Armed forces

Why Mamata Banerjee’s Suspicions of the Army Shouldn’t be Dismissed as Paranoia

The increasing liberties taken by the army are symptomatic of the decline in civil and military relations that has occurred because of an erosion of constitutional norms.

Mamata Banerjee who decided to stay put at the secretariat till the army left the toll plaza. Credit: PTI/Files

Mamata Banerjee who decided to stay put at the secretariat till the army left the toll plaza. Credit: PTI/Files

The  recent dispute about the army deployment in Kolkata’s toll plazas is indicative of a deeper malaise in civil and army relations in India. It is difficult to imagine that a colonel in the army was writing to inspectors of the Kolkata police about what they sought to do “routinely”. Regular security meetings between the army and civil administration are held in all states. Apart from security assessments, these meetings also serve as clearing houses for more mundane matters, as the army claimed to have been doing in West Bengal. In addition, the union cabinet secretary has a military wing to ensure better coordination for a range of issues across India. Clearly, the most charitable explanation is that the eastern command of the army was grossly inefficient and inept in this instance. An unqualified apology to the chief minister of West Bengal is in order.

The army must realise that there exists deep discomfort within enlightened circles about its ever increasing imprint in matters outside its immediate purview. But when democratic values and norms have been systematically weakened since the early 1970s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the uniformed services – and especially the army – will not remain untouched by the erosion of constitutional norms.

Legally, the civilian administration can seek the assistance of the army for maintaining law and order and also ask for help when natural calamities, such as earthquakes, occur. The Defence Service Regulations, though, are unequivocal. Fort William may want to consult Chapter-VII, Paras 301-306 of the regulations for military aid to civil power again. The page number is 100 for their ready convenience. Another ready reckoner is the Criminal Procedure Code – Sections 130 and 131 in particular.

Historically, a unique set of circumstances ensured civilian supremacy in independent India. No uniformed individual could hold a candle to the intellectual worth and political sagacity of the then political leadership. The higher-ups in the army were happy to defer to the topi-wallahs – the sole exception being their objection to reintegrating Indian National Army personnel and Royal Indian Navy mutineers.

Similarly, the army leadership displayed great political sense during the Emergency. More so, when Indira Gandhi chose to extend the life of parliament for a year, without elections. Mercifully, Indira Gandhi did not deploy the army, in spite of the advice of the coterie around her son, Sanjay Gandhi. It saved General T.N. Raina the dilemma of choosing between the constitution and an illegitimate political leadership based on a parliament that had illegitimately extended itself.

In a strange quirk, many of the exalted in the army have found favour in the present NDA dispensation.

Lest it is forgotten, Mamta Banerjee cut her political teeth in the Youth Congress of the 1970s – a street fighter in the battle for control of Kolkata’s streets with the Naxalites and CPI (M) cadres.  Eastern Command at Fort William may not have a historical memory, but Banerjee has the politician’s elephantine memory. She would not have forgotten the all-important role of General Sam Manekshaw in the clandestine “night and fog” operations of the army that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of young men for the alleged crime of being Naxal activists or sympathisers  – an operation done without written orders.

The January 2012 army exercise that kept half the government awake through the night was also explained away as “routine”. The lack of any meaningful inquiry into the rogue unit constituted by General V.K. Singh – now a member of the ruling party – is worrying. Bland acceptance that Colonel Srikanth Purohit of the Bhonsale military academy fame, was acting as a lone ranger would be stretching credulity.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses Army officers and soldiers at a base camp during his visit to Siachen October 23, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Files

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses Army officers and soldiers at a base camp during his visit to Siachen October 23, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Files

Banerjee’s healthy suspicion of the uniformed forces is not the peregrination of an overactive mind. Professionalism amongst the commissioned officer class is what prevents Bonapartists in any army.

It would be instructive to have a civilian academic audit on how defence academies teach subjects on socio-political and economic aspects of governance and security. Socio-political study includes the study of cultural heritage, the study of the constitution, the various arms of the state, society and related subjects. When an active effort is on to inculcate a majoritarian understanding in all walks of life, the choice of readings, guest speakers and structure and design of the curriculum should be audited by the public.

The Indian Army has, thus far, been above the political fray but the enlisted man and the officer are not apolitical. He or she exercises his postal ballot in all elections and is not immune to the issues that agitate the average citizen’s mind – demonetisation, farmer suicides, communalism, terrorism et al.

It is evident that the army section in South Block and Kashmir House on New Delhi’s Rajaji Marg is the final authority not only in Kashmir but across the Northeast as well. The Supreme Court has sagely cautioned the armed forces in Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) and Ors. Vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors., Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 129 of 2012 (Under Article 32 of the constitution of India) and held:

(ii) ………….However, as observed by the Justice Punchhi Commission on Centre-state relations an ‘internal disturbance’ by itself cannot be a ground for invoking the power under Article 356(1) of the constitution “if it is not intertwined with a situation where the government of a state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.

(v) The postulates for a declaration under Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) are that a public order situation exists and that the assistance of the armed forces of the Union is required in aid of the civil power. In such a situation, the AFSPA enables the armed forces of the Union to exercise vast powers.

In Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights the constitution bench sought to explain this expression by implication, namely, a situation that has made the deployment of the armed forces necessary for the maintenance of public order. It was made clear that such deployment does not mean that the civil power becomes dormant – civil power continues to function and the armed forces do not supplant or substitute the civil power – they only supplement it. The court said:

The expression “in aid of the civil power” in Entry 1 of the state list and in Entry 2-A of the Union list implies that deployment of the armed forces of the Union shall be for the purpose of enabling the civil power in the state to deal with the situation affecting maintenance of public order which has necessitated the deployment of the armed forces in the state. The word “aid” postulates the continued existence of the authority to be aided.

‘Objective Civilian Control’ limits the authority of the military but also requires self-restraint by civilian leadership to stay out of the military realm. Political grand-standing on surgical strikes clearly crossed these red lines. Civil-military relations in India, for the most part, rest on adherence to constitutional norms. Yet systems of control are frayed. Ketchup colonels and rogue units are not products of feverish imagination. The professional officer corps are unable to get a full complement of individuals with Officer Like Qualities. There is deep disaffection about the perceived downgrading of defence officers by the civilian bureaucracy. The discontent over OROP is too well known to reiterate here.

Ravi Nair can be reached at ravinairsahrdc@gmail.com