Last week, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson responded bitterly to a tweet by the former Naval Chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, that pointed out an instance of a civilian officer flying an unauthorized flag on his car. The spokesperson made broad accusations against military officers on the misuse of jawans and government vehicles, and of engaging in “endless parties”.
After a storm of protests, the offending tweet was removed, as was the MoD spokesperson from her position. While the current unsavoury episode has come to an end, it reveals the deeper problem of the sharp cleavage in civil-military relations.
In India, relations between the politician-bureaucracy combine and the military have always been uneasy at best. Our post-Independence leaders, seeing a colonial hangover in the armed forces, thought little of the soldiers. Stephen P Cohen, writing in his book, The Indian Army After Independence, quotes Nehru as saying, “The soldier is bred in a different atmosphere where authority reigns and criticism is not tolerated. So he resents the advice of others, and, when he errs, he errs thoroughly and persists in error. For him the chin is more important than the mind or brain.”
Suspicious of the military, the political leaders made adjustments in the warrant of precedence, reducing the status of senior officers and enhancing the authority of the MoD. This increasing bureaucratization of civil control over the military has been a constant source of friction and irritation. However, the problem has now taken on a slightly different dimension. In the past, the debate on civil-military relations centred around control of the military, and therefore had a primarily organizational construct. Today, it has turned into an ugly spat over pay, allowances, and status equivalence, and has thus acquired a more personal character affecting all individuals of the military.
Questions are constantly being raised on the size of the military, its salary and pension bill, even as it is engaged in internal conflicts and a bloody war on the Line of Control (LoC). Civil-military relations are not only about control and influence over the military but also about how a soldier is viewed and respected by the government he serves. In 1960, KM Panikkar wrote, “It is necessary to emphasise that unless the officer cadres feel that their interests are safe in the hands of the civil authority…the whole morale of the army as an instrument of civil government may be undermined.” More than half a century later, the desired level of confidence has not been reached.
While the nature of civil-military relations in India requires a serious review, we could start with some simple steps. We should move ahead with the integration of the Service headquarters and the Ministry of Defence. Apart from other advantages, it will permit greater understanding between the military and bureaucracy of each other’s ethos and functioning and remove some of the mistrust. There could be some resistance to this, but the political leadership will have to enforce this proposal, which was recommended nearly two decades ago by the Kargil Review Committee.
The military should also do its best to incorporate civilian officers in their planning process. When a new Integrated Financial Advisor (IFA) was posted to Northern Command, one of the first things we did was to send him in a helicopter to visit the forward posts along the LoC. He met the soldiers and saw the conditions under which they were operating. He clearly understood their requirements and thereafter we had absolutely no problems in cases dealing with procurement of operationally critical equipment.
There is also too much-misinformed talk about misuse of soldiers in the Army. I admit that there could be some instances of this, but to consider this as an all-pervading culture is to do injustice to the character of the Indian Army. If soldiers do not have faith in their officers, they will not follow them into combat. There have been no such instances. Every day, hundreds of officers with thousands of soldiers patrol in hostile terrain, lay ambushes at night, live together on posts, and sometimes die together. This is not an army with a crisis in leadership. Philip Mason, in his book, A Matter of Honour, writes that the British created an army “based on the concept of honour... but it stood or fell by the relationship of officers and men.” This relationship remains equally vital today.
However, the military must be careful about perceptions. Military culture is characterized by higher ideals and qualities such as honour, loyalty, and courage. John Hackett, in The Profession of Arms, calls the military “a well from which to draw refreshment for a body politic in need of it…the highest service of the military to the state may well be in the moral sphere.” The moral and ethical high ground occupied by the military is the reason that the society gives it so much respect. Any perceived dilution is standards will invite equally severe criticism.
(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)