Military needs and societal values

The military is responsible to the political leadership, which in turn is accountable to the people. But ensuring that the military’s requirements remain subordinate to wider societal values is not easy. These requirements may well be legitimate, yet they can vitiate the democratic fabric of our polity

November 10, 2014 01:22 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

It is a grim irony. Ahead of the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, >two Kashmiri boys are cut down by the bullets of the Indian Army . This is not just because Nehru’s birthday is celebrated as Children’s Day. Rather, the incident in Kashmir underlines the extent to which one of Nehru’s principal contributions to independent India has been undermined. Nehru’s role in nurturing democratic institutions, especially Parliament, is widely acknowledged. Less well known is his role in fostering democratic control over the military.

In theory, the lines of control in a democracy are clear: the military is responsible to the political leadership, which in turn is accountable to the people. But ensuring that the requirements of the military remain subordinate to the wider societal values and interests is not easy. These requirements may well be legitimate, yet they can vitiate the democratic fabric of our polity. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, under whose cover the boys were shot, is a good example. One of the aims of this Act was to ensure that soldiers undertaking operations in good faith were not subject to mala fide litigation. Yet, AFSPA has been used in a manner that confers impunity on the Army.

Also Read: >Shooting from behind AFSPA

Civil-military relations Take the Pathribal case. Five officers were named in a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charge sheet for killing civilians in a fake encounter. The Army and the government used AFSPA to stonewall and prevent prosecution for years. Eventually under pressure from the Supreme Court, the Army agreed to try them by court-martial. Unsurprisingly, the court-martial found no evidence against the officers.

Also Read: >Reopen the Pathribal case

What’s more, despite widespread criticism, successive governments have been loath to repeal the Act. Their reluctance is directly proportional to the resistance from the AFSPA. Senior military officers are on record as stating that without AFSPA, the Army cannot undertake counter-insurgency operations. Such is the state of democratic control and civilian supremacy over the military.

Nehru was alert to these dangers even before he took over as Prime Minister. The British Raj was the archetypal garrison state — one that accorded primacy to its security and by extension to the military. Even in peacetime, up to half of the government’s expenditure was consumed by the armed forces. This extraordinary practice was possible owing to the institutional arrangements of civil-military relations in British India. The Commander-in-Chief of India also served as the Military Member — effectively the Defence Minister — of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. This enabled the military to have a dominant voice in the affairs of the government. In the run-up to Independence, the fusion of civil and military roles went even further. In 1943 the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Wavell, was appointed as the Viceroy. In its last days, then, British rule reverted to its origins as a military despotism.

Democratic control Rectifying this state of affairs was on top of Nehru’s priorities. When the interim government took office in September 1946, the Commander-in-Chief was replaced as Defence Member by a civilian leader, Sardar Baldev Singh. Days later, Nehru instructed the Commander-in-Chief to initiate urgent reforms to nationalise the Indian Army. Recruitment, especially of officers, should be widened to reflect the composition of society. This would enable the armed forces to appreciate the values and aspirations of the country they served. Paramilitary forces should be raised to avoid using the Army for internal security and to keep it out of politics.

That said, claims about Nehru wanting to abolish the armed forces — given currency by Jaswant Singh among others — are utterly unfounded. Even a cursory acquaintance with Nehru’s published documents from that period will show up the absurdity of such assertions. What Nehru wanted was democratic control of the military. Matters were complicated by the fact that in the aftermath of Independence, India was forced to solicit the services of senior British officers. The Raj had not allowed Indians to join as officers until late in the day, so there were few Indians with experience of higher command and staff roles.

Yet, Nehru was keen to set the tone for civil-military relations from the outset. Thus, when the Commander-in-Chief issued orders to keep the public away from the flag hoisting ceremony on August 15, 1947, Nehru struck it down. He wrote to General Rob Lockhart: “In any policy that is to be pursued in the Army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy he has no place in the Indian Army.” Weeks later, when the British service chiefs protested against moving Indian troops against the State of Junagadh that had acceded to Pakistan, Nehru and Patel made it clear that they were prepared to sack the chiefs. Such problems did not disappear after Indian officers took over the armed forces. In the summer of 1951, the Indian Army — apprehending a Pakistani attack on Kashmir — wanted to move its armoured division close to the border in Punjab. When Nehru demurred, General Cariappa met President Rajendra Prasad and requested him to lean on the Prime Minister. Although Nehru gave in, he was not oblivious to the implications of such actions. A few months later, when Cariappa began airing his views on policy matters, such as economic development, Nehru advised him to avoid straying into these areas.

The most controversial episode was the resignation of the Army Chief, General Thimayya, in 1959. The conventional wisdom is that the resignation was spurred by Thimayya’s unhappiness with the style of functioning of the Defence Minister, Krishna Menon. In fact, the problem was Thimayya’s demand to consider Pakistan’s offer of joint defence arrangements against the backdrop of clashes between Indian and Chinese troops. The nub of the matter was policy — not personalities. Although Nehru talked Thimayya out of the resignation, he emphasised in Parliament that “civil authority is and must remain supreme.”

The 1962 war and after

The defeat against China weakened Nehru’s position vis-à-vis the Army. Thereafter, the military began to insist that civilians keep away from its “operational” turf. Unnerved by the debacle of 1962, the civilian leadership substantially conceded the demand.

Democratic control over the military weakened in Nehru’s own lifetime in other ways too. Despite his desire not to use the Army for internal security, Nehru’s hand was forced by the Naga rebellion. In 1956, as the Army was preparing to move in, Nehru instructed that the Nagas were to be treated as “fellow Indians.” The Army had to “win the hearts of people, not to terrify or frighten them.” Nehru disallowed the use of machine-guns from the air and called for the use of “moderate force.”

Yet, when Naga resistance intensified, Nehru’s government enacted AFSPA in 1958. The Act was modelled on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942 — used by the Raj to quell the Quit India Movement. The irony lay not just in the fact that Nehru and his colleagues had been imprisoned during the movement, but that the 1942 ordinance was less draconian than AFSPA. The ordinance had authorised the use of force to kill by an officer of the rank of captain or above. AFSPA allows even senior non-commissioned officers to do so.

Introducing the Bill in Parliament, Home Minister G.B. Pant stated that it would allow the Army to function more effectively in the context of the insurgency. There were dissident voices in the House. A member from Manipur memorably called it a “lawless law.” Yet it was passed without much opposition. After AFSPA was introduced, Nehru continued to keep a tab on Army operations in Nagaland and even deplored — on occasion, publicly — the loss of civilian lives. When the insurgency raged unabated, Nehru adopted a more political approach — a move that culminated in the creation of the State of Nagaland.

AFSPA, however, remained on the statute book. Over time, it came to be used with ever greater impunity and grievous consequences. As Nehru’s engagement with this issue suggests, intentions of individuals cannot substitute for appropriate institutional arrangements. AFSPA makes a mockery of democratic control over the military. The Army’s resistance to its repeal and the government’s acquiescence fly in the face of all norms of civil-military relations. This may seem like a minor problem. But as Nehru realised, unless military needs are balanced against societal values, Indian democracy could be hollowed out.

(Srinath Raghavan, a former infantry officer in the Indian Army, is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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