansive

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“operational domain” of independence. The subsequent pattern of civil-military interaction in India is informed by the notion that civilians should eschew involvement in operational matters.

Inviolable Operational Domain?

The notion that there is an inviolable

  • o perational domain where the military’s writ runs supreme has been problematic. As a principle, it is rather a slippery one. There are no clear boundary lines dividing tactics, operations, strategy, and policy. Even tactical actions could hold important political implications. Besides, the key question is who decides where the boundaries run. In practice, the military has more or less insisted that it should define what counts as
  • o perational. This has enabled the military, as we shall see, to trespass into a reas that should be the preserve of the political leadership.
  • What about the claim that the civilian control has become “bureaucratic control”? The military’s resentment against the bureaucracy goes back a long way. As early as 1951, the first defence secretary of independent India, H M Patel, observed that the military leadership deeply disliked the role of civilian bureaucrats in policy and administrative matters alike.3 The Study Team on Defence Matters set up by the fi rst Administrative Reforms Commission of 1966 noted that there was some misapprehension that civilian control amounted to “civil service control”.4

    There is force to this argument, especially on the question of weapons procurement and budgeting, which have come to be the stronghold of civilian b ureaucrats. Then again, it is certainly not the case that the military has been systematically excluded from policymaking forums. The Defence Committee of the Cabinet and subsequently the Cabinet Committee on Security, and the Joint Intelligence Committee (itself u nder the Chiefs of Staff Committee for a long time) have always had military representation. True these organisations have atrophied periodically, but that is a larger problem with interdepartmental institutions in the Indian government. The argument that there is a concerted attempt by the bureaucracy to keep the military out is overstated. In fact, when the idea of integrating the service headquarters with the ministry was fi rst mooted in the 1960s, then army chief general J N Chaudhuri rejected it arguing that the military should stay away from the civilians.

    But institutional dynamics are not sufficient to explain the current state of c ivil-military relations. They need to be set against the backdrop of a disparity in attitudes and values between the civilian and military worlds (particularly that of the respective elites). Indeed, there is a growing civil-military “gap” in India t oday. Such a gap has existed from the inception of the Republic. Interestingly the drafters of independent India’s Constitution explicitly provided for the possibility of conscription – a step that could have reduced the civil-military gap in the medium term. But the executive decided not to enforce compulsory military service in peacetime and to continue the tradition of a volunteer force. The subsequent expansion of the gap can be traced to developments in both the civilian and the military ends of the divide.

    Impact of Economic Changes

    Among the former, the most important changes have been economic. The liberalisation and rapid growth of the Indian economy over the last two decades have considerably increased the disparity between the economic and social profi les of the civilian and military elites. The growing economic divide has been accompanied by a wider normative gap as well. Civilian society in India increasingly values individual initiative, entrepreneurial energy, and a willingness to transcend established boundaries – qualities that underpin much of the progress made in India since the early 1990s. However, these run counter to the military’s continued emphasis on hierarchy, group values and organisational cohesion.

    Prominent factors exacerbating the d ivide from the military side are the recruitment, training and personnel policies adopted by the military. The Indian military recruits its officers at a much younger age than most other democracies that have a volunteer force. The National Defence Academy (NDA) provides a combination of undergraduate education and pre-commission training. Offi cers joining through this route have limited engagement with their civilian contemporaries from the time they leave high school. To be sure, the services have a d irect entry scheme which takes in

    o fficer cadets after their graduation from the university. But since the late 1980s the senior ranks of the armed forces are overwhelmingly staffed by offi cers who have entered through the NDA channel.

    Further, the military does little to prepare its officers for an alternate career, after leaving the service, in the civilian street. The army has a Directorate General of Resettlement, but even their most sought-after programmes (usually a few months in a good business school) do not adequately equip officers for an increasingly competitive employment market. In consequence, a sizeable number end up in security sector jobs. A corollary of poor resettlement policies is that many officers who attain pensionable service but face no prospects of career growth remain reluctant to retire. Moreover, many of them seek re-employment after retirement. This too prevents a r eduction in the civil-military gap.

    Service conditions, especially in the army, have also accentuated the gap. The Indian military’s extensive network of cantonments and family bases has traditionally served to physically seclude the military community and foster a distinctive social and institutional identity. Over the last two decades, the army has found itself increasingly committed to longer operational or “field” tours. This is mainly owing to the growing involvement of the army in internal security operations, including the raising of the allarms Rashtriya Rifl es formations.

    This combination of these institutional and societal factors accounts for many of the problems in the civil-military relationship that have recently come to light. But it is worth noting that there have been other, more important, issues that have underlined the troubled nature of civil-military relations. In many ways, the recent events are continuation of problematic trends that have been visible for some time now.

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    Military Veto on Siachen

    Take the long-standing dispute with P akistan over the Siachen glacier. Of all the disputes between India and Pakistan, the Siachen issue is the most amenable to a settlement. The area is of little strategic value to either side. Several rounds of talks on demilitarisation were held as part of the composite dialogue, but to no avail. The last rounds of discussions indicated that the nub of the problem was New Delhi’s insistence that Islamabad must record the current deployment of Pakistani and Indian troops on a map that will be attached to the agreement on troop withdrawals. The Indian army considers this an essential hedge against the possibility that Pakistan might occupy the areas vacated by Indian forces; for r etaking the glacier militarily would be a costly affair. In fact, an army chief, general J J Singh, went on the record to express his opposition to any deal that did not meet this stipulation. It seems safe to assume that the political leadership’s wariness about treading the military’s toes on this matter persists to date. The military, in effect, exercises a veto on a critical foreign policy issue.

    Consider next the controversy over the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The AFSPA attracted public opprobrium following the kidnapping and murder of a Manipuri woman in 2004. Faced with a groundswell of protest, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that he would consider replacing the AFSPA with a more humane legislation. Thereafter the prime minister appointed a committee headed by justice B P Jeevan Reddy. The committee was mandated to advise whether the Act should be amended or replaced. The committee submitted its report in June 2005. It recommended repealing the A FSPA. Around the same time, the second Administrative Reforms Commission also recommended scrapping the Act.

    The army, however, resisted any such move. Its framing of the issue can be glimpsed from an article on this issue written by a retired army chief, general V P Malik. The general recalled that he had commanded a division in counterinsurgency operations in Manipur in early 1990. During a meeting, the newly elected chief minister of the state conveyed to Malik the peoples’ aversion to the AFSPA and said that he would write to the central government asking for the Act to be revoked. Malik’s recollection of his response is instructive: “I told the chief minister that it was OK with me. I will pull out troops from the 60-odd posts, concentrate them outside Manipur and train them for their primary role of fi ghting a conventional war”.5 In other words, the army’s response is framed in terms of either AFSPA or no counter-insurgency operations. Clearly, the military has rather an expansive definition of what constitutes the operational domain. Such a defi nition certainly impinges on the domain of the political leadership. It remains to be seen whether the government will eventually move to amend, if not scrap, this Act.

    The military’s willingness to constrain the government’s stance on such

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    political issues and the government’s u nwillingness to overrule the military point to the kinds of problems that are being posed by the conjunction of societal and institutional trends outlined above. Restoring the health of civil-military relations will require measures both to address the growing civil-military gap and to correct the institutional imbalances that currently prevail. Above all, this will need a political leadership that is willing to assert its prerogatives and take an active interest in matters pertaining to defence and national security.


    1 For a detailed account, see, Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2010, Chapter 8.

    2 P V R Rao to Additional Secretary, Ministry of Defence, 18 May 1973; “Note on Incident” by P V R Rao, 5 September 1965 in Y D Gundevia Papers, Subject File 7, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

    3 H M Patel to General Roy Bucher, 23 February 1951, Roy Bucher Papers, 7901/87-33, National Army Museum, London.

    4 Cited in A G Noorani, “The Doctrine of Civilian Control” in A G Noorani, Constitutional Questions and Citizens’ Rights (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2005, p 392.

    5 General V P Malik, “Revisiting AFSPA: Don’t Blame It for Kashmir Problems”, The Tribune, 20 September 2010.

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