The Changing Civil-Military Dynamic Doesn't Serve India's Strategic Interests

By depriving India’s fighters of honour, respect and pride of place in the national hierarchy, the government has shattered their élan and esprit de corps.

File photo of naval personnel. Credit: Reuters

File photo of naval personnel. Credit: Reuters

Nothing exemplifies the periodic descent into the ‘theatre of the absurd’ of Indian politics better than the prolonged and inane debate that followed the army’s cross-Line of Control operations of September 20, melodramatically termed ‘surgical strikes’.

The nation was forced to witness, with embarrassment, the spectacle of all major political parties – ably assisted by the electronic media – jumping onto the stage to indulge in a puerile competition of one-upmanship on an issue of serious national security import. Having grudgingly approved of the government’s response to the Uri terror strike, the opposition, on second thoughts, coalesced in a raucous effort to deny BJP the credit for this operation by seeking ‘proof’.

Obviously, not many of our politicians are aware of the strong linkage that 19th century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz had established between the statesman and military commander. Unequivocally categorising war as an “an instrument of policy” and a “branch of political activity”, he declared, “War does not have its own logic and purpose. The soldier must always be subordinate to the statesman; the conduct of war is the responsibility of the latter…”

It may have displeased the soldiers, but the BJP, publicly taking responsibility for the army’s action, was fully entitled to seek credit for it. Earlier regimes, even if they did permit such cross-border operations, showed lack of courage – moral and political – by shying away from public disclosure. Who knows, a resolute strategy of this nature, implemented earlier, may have served to alter Pakistan’s behavioural pattern.

Having acknowledged its right to extract political mileage from this military operation, one was completely perplexed by the subsequent, schizophrenic conduct of the ruling dispensation. Even as lavish praise was showered on the jawans for their courage, the benefits granted to soldiers injured in battle were slashed to a fraction of what a civilian would receive. Just days later, a bureaucratic fiat arbitrarily altered established civil-military equations; again, to the military’s disadvantage. This was followed by ominous reports on the internet about personnel of certain civilian services (whose sole charter is to render support to the military) refusing to take orders from uniformed superiors because the pay commission had lifted them over their bosses.

To the discerning observer, these events, coming in the wake of the extended drama of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) agitation, are most disquieting. It was political indifference, compounded by the hostile approach of the Ministry of Defence bureaucracy, that forced military veterans onto the streets, post the sixth pay commission.  In the wake of the 2014 elections, it was their disillusionment with the government that drove the veterans to adopt un-soldierly tactics such as relay fasts and dharnas. While the public image of the military certainly took a beating, many veterans have convinced themselves that it was their agitational approach that garnered them the OROP.

There is a strong connection between veterans and serving soldiers. Given the astonishing fact that the implementation of the seventh pay commission remains frozen as far as the armed forces are concerned, the politicisation of the Indian armed forces – deliberate or inadvertent – is proceeding apace with a real risk of demoralising our soldiers and damaging the army’s cohesion.

In the midst of all this, a new and baffling phenomenon seems to be emerging; the supersession of the armed forces by the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). Democracies seek to ensure an unmistakable distinction in appearance as well as roles and functions of the military and civilian police forces. The military’s responsibility is to protect the state and its citizens against external threats and police forces worldwide are charged with upholding law and order, crime prevention and investigation, traffic regulation, protecting life and property of citizens, and so on.

While the unhappiness of the citizen with police attitudes and performance, possibly related to the absence of leadership, is well known, we are now witnessing the officer corps of this force taking on many new and unusual roles. While retaining the colonial legacy of sporting military-rank badges, police functionaries have also garnered unusual influence in areas of governance, intelligence and national security over the years. At the same time, the military finds itself increasingly marginalised.

The strength of the CAPFs, all headed by officers of the Indian police service, has been steadily boosted and brought almost on par with the million-strong army. A deliberate effort has also been made to blur the distinction between police and the military; they term themselves (incorrectly) as ‘paramilitaries’, wear military style camouflage uniforms and are clubbed with the army under the rubric of ‘security forces’. One wonders if this manipulation is rooted in a belief that civil-military relations constitute a zero-sum game, requiring continuous downgradation of the military vis-a-vis the bureaucracy and police. If so, it is a clear example of cutting the branch on which one is sitting!

Having remained a helpless witness to the steady whittling down of its status through pay commissions and contrived warrants of precedence, the military has realised that bureaucratic intrigue alone could not have inflicted such attrition. However, machinations of this nature are not only petty but totally unnecessary. Given the iron discipline of the Indian army and its ingrained deference to the elected government of the day; it will tolerate every such blow to its self-respect with stoicism and forbearance.

What the government would certainly have achieved, by depriving India’s fighting men of honour, respect and pride of place in the national hierarchy, is to shatter their élan and esprit de corps, built over centuries. For a beleaguered nation that spends $50-60 billion on defence, an assured consequence of thoughtlessly devaluing its own military will be that only second or third-rate men and women will answer the call to arms. They will be the ones to go forth and meet the enemy in combat, fly expensive fighter jets, operate nuclear submarines, fight cyber-wars, launch ballistic missiles and, should the need arise, lay down their lives in defence of the nation.

Today’s jawan is educated and savvy; so when the prime minister thanks the police forces on Twitter or from the Red Fort for “protecting the nation”, he assumes that the prime minister’s ghost-writer may have erred. But when he sees a general being elbowed aside by a bureaucrat for the traditional privilege of escorting the prime minister on Independence Day, he wonders why the tail has started wagging the dog.

Admiral Arun Prakash (retired) is former navy chief.