No coups in India

Militarism in India: The Army and Civil Society in Consensus

by Apurba Kundu

Taurus Academic Studies, London, 1998

230 pp, GBP 45

ISBN 1 86064 318 3

The Indian military is known to stay away from governance. Maybe not for much longer.

While hundreds of military establishments around the world have seized power or at least encroached upon civilian authority for many years now, the quiescent attitude of India's large army has puzzled sociologists and scholars. Apurba Kundu, a scholar at the University of Bradford in the UK, decided to analyse this extraordinary non-event, eventually publishing the book under review.

Kundu's work, however, is incomplete, partly because he ran into India's obtuse bureaucracy that suspected his motives, and partly because his interviewees are only described in general terms, i.e., "high ranking retired major general". (The writer got 95 retired officers to fill out a questionnaire, and interviewed 44 civilians and soldiers.) But quibble as we might about his methodology, some information is better than none: even gossip sometimes offers clues, if closely examined.

Relying by and large on published sources, Kundu traces the evolution of India's military establishment from the struggle for independence onwards. Very early on, India's military understood that the overwhelming consent of the Indian people was essential for any institution to govern India. This resulted in the military's decision to keep away from politics.

After Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru's seemingly naive assumption that with political control would come civil supremacy of rule proved true. Until, of course, Nehru's trusted but rather disliked defence minister Krishna Menon, along with cronies like General B.M. Kaul, left the military establishment appalled, especially during the Himalayan blunder vis-a-vis China in 1962. In fact, throughout the first decade after Independence, Nehru's choice of defence ministers —Sardar Baldev Singh, Mahavir Tyagi, Kailash Nath Katju  was repeatedly unwise.

Even so, India's military officers never offered themselves as popular alternatives to the Nehru government. In the post-Nehru period, too, the military establishment clearly stayed away from the body politic, perhaps because the Congress party had a strong electoral base, and was seen as spearheading a nationalist movement. It was also because India's post-Independence generation of senior army officers were mostly Sandhurst-trained, and were steeped in the British tradition of democracy, with clear separation between military and political concern. The tradition still exists in India, but unfortunately, unlike in the West where "government" means the parliament and its elected members, in India, the civil servant has become the pivot of India's defence establishment.

The Indian army's respect for civil supremacy stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Pakistan, where the army too had inherited a similar tradition. But because the politicians —initially at least —were happy to leave matters of defence and security to the army, it was inevitable that the military stepped into the political arena. Moreover, political mismanagement was so glaring that when Ayub Khan tool over the country in 1958, the Pakistani public welcomed the military-bureaucratic symbiosis But military rule in turn gave free play to vested interests in defence purchases and ultimately in foreign policy. Thus, having established a precedent of intervention in politics—under the guise of national interests —Pakistan's military 9 now become a completely political) entity.

Nehru legacy

India's unusual civil-military equation is thus the legacy of the Nehru era, but over the years, a rift has developed between the bureaucrat and the soldier. It was this uneasy relation which led to the unprecedented sacking of naval chief Vishnu Bhagwat earlier in the year and the removal of defence secretary Ajit Kumar. India's armed forces have for long opposed the total financial control that civilian bureaucrats enjoy over military budgets; even service chiefs have to seek the approval of junior bureaucrats for routine expenditure from the defence budget.

Admiral Bhagwat had sought to change this structure, and also the control that the bureaucrats enjoy over the selection and purchase of military equipment and in the approval of key military appointments. He may have had a valid point there, as most of the bureaucrats are pure 'generalists', not spending more than a few years with the ministry of defence before moving on to another ministry.

Interestingly, the admiral's sacking took place at a time when India was trying to embark on a programme of nuclearisation. This incident brings home the point Kundu's book attempts to make-that the military in India has no say over the policy-making process. For instance, India's highest body for professional military advice, the Chiefs of Staff Committee, does not have direct access to the Cabinet Committee on Security. It has to go through the defence secretary, who is the true pivot of India's defence establishment. Kundu writes that if India were to deploy its nuclear arserial, then its generals, admirals and air marshals, and also some junior officers, must be accommodated in the nuclear chain of command.

The book is useful for understanding the essence of civil-military relations in India. The likelihood of a military coup —an oft-discussed topic —depends as much on the military officers' perception of the civilian leadership as on their own sense of professional responsibility. If a regime is perceived as incompetent or illegitimate, civilian supremacy could then be under threat.

After 50 years of Independence, while Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is keen to show the military its place (the ouster of army chief Jehangir Karamat being an example), in India, it is the civilian elite that is keen to adopt military-like values. What this holds for India and even Pakistan, Kundu does not examine, but he does make it clear that it was the waning interest of Indian politicians in defence matters that allowed its military officers to practise soldiering free from any external interference.

This 'non-interference' set the tone for the subsequent relations between India's elected representatives and its soldiers. But while India's military has earned the highest marks in repeated opinion polls for its integrity and conduct, India's politicians are seen to be largely corrupt and inept. No wonder India's armed forces have begun to demand a greater say in strategic planning.

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