To correct an institutional mismatch

It is important to build a democratic civil-military relationship so that the nation does not face a crisis.

November 01, 2013 01:33 am | Updated May 31, 2016 12:50 pm IST

CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE: Events in recent years and months have struck at the very roots of the Army as an institution. Here, at the Republic Day parade this January. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE: Events in recent years and months have struck at the very roots of the Army as an institution. Here, at the Republic Day parade this January. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The editorial page lead article in The Hindu,>The general and his stink bombs ” (September 30, 2013) flagged the “dysfunctional relationship between our democracy and the military.” This serious issue, directly impacting on a citizen’s security and country’s sovereignty, needs to be addressed in its proper perspective.

To do so, we need to draw on the centuries-old wisdom of Kautilya, reiterated in modern times by the General-turned-President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower: “When diplomats fail to maintain peace, the soldier is called upon to restore peace. When civil administration fails to maintain order, the soldier is called to restore order. As the nation’s final safeguard, the army cannot afford a failure in either circumstance. Failure of army can lead to national catastrophe, endangering the survival of the nation.”

This sums up the role performed by our military and the criticality of an abiding and democratic civil-military relationship, lest the nation should face a catastrophe. It should be realised that in war or conflicts, military men do not offer the “supreme sacrifice” just for money or rank. There is something far more precious called “patriotism and honour”, and this is embedded in the Indian Military Academy credo which none of the civil servants or politicians has gone through but most military leaders have. The civil-military relationship should be moored on such an anchor.

Not a democratic equation

This is not so in India’s current “democratic dispensation” wherein the politico-civil elite continues to suffer from the feudal-aristocratic mindset of Lord Alfred Tennyson (“Charge of the Light Brigade” – 1854): “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die.” This was reflected in the observations made by the Union Minister of State for Defence while delivering the Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa Memorial Lecture in mid-2012: “The military forces have remained loyal to the elected government and have been its obedient servant.” Such an equation is not democratic.

Ironically, it is the military leaders who have attempted to define a democratic civil-military relationship. In his treatise “The Soldier and the State” (1998), the former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, lays it down with a fair amount of clarity: “The modern military profession exists as part of the government insofar as the term ‘government’ includes the executive departments of the nation-state... Modern democracies therefore pay great attention to the supremacy of the political class over the military in governance, normally referred to as ‘civilian control of the military.’ This is clearly how it should be, since all ultimate power and decision making should be wielded by the elected representatives of the people.”

On the eve of demitting office in 2012, General V.K. Singh fully endorsed this view with a compelling caveat: “I am a firm believer in civilian supremacy over the military in a democracy. I subscribe to the views of Admiral Bhagwat. However, civilian supremacy must always be rooted in the fundamental principles of justice, merit and fairness. Violation of this in any form must be resisted if we are to protect the Institutional Integrity of our Armed Forces.”

The combined views of the former chiefs of the Navy and the Army set forth certain non-negotiable imperatives for the civil-military relationship: democracy as a vibrant and functioning entity with the “elected representatives of the people” running the government as per established democratic norms; the military profession existing as part of such government; civilian supremacy to be exercised by the “elected representatives of the people”; such supremacy to be rooted in the principles of justice, merit and fairness; a violation of this can be resisted to protect the institutional integrity of the armed forces.

Whether governments in India are being run as per established democratic norms is a burning question. Even so, India’s professional military is meant to protect, safeguard and sustain our democratic republic wherein live one-sixth of the human race. Therefore, it is imperative that a democratic civil-military relationship framework existed, was practised and sustained. But unfortunately this has not even been attempted; the civil-military relationship is not mandated in the governance system.

Matters drifted, intrigues prevailed and things have happened in recent years and months that strike at the very roots of the Army as an institution.


The fallout of the sordid happenings on the Indian Army was best summed up by defence analyst Maroof Raza: “The system has closed around the chief and this will only embolden the bureaucracy. The fallout will be that at least for two generations, no military commander will raise his head. And the message for military commanders is that it isn’t merit or accuracy of documents that will get them promotions, but pandering to the politico-bureaucratic elite. The last bastion of professional meritocracy in India has crumbled. The damage will be lasting.”

Despite such a damning indictment, nothing has been done to undo the damage. What is worse, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister chose to ignore the letter written by Admiral L. Ramdas, the former Navy Chief, in July 2012 raising serious military and national security issues and seeking a high-level inquiry and remedial action.

This epitomises the near-total collapse of the institutional framework and the atmosphere of suspicion and alienation between the civil and military hierarchies. This is evident from the recent high-octane controversy following the ‘leaking’ of the top-secret report on TSD, a covert unit of the Army, the activities of which are directly related to the safety of the soldiers on the borders, retribution on the enemy and the security of citizens. This episode, which has created a lot of bad blood between mainland India and Jammu & Kashmir, appears to be a ploy to justify the scrapping of this unit by the Army Chief. This has led to consternation among senior Army officers, who confide that this action is the single major cause for the recent spurt in cross-border intrusions and ceasefire violations that have led to several deaths on the Pakistan border.

It is better to light a candle rather than continue to curse darkness. Civil and military establishments are all a part of governance that comprises the complex mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, mediate their differences and exercise their legal rights and obligations. The military should be an intrinsic part of such a governance mechanism.

Democratic governance is participatory, transparent and accountable and promotes justice and the rule of law. Governance includes the government, which is its dominant part, but transcends it by taking in the private sector and civil society. All three are critical to sustain human development and national security. Because each has weaknesses and strengths, democratic governance is brought about through constructive interaction among all three — which role civil society would play.

Parliamentary oversight

Once we broad-base the “defence” or the “military” and move towards “national security,” civil society participation becomes imperative. Governance then could really become a catalyst for civil-military relationships, and bureaucracies cannot play spoilsport.

This, coupled with parliamentary oversight, is the best form of “civilian control of the military” in a democracy, and that is what military leaders have defined. A set of rules governing such a relationship between civilian authorities and the military, and balancing the financial needs of defence and security, are the needs of the hour.

With this concept at the core, steps could be taken to build and sustain a democratic and functional civil-military relationship by implementing recommendations by expert committees and groups lying buried in the vaults of the Defence Ministry.

(M.G. Devasahayam isaformer Army – Infantry and IAS officer.)

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