Why India Succeeded (And Pakistan Failed) In Keeping The Army Out Of Politics

Jaideep A Prabhu

Feb 18, 2017, 05:33 PM | Updated 05:33 PM IST

The Wagah retreat
The Wagah retreat
  • India’s solution to the potential for a military coup has come at a cost - the army has been unable to function efficiently and its role as a mute spectator in policy planning has left it unable to defend India’s borders as China showed in 1962.
  • Army and Nation acknowledges the myriad other factors that have flavoured the divergence between India and Pakistan but is nonetheless the study of one institution and the reader’s judgment should be restricted to the topic at hand.
  • It is not often that a senior government official publicly recommends a book by an academic, especially if the former is in the Pakistani military and the latter at an American university. However, that is exactly what Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's new Chief of Army Staff, did in December 2016 during a gathering of senior army officers at Rawalpindi Garrison in the General Headquarters. The military had no business in running the government, Pakistani newspaper The Nation quoted Bajwa as saying, and the General asked the gathering to read Steven Wilkinson's Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2015. 295 pp) to understand civil-military relations in Pakistan's arch rival.

    Broadly, Wilkinson asks a question that has perplexed many a scholar of postcolonial states – why have most of them proven inhospitable for the germination of liberal democracy and fallen to authoritarianism of various hues? Army and Nation focuses on one specific aspect of the answer, namely, the role of the military and its relation to the civilian leadership. Although ostensibly about India, the book cannot but be a commentary on Pakistan as well seeing as how the Islamic state deliberately positioned itself as anti-India. India and Pakistan present, in many ways, an interesting case study of a people with similar cultural heritage that diverged at independence and ended in drastically different spots on the political spectrum.

    Wilkinson argues that the reason for India's success in keeping the military out of political power is the apprehension of the Indian National Congress towards the profession of arms. Having participated, even minimally, in government, Congress leaders had administrative experience in thinking about the challenges their new country might face. Nirad C Chaudhuri, for example, had argued for a more representative Indian military that was free of foreign officers in a 1935 policy paper; similarly, in 1938, V V Kalikar moved a resolution in the Council of States to restructure the Indian army more representatively. As a result, Congress moved quickly after Independence to convert a colonial force that was fuelled by communal fissures to one that was more representative and firmly under the control of the civilian leadership. The Muslim League, on the other hand, had no such experience and complacently believed that statehood along confessional lines would solve all problems. It is such naivete that has led many to argue that Pakistan was insufficiently imagined; one must be careful, however, in differentiating between a thoroughly imagined nation and an insufficiently imagined state.

    Punjabi over-representation in the army started from 1857, when India's imperial master stopped recruiting troops from the Gangetic plains and instead brought in communities that had been loyal to Britain in the mutiny. This was the same pattern of recruitment the Crown followed in Nigeria, Ghana, Iraq, or elsewhere in the empire - favour minority communities against the larger population of the region. As a result, 60 per cent of the Indian army was from Punjab on the eve of World War Two. That number fell to 32 per cent within a year of Independence, admittedly aided in no small measure by Partition.

    The Congress leadership, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Baldev Singh, and others took several measures to insure against the military. First, officers commissioned after 1935 were given a massive 40 per cent wage cut. Next, the commander-in-chief of the Indian army was removed from the governor-general's executive council in 1947 and made him responsible to the Minister of Defence; eight years later, they abolished the post completely and the military was served by three service chiefs with lesser power and of equal status despite the size and importance of their service. Symbolically, Nehru took over the residence of the commander-in-chief, Teen Murti Bhavan, as the civilian prime minister's official habitation. Three, a new military academy was created in Pune; the National Defence Academy would offer a different vertical from that of the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. Along with careful recruitment, this would aid in the diversification among senior officers. The tenure for senior generals was also shortened and extension of their term became exceedingly rare.

    To ensure that retired officers could not act on their political beliefs with the support of their uniformed comrades, senior posts were deputed to the Ministry of External Affairs which posted them to international destinations, separate from each other and distant to India. Nehru was not beyond using his intelligence agencies to keep a close eye on the military elite. Lt Gen SD Verma describes, for example, how, in 1960, he had to take a boat out to the middle of Nagin lake to speak privately to then CoAS KS Thimayya for fear that they were being spied upon. The corruption, bureaucratic lethargy, and lack of political vision in Indian politics frustrated many Indian service chiefs and some spoke approvingly of a short stint in power for the military - to "clean up" - and the limitation of universal adult suffrage to the literate population. Given the understanding shown by some of the senior Indian military officials to their former classmates from Sandhurst who had seized power in Pakistan, Nehru's suspicions do not seem entirely unwarranted.

    Another measure the Indian government took to ensure that the military does not enter politics is the creation of a large paramilitary force. Although such a force is no match to the regular army, it meant that the army need not be deployed extensively for domestic peacekeeping operations. This kept the army relatively isolated from national life. Civilian leaders thus hedged against the military in a manner similar to how the British placed white or Gurkha troops alongside suspect Indian units.

    Wilkinson points out that while some diversification did happen in the Indian military, delivery fell far short of promises. The conflict over Kashmir in 1948, internal instability, nascent separatist tendencies, and the wars with Pakistan and China gave little room for a complete restructuring of the Indian military. Nonetheless, there has been a substantial change in the composition of the armed forces since independence.

    Army and Nation etches out the path not taken by Pakistan. There were no efforts by Rawalpindi to forge a genuinely representative army. In fact, the cultural hostility between Punjabis and Bengalis impeded the integration of East Pakistan into Pakistani national life - something amply proved by the war in 1971 and subsequent secession. On the whole, Wilkinson is soft on Pakistan's democratic failure. He argues that the country was dealt a worse socioeconomic and military hand that was compounded by the Muslim League's amateur approach to national politics. It must be remembered, however, that this hand was demanded by the founding fathers of the Islamic state - neither the national religious imagination, the borders, and the population exchange were imposed upon Karachi by London or Delhi. Furthermore, conflict in Kashmir was sought, despite the challenges posed by inheriting a new state, by the Pakistani military whose raison d'etre was anti-Indian.

    India's solution to the potential for a military coup has come at a cost - the army has been unable to function efficiently and its role as a mute spectator in policy planning has left it unable to defend India's borders as China showed in 1962. Civilian bureaucrats and politicians, the prime minister included, declared policies without making the necessary material and logistical provisions for them. Thus, Nehru embarked on his Forward Policy on the China border despite repeated warnings from officers on the ground that India's forces were ill-prepared to handle any potential repercussions from the Chinese side.

    Was the Congress' evisceration of the military really necessary? Studies have repeatedly shown that class militaries - units drawn from similar ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other groups - perform better in combat owing to their closer bonding. The risks posed by such recruitment can be mitigated to a large extent by extensive training, professionalisation, and the weaving of a strong inclusive nationalist narrative. Congress leaders clearly did not trust their citizens to be ready for this sort of reform or were unable to implement it themselves. More importantly, the road not chosen hints at another way in which India and Pakistan stand as mirror images of each other: while Pakistan was a well-imagined nation and poorly envisaged state, India was the exact opposite in being a fairly well envisaged state and poorly imagined nation. Lost in the effort to control all the things that divided Indians, Nehru did not see what united his countrymen - or if he did, chose to ignore it and refashion them after his own image. Wilkinson's study is an interesting hypothesis in not just what it says but also what it thus implies, for India as well as for Pakistan.

    Army and Nation acknowledges the myriad other factors that have flavoured the divergence between India and Pakistan but is nonetheless the study of one institution and the reader's judgment should be restricted to the topic at hand. An interesting comparison, which Wilkinson briefly alludes to in his introduction, is the Israeli state and army. While religiously homogeneous, immigrants to the Holy Land in the early years of the Jewish state were ethnically diverse. Tel Aviv managed to shape them in to trustworthy soldiers even so. What were the effects of literacy levels in the population on the army?

    Bajwa's boys will benefit greatly from reading Wilkinson's book as they will from Christine Fair's Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, or Myra MacDonald's Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War. The COAS is known to be a keen observer of India whose interest goes back to his days as a young major serving at the Line of Control. His then commanding officer, Brigadier (retd) Feroz Hassan Khan, says that Bajwa belies the stereotype of the Pakistani military officer as someone who holds a visceral hatred towards India. It will be interesting to see if this alleged change in personality will amount to anything more substantial.

    Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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