The most salient fact about Indian democracy over the past 75 years is its endurance. Barring the 21-month authoritarian interlude under Indira Gandhi (the Emergency), the forms of a free government have been kept up. There are many reasons why democracy has endured here — unlike in several other postcolonial countries. Important among these is independent India’s success in ensuring civilian control of the military.
It is often argued that the Indian armed forces inherited the British tradition of an apolitical military. This is a specious proposition. For one thing, the Pakistan Army was also a legatee of this tradition but went down a rather different route. For another, the colonial military was hardly subservient to the civilians.
The Commander-in-Chief of India was at once the senior-most military officer and the military member of the Viceroy’s executive council: effectively, the defence minister. As such he wielded extraordinary authority. Even so imperious a viceroy as Lord Curzon was put on the mat when he sought to reduce the institutional heft of his Commander-in-Chief, Herbert Kitchener. In the years preceding Independence, this civil-military fusion went further with the appointment of the Commander-in-Chief, Archibald Wavell, as Viceroy.
Indian nationalists had deplored this situation for decades. In 1921, Indian members of the Central Legislative Assembly tabled a resolution that the “principle of ultimate supremacy of the civil power” required the Commander-in-Chief to cease being a member of the executive council. Instead, the defence portfolio should be held by a civilian member. The Motilal Nehru report of 1928 went further in calling for a civilian minister of defence, who would be responsible to Parliament.
In 1946, when the Congress formed the Interim Government, it swiftly appointed Sardar Baldev Singh as Defence Minister. Yet, this was just the first step in securing civilian control over the military. To understand why India succeeded, it is useful to compare its experience with Pakistan’s.
As a seceding state, Pakistan had only a fraction of the administrative muscle of the Raj. Worse, in the provinces of the new country, the Muslim League had limited political standing. So, Pakistani leaders were from the outset reliant on the military and the bureaucracy. This gave the military outsized importance and the institutional confidence eventually to supplant the political leadership. By contrast, the Congress dominated the politics of independent India at all levels — national, regional and local — and retained a firm grip over the levers of the erstwhile colonial state.
Partition impacted civil-military relations in another way. As Steven Wilkinson has argued in his important book, Army and the Nation, it worsened the ethnic imbalance of the army in Pakistan. The colonial army was recruited from a clutch of minority ethnic groups known as the “martial classes”: Jat Sikh, Punjabi Muslim, Pathan, Rajput, Jat and so forth. This was designed to ensure the loyalty of the army to the colonisers. After Partition, the Pakistan Army was dominated by Punjabi Muslims and Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province. This ethnic cohesion enabled the Pakistan Army to periodically depose civilian rule.
In the Indian Army, none of the older “martial races” was preponderant. The Indian leadership was also alert to this problem. Nehru directed the Commander-in-Chief in 1946 to initiate urgent reforms to nationalise the colonial army. Recruitment, especially of officers, was to be be widened to reflect the composition of society, so that the armed forces would appreciate the values and aspirations of the country. Paramilitary forces were to be raised to avoid using the army for internal security and to keep it out of politics. To be sure, recruitment by ethnicity continued, especially in the combat arms. Yet, the composition of the army, notably the officer class, did undergo significant change.
Norm of civilian supremacy
A third factor that explains these divergent trajectories is the Indian political leadership’s concerted moves to instil the norm of civilian supremacy. On the eve of Independence, the Commander-in-Chief had ordered that the public be kept away from the flag hoisting ceremony. Rescinding this, Nehru 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.” This set the tone for civil-military relations.
Then again, the norm of civilian control was also eroded in significant ways during the Nehru years. The passage of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958 granted the army extraordinary powers and high levels of impunity in “disturbed areas”. None of this comported with the spirit of democratic control. Following the defeat against China in 1962, the political class as a whole ceded considerable ground to the military and sought to avoid “operational” matters. Never mind Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a continuation of politics.
All said, formal democratic control over the military remained intact. The latter steered clear of politics — even during periods of high political turbulence in the 1970s. Politicians, for their part, refrained from pulling the military into the ruck of politics — even when they sought, as did Indira Gandhi, a “committed” bureaucracy and judiciary.
A shift is under way
Yet, over the past decade, an important shift has been under way in civil-military relations. This has been occasioned by the political ascendance of a different ideology. The anti-colonial nationalism of the old Congress sought to nationalise the military; the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks to militarise the (Hindu) nation. This was an important objective of Hindu nationalist thinkers starting with V.D. Savarkar and B.S. Moonje.
The Hindu Mahasabha’s support for the colonial government during the Second World War was motivated by the desire to secure maximum representation for Hindus in the armed forces. By so doing, they hoped to suffuse the Hindu nation with a martial ethos.
This desire to militarise the nation has, in recent years, led to a concerted drive to project the BJP as the guardian and champion of the military. Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign in 2013-14 prominently featured the promise of one-rank one-pension — a move that secured the BJP the broad support of military veterans. A series of other measures followed, all aimed at mobilising both the society and the military under the sign of a muscular nationalism: the appointment of a controversial former Army Chief as a Minister; the “celebrations” on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war; the construction of a national war memorial; the carefully crafted public narratives around the “surgical strikes” on Pakistan in 2016 and the airstrikes in 2019.
The Agniveer scheme for enrolment in the armed forces is driven by the dire fiscal situation facing the military, but it fits with the larger ideological impulse. Thus, proponents of the scheme claim that it will instil “discipline” in the youth — as though it is the military’s job to discipline the country rather than to defend it.
Will this affect civil-military relations in the narrower institutional setting? It depends on how the military leadership responds to these blandishments. Indeed, the future of civil-military relations in India will turn on the extent to which the military resists ideological appropriation and holds firmly to its professional identity.
Srinath Raghavan is a historian. The views expressed are personal