A widening divide
AS the government nears the end of its term in office, much concern has been expressed about the fraying of our public institutions in the past few years. The increasing dysfunctionality of these institutions, their diminishing credibility, the need for retooling them, have all become staples of our public debates. And yet, one of the most important of these institutional issues – the relationship between civilians and the military – barely figures in these discussions. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental requirement of a democratic state. If the state is supposed to have the monopoly over the use of force in its territory, then this monopoly is ultimately enforced through the military instrument. This, in turn, makes it imperative to guard ourselves against the guardians.
In the Indian context, civil-military relations are not considered as problematic owing to the fact that we have never had overt military involvement in politics – let alone a coup. This has, however, led to some complacency in our thinking about civil-military relations. This relationship can be problematic even with an ‘apolitical’ military. Indeed, such ‘lesser’ problems can be more insidious and corrosive of our democratic fabric in the long term.
Few developments in recent times have underscored this point more than the rash of controversies surrounding the former chief of army staff, General V.K. Singh. Beginning from his decision while still in office to take the government to the Supreme Court over the question of his extension, to more recent claims about the military paying-off politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, General Singh has been in the eye of several civil-military storms. The civilian establishment has reacted to his moves by leaking sensitive matters concerning his activities as army chief – leaks that are almost as damaging as General Singh’s own acts. On the flip side, the government has shown little gumption in openly asserting its supremacy and putting the general in his place. All of this has made for much media-led chitter and quiver. But if we want to get the measure of the problem, it is essential to diagnose the underlying factors that are making our civil-military relations more nettlesome. After all, political control of the military has proved tricky in the context of other policy issues as well.
Take the long-standing dispute with Pakistan over the Siachen glacier. Several rounds of talks on demilitarization 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 to be attached to the agreement on troop withdrawals. The Indians consider this an essential hedge against the possibility that Pakistan might occupy the areas vacated by Indian forces; re-taking the glacier militarily would be a costly affair. The Pakistanis were concerned that such an authentication would prejudice their position when negotiations on delimitation commence.
The problem became all the more intractable because the Indian Army came out in opposition to withdrawal without authentication. The then army chief, General J. J. Singh, publicly aired his views on more than one occasion. One of these statements was given on 20 May 2005 – just the day when the defence secretaries were resuming talks on Siachen. The army also expressed its position through leaks to the media. Retired military officials too chimed in with their views. The political leadership was consistently loath to override the army’s advice. Visiting Siachen in early May 2007, Defence Minister A. K. Anthony made it clear that there would be no withdrawal without the consent of the military. It seems safe to assume that the political leadership’s wariness about treading on the military’s toes on this matter persists. The military, in effect, exercises a veto on a critical foreign policy issue.1
This trend is equally noticeable in matters relating to internal security. Take the controversy over the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. In 2004, the prime minister publicly stated that he would consider replacing the AFSPA with a more humane legislation. A committee led by Justice Jeevan Reddy was appointed next year. The committee recommended in June 2005 that the AFSPA should be repealed. The government, however, dragged its feet owing to resistance from the army. Senior army official have spoken to the media, arguing that the proposed changes mean ‘asking us to fight with our hands tied.’2 In 2009, the Cabinet was reportedly considering amending the act. To date, there has been no such move.
At one level, issues such as Siachen and AFSPA are reflective of the military’s increasing assertiveness on ‘operational issues’. In the wake of the disastrous war against China in 1962, successive civilian governments have tended to give considerable leeway to the military in running its own affairs, both operational and organizational. Over time, the military’s definition of what comprises the ‘operational’ domain has also expanded. Issues like Siachen and AFSPA are at bottom political ones; yet the army can limit the government’s choices by claiming priority for its ‘operational’ concerns. In short, the political leadership’s unwillingness to assert its superiority has led to an institutional divide in civil-military relations.
This problem has been exacerbated by the absence of institutional integration of the armed forces into the Ministry of Defence. The military tends to believe that political control has given way to bureaucratic control. Again it bears emphasizing that this is not a new problem. The Study Team on Defence Matters set up by the first Administrative Reforms Commission of 1966 noted that there was some misapprehension that civilian control amounted to ‘civil service control.’3
Apart from governmental structures and problems therein, there is a more analytically elusive problem. This is a growing attitudinal divide between Indian society and its armed force – in other words an increasing civil-military gap. It is a commonplace to state that armed forces reflect the societies from which they arise. But this is erroneous. For the fact remains that civil society is based on an expectation of peace, while military society is predicated on the expectation of war. If this were not true at a fundamental level, there need be no hyphen between civil and military, nor any attendant tension. It is this distinction that basically enables civil society to retain the option of using force in pursuit of its policies. Problems, however, could arise if the difference in attitudes or values between the civilian and military worlds (particularly that of the respective elites) becomes too wide. This could at once affect civilian control of the military and the pursuit of national security.
In India, a civil-military gap has existed from the outset. Owing to the delayed Indianization of the officer corps in the army under the Raj, only small numbers of Indians were enrolled at Sandhurst (King’s Commissioned Officers) or the Indian Military Academy (King’s Commissioned Indian Officers). The wartime expansion of officer intake followed by post-war retrenchment resulted in a slightly enlarged pool of officers. The Indian component of the pre-independence officer corps had only limited interaction and identification with nationalist leadership. The latter, for their part, had almost no direct experience of military service, although some of them had been seriously engaged with defence and military issues in the preceding decades. 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.
The Fundamental Rights sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly debated this matter at some length. The two women members, Hansa Mehta and Amrit Kaur, were staunchly opposed to the idea of conscription. But B.R. Ambedkar, K.M. Munshi and others believed that proscribing conscription could prove dangerous in times of war. One prominent member of the drafting committee, A.K. Ayyar, noted that fundamental rights rested on the bedrock of national security. It took two votes and an additional round of drafting by another sub-committee to ensure that conscription was catered for in the Constitution.4 In any event, the executive decided not to enforce compulsory military service in peacetime and to continue the tradition of a volunteer force. This ensured the perpetuation of the existing gap.
The subsequent expansion of the gap can be traced to developments in both the civilian and the military ends of the divide. Among the former, perhaps the most important changes have been in the realm of the economy. The liberalization and rapid growth of the Indian economy over the last two decades have considerably increased the gap between the economic profiles of the civilian and military elites. Prior to this, the military elites could take comfort in a putatively better social profile. Available data shows that for a majority of officers joining the defence services up to the 1980s, ‘status’ and ‘glamour’ were the main motivators.5 But by that time, the appeal of a career in the military was already in decline owing to economic as well as social factors.6
India’s vaulting economic growth in the subsequent years has transformed the social profile of civilian elites and pushed it well above that of the military. The compensation packages of even the senior ranks in the military compare rather unfavourably with those of fresh graduates from good business or law schools. This is compounded by the military’s perception that it is losing out relative to the civil services as well. Together these have led the military to stake out institutional positions that would have been inconceivable in the past. The most prominent instance was the service chiefs’ refusal in 2008 to notify the cabinet’s order on the Sixth Pay Commission.
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 remarkable progress made by the Indian private sector since the early 1990s. However, these run counter to the military’s continued emphasis on unity, group values and organizational discipline.
Prominent factors exacerbating the divide 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. The cadets join at the age of 17-18 (it was 16 until the late 1980s) and are commissioned – after further training at the service academies – at the age of 21-22. In other words, officers joining through this route have limited engagement with their civilian contemporaries from the time they graduate from high school. What is more, some of these cadets (as many as 20% in the mid-1970s) come from the 22 Sainik schools, the King George Military Schools and the Rashtriya India Military College, all of which serve as feeder institutions for the armed forces. Interaction with civilian counterparts in professional training courses remains rather limited too. To be sure, the services have a direct entry scheme which takes in officer cadets after their graduation from the university. But since the late 1980s, the senior ranks of the armed forces are overwhelmingly staffed by officers who have entered through the NDA route. Indeed, since 1990 every chief of staff of all three services had been an alumnus of NDA.
By contrast, the Short Service Commission (SSC) schemes have largely been unable to serve their purpose. The idea of the SSC was to recruit officers who would serve for a fixed period of 5-10 years and then move on. This would enable the services to redress the shortage of officers (24% in the army, 12% in the air force, and 15% in the navy),7 which is particularly acute in the junior ranks. Data pertaining to the army suggests that the number of officers who opt to stay on for a permanent commission is high. According to an internal estimate for the last decade, the average number of officers who left immediately after their minimum term of service was about 14% (the numbers up to 2004 are still lower); the numbers who opted out after a period of extension is somewhat higher. The aim of the SSC scheme, then, remains substantially unfulfilled.
The important point from our perspective is that the number of military officials transitioning to the civilian world through this route remains small. Part of the reason for this is that the military provides little by way of serious preparation for an alternate civilian career. The army has a Directorate General of Resettlement, but even their most sought after programmes (a course for a few months in a top business school, not a full-fledged Master’s in business administration though) does not adequately prepare 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 to fill jobs that could, in theory, be outsourced as a cost saving measure. This, of course, prevents a reduction 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 counter-insurgency operations, including the raising of the all-arms Rashtriya Rifles formations.8 The regular rhythm of operational and non-operational tours tends to get disrupted for individual officers, if not for entire battalions.
In consequence, the army rightly feels that it is bearing more than its legitimate share of burden. Increased involvement in counter-insurgency operations has more subtle consequences too. These operations place a premium on skill and self-reliance of small units. As Hew Strachan observes, the effect is to ‘entrench the values of the group, the section or platoon, as the bedrock of morale.’9 The wider consequence is that the army has begun to assert its need to be different on the grounds of operational and command effectiveness.
This can be seen most clearly in the military’s approach to women officers, which both indicates and potentially accentuates the civil-military gap. Although women have been inducted into the military since 1992, they can serve for no more than 14 years. The military leadership is averse to granting them permanent commission owing to what are described as ‘operational, practical and cultural problems.’ In 2008, the government decided to award permanent commission for women officers in the legal and education branches of the three services, the accounts branch of the air force, and the constructor branch of the navy. A senior military officer publicly observed that, ‘Grant of PC [permanent commission] to women must be based on military needs and organizational requirements, not social considerations or pressure exerted by some groups.’10
The military leadership’s attitude forced some women officers to seek redress from the courts. In March 2010, the Delhi High Court directed the government to grant permanent commissions to women officers commissioned before 2006. The court, however, refused to rule on the question of whether women should be allowed entry into combat arms.11 The military brass asked the government to appeal against this ruling in the Supreme Court. In his deposition to the court, the Solicitor General reiterated the government’s readiness to grant permanent commission in legal and education branches, but nothing more.12 The contrast with the opportunities for women in the civilian sector, both private and government, is stark indeed.
Another indicator of a widening socio-economic gap between civilians and the armed forces is the increase in instances of corruption in the latter. The military is not immune to the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Mottos such as ‘service before self’ or ‘serve with honour’ no longer seem adequate. The best safeguard against this malaise is a strong sense of institutional identity and norms that enable individuals to look beyond their economic self-interest. But the fact is that the army has been unable to refashion its identity to keep up with the rapid changes in the wider society. Indeed, on a number of issues its response to these changes has been defensive and aimed at asserting its need to be different.
Consider, as a final example, the growing number of violent incidents within the army involving stand-offs between officers and men. The most recent of these occurred in October 2013 in an infantry battalion of the Sikh Light Infantry regiment in Meerut. The army presents such incidents merely as disciplinary problems. But euphemisms like ‘collective insubordination’ should not distract us from the underlying problem. The military seems unable to comprehend the fact that its soldiers are coming from a society that is undergoing rapid socio-economic change.
This, in turn, is challenging existing hierarchies and principles of authority along several dimensions. The average jawan of the army today is far more alert to these changes and far less willing to put up with improper treatment. To be sure, military institutions function according to a strict vertical chain of command and obedience. But this professional requirement does not call for needlessly overbearing or abusive behaviour on the part of the officers. The perpetuation of anachronistic practices like assigning soldiers as ‘batman’, who in many cases end up as akin to a domestic help, surely undermines the sense of self of the soldiers. Here again the military has been unwilling to embrace change.
Bridging this growing civil-military gap will require efforts from both ends. Above all, it calls for a political leadership that takes greater interest in military matters and adopts a more assertive stance on these issues. If the government had taken the decision to fire General V.K. Singh the day he went to the Supreme Court, many of the ensuing problems could have been avoided. Instead the defence minister went out of his way to claim cordiality in his relations with the army chief. Similarly, the most recent case of gross indiscipline in the army should have been firmly dealt with. Instead of merely punishing individuals involved in the Meerut incident, the government should have asked the army to disband the battalion and send out a clear message to all officers and soldiers. It is worth pointing out that the battalion in question belongs to the same regiment as the current army chief. Furthermore, the government needs to get the military to think harder and more systematically about refashioning itself to serve a society that is in the throes of far-reaching changes. Without such a transformation, the civil-military divide will continue to widen with deleterious consequences for our democracy.
1. Srinath Raghavan ‘Soldiers, Statesmen and Strategy’, Seminar, July 2010.
2. ‘Govt, Army Disagree on Changing Harsh Law’, The Hindustan Times, 29 March 2010.
3. Cited in A.G. Noorani, ‘The Doctrine of Civilian Control’, in A.G. Noorani, Constitutional Questions and Citizens’ Rights. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, p. 392.
4. Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1966, p. 65.
5. Lieutenant General M.L. Chibber, Military Leadership to Prevent Military Coup. Lancer, New Delhi, 1986, Table 4.3, p. 139.
6. Steven P. Rosen, Societies & Military Power: India and its Armies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, pp. 222-25.
7. ‘Budget Bounty Lifts Spirits at Sainik Schools’, Economic Times, 5 March 2008.
8. On the Rashtriya Rifles see, Rajesh Rajagopalan, ‘Innovations in Counterinsurgency: The Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles’, Contemporary South Asia 13(1), 2004, pp. 25-37.
9. Hew Strachan, ‘The Civil-Military "Gap" in Britain’, Journal of Strategic Studies 26(2), June 2003, pp. 47-48.
10. ‘Top Military Brass Against Permanent Commission to Women’, The Times of India, 13 March 2010.
11. ‘Women in Forces Get Permanent Commission’, The Times of India, 13 March 2010.
12. ‘Government Agrees to give Women Permanent Tenure in Army’, Daily News and Analysis, 2 August 2010.