Why has India never had a military rule? After all, India and Pakistan inherited the same colonial Army, steeped in British traditions. While Pakistan and Bangladesh have had long stints of military rule, India has had none. Why?
India’s civilian leadership worked hard after independence to reduce the potential threat the army posed to democracy, with strong civilian oversight and policies that created significant coordination challenges for any officers tempted to follow the example of their batchmates in Pakistan and launch a coup. This policy worked well from the perspective of making sure the civilian leadership was firmly in control.
But it was not good for India’s military preparation and effectiveness, especially when the civilian leadership pushed an aggressive “forward policy” on the frontier with China without checking with the generals first as to whether the army was strong enough and sufficiently prepared to follow through. Despite periodic warnings from several high-ranking officers about the threat from China and the dangers of the forward policy, Prime Minister Nehru, his intelligence chief B.N. Mullik, Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, and several of the generals that they promoted to senior positions were convinced that there was no danger. They were wrong. In October 1962, Chinese troops invaded and quickly overwhelmed Indian Army units in the northeast, shocking the political leadership and the country as a whole.
In the aftermath of defeat, India faced a major challenge to the civil-military control strategies it had evolved since Independence. The country was now forced to expand the army rapidly to meet the threat from China, and as I show, most of this expansion was done by recruiting heavily from the existing “martial classes” in the infantry and armoured corps, rather than by forming new all-India units as politicians had been led to expect in 1949. The obvious concern, from the politicians’ point of view, was that the generals might, as General J.N. Chaudhuri later put it, “get ideas above their station”.
There was no great difference in political outlook, as we have discussed, between the pre-1939 commissioned officers on the Indian side of the border who were now in command of the army and their former batchmates in Pakistan. When Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph interviewed General Chaudhuri in February 1963 and asked him about his former Sandhurst batchmate Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup in Pakistan, “he said that he thought what must have happened was that Ayub Khan, finding Iskander Mirza playing ducks and drakes with the political situation in Pakistan had felt obliged to move in and ‘put things right.’”
So how could India avoid a situation in which the senior generals felt that they had the freedom of action to “put things right”? The most important thing that had already been done, as we have discussed, was that the Congress Party provided stable government and that important decisions over linguistic states reorganization, religion, and caste in the late 1940s and the early 1950s had helped to prevent the sort of conflicts that drew the army into politics in Pakistan. But the politicians were still understandably worried, by the Congress Party and Nehru’s loss of legitimacy after that China debacle, by growing challenges to Congress on national and state politics, and by the strategic need to double the size of the army and provide more operational autonomy to the top generals.
The political leadership and bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence dealt with these worries in several ways. First, despite persistent pressure from top army officers, they refused to change the main elements of the command and control structures they had introduced from 1947 to 1955, such as having three nominally equal service chiefs rather than a Chief of the Defence Staff drawn from the army and having many important decisions approved by a parallel Ministry of Defence bureaucracy. The government also continued to diversify the ethnicity of the top generals and lieutenant generals as it had been done in the 1950s and to keep tabs through the intelligence services on what these officers were up to.
As time went on, the government also implemented several new measures to deal with the potential threat of this new larger army as well as specific worries about the loyalty of particular groups such as the Sikhs and Nagas. The main strategy employed was to “balance” the army with large new paramilitary forces drawn from a much wider cross-section of the Indian population.
India’s paramilitary forces, which were only 29,000 strong in 1961 just before the China war, grew to 202,000 a decade later, to 258,000 by 1980, and to more than 497,000 by 1990. This balancing was not intended to provide a direct military hedge against the regular army, as was the Saudi National Guard or the General Service Units in Uganda and Kenya. The paramilitaries did provide some hedge in and around the capital, New Delhi, where they outnumbered the infantry, but in training, equipment, and capacity, they were clearly no match for the regular army. Their more important function was an indirect hedge, standing in for the army in delicate and politically fraught internal policing duties, thereby relieving the army from these roles and making it less likely that it would be drawn into politics.
Beginning in the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence also finally began to do what it had promised to do in 1949: seriously start to increase the number and proportion of mixed units in the infantry and armoured corps. Finally, the army seems to have specifically hedged the risk from several groups it was most worried about, such as Sikhs and Nagas, by changing the location of their bases and deploying them in barracks adjacent to other army units, in the same way that the British had done.
A second challenge, after the death of Nehru in 1964 and the struggle for succession in the Congress Party, was political. With the breakdown of the “Congress system” and the increasingly authoritarian policies pursued by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, was it possible for the army to remain above the political fray, even as government and opposition political leaders might look to it for support?
The army’s leadership, very concerned about the threat political involvements might pose to its organizational structure and military effectiveness, was determined to stay out of politics, avoiding calls both by the government to play a more supportive role in the emergency and by opposition figures to disobey what they claimed were illegal instructions from government.
The third challenge, perhaps the most serious threat of all to the army’s historic regimental structure, was the Sikh militancy of the late 1970s and 1980s. This militancy demonstrated again the potential dangers of class regiments for internal security and threatened for a while to lead to a major transformation in the army’s regimental and recruitment systems. In the end, though, for both operational reasons (traditional class units were still viewed as more effective) and the strength of the “class regiment” constituency within the army, these attempts to fundamentally reform the regimental structure were beaten back.
Only after the 1965 and 1971 wars, with India having defeated Pakistan and the fear of China having receded a little, was the issue of army recruitment opened up a little. Jagjivan Ram, during his terms as Defence Minister (1970-1974, 1977-1978), made efforts to increase the number of Scheduled Castes in the Army as well as the number of new mixed units, something he had previously pressed for when he was not a member of the cabinet.
The Defence Ministry consistently denied this, but a statement by Ram in March 1974 that recruitment was being reduced in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana because of the overrepresentation in these areas, though quickly retracted after protests from Sikh leaders and Punjab, suggests that he was concerned with carrying out a prudent rebalancing of the force’s composition.
In an interview, Lieutenant General Sinha, who as a Brigadier had been appointed Deputy Adjutant General by General Manekshaw in March 1972, recalled Defence Minister Ram’s efforts to open up the army to Scheduled Castes:
In 1972, I was Deputy Adjutant General, and Manekshaw was Chief and Jagjivan Ram was Defence Minister. Jagjivan Ram looked over the role of IMA cadets being commissioned and raised a query re the list sent by the commanding officer of IMA. How many SCs were on the list? I checked up and said 1 per cent. He wrote a strong note to Manekshaw. Jagjivan Ram wrote to Manekshaw saying that government had decided that there should be an SC reservation of 15 per cent and one for the STs of 7.5 per cent. Why is this not being observed?
Manekshaw sent for me. This DM has gone mad, he said, but we have to draft a reply. He knew Jagjivan Ram, and I was from Bihar. I found in the files a note that said that when reservations were introduced, there was a clause that said that this would not apply to the army.
So in my reply I said that this was the case. But that as far as ranks below officers were concerned we have more than 15 per cent Scheduled Castes already in the army. We have the Mahar regiment, and every battalion has 75-100 depressed classes as sweepers, cobblers, dhobis, etc. In terms of officers, we had hardly any SCs in 1947 but we are making progress and now have 1 per cent and it will grow further.
Since 1947, we have had continual conflicts and preparations for conflict. Under these conditions we cannot compromise national security. I accept it if the Minister wants to take action against me.
As Sinha told the story, “But of course (Manekshaw) was the hero of 1971, and when he came up with these reasons, and him being the hero of the war, there was little Jagjivan Ram could do.
One major achievement of the army in the mid- 1970s was to avoid being drawn into the growing political chaos before, during, and after the Emergency. At a time when an authoritarian leader was reaching out to the generals for support in Pakistan, the Indian military was determined neither to support the opposition, which was urging the army to disobey illegal orders, nor to give Mrs. Gandhi’s regime the more fulsome support it wanted.
From the army’s perspective, J.P. Narayan and other opposition leaders’ call to disobey illegal orders was an invitation to organizational collapse. As General K.V. Krishna Rao pointed out in his memoirs, it would be simply impossible for the average soldier to work out which were the orders that ought to be obeyed and which were not. General Krishna Rao describes how the Army officers realized that these calls, no matter how well-intentioned, had to be ignored before they ripped the army apart, and he expresses his relief that no officer or unit seemed to act upon them.
A second danger, after the Emergency rule was over, was that the Congress Party might be tempted to get the army to support its reimposition. This danger seems to have been especially acute just after the 1977 elections, in which Congress leaders were shocked at the scale of their electoral losses and Sanjay Gandhi in particular seems to have had second thoughts about handing over power to the Janata government.
Lieutenant General E.A. Vas, the adjutant general at the time, describes how the COAS, General Tapishwar Narain “Tappy” Raina, was called in to see Prime Minister Gandhi after the Congress had lost the election. Her son and political advisor Sanjay then walked in and suggested to General Raina that,
There are about 300 districts in the country. One infantry platoon is sufficient to control each district. Thus, we can control India by deploying 300 platoons or about 25 infantry battalions; a mere three or four infantry division. The Party, supported by paramilitary forces and the police, can deal with other administrative details.
Characteristically, Sanjay’s assessment was mathematically correct, militarily unsound and politically immature. Mrs Gandhi had uttered no word and displayed a blank face while her son was making this astonishing proposal. Tappy, a seasoned soldier with an impeccable record, was a man of quiet and sober habits. He spoke English and Urdu with a cultivated accent. He had lost one eye, and this enhanced his personality, enabling him always to display a controlled and disciplined exterior that gave him an aura of unflappable civilized composure. On this occasion, he ignored the young man and addressed his mother.
The Congress Party has ruled the country constitutionally for 30 years,” said Tappy. “You have held a fair election without any restraints. I am happy that history will record how the Congress under your leadership stepped down from office democratically.
The next day a conglomerate calling itself the Janata Party came into power.
In the spring of 2012, several prominent journalists from the newspaper Indian Express alleged that a few months earlier, on January 16-17, 2012, there had been unexplained large-scale troop movements in the direction of New Delhi that had made the civilian leadership and bureaucracy worry that a potential coup might be in progress. The civilian leadership and intelligence services were especially nervous, it seems, because the troop movements came in the midst of the very public fight between the COAS and Defence Minister A.K. Anthony over the proper seniority and retirement date of General Singh, a case which was due to be heard in the Supreme Court the next day.
The reports of unexplained troop movements and the civilian reaction were immediately dismissed by the Army, the Defence Minister, and the Prime Minister’s office, and a coup attempt seems very unlikely, but there were still a few loose strands to the story, and in February 2014, retired Lieutenant General A.K. Choudhary, the former Director General of Military Operations under General V.K. Singh, seemed to confirm many of the details of the original report in an interview with Indian Express.
Allegedly at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of January 16, the head of the Intelligence Bureau, Nehchal Sandhu, on hearing about the troop movements, phoned several former Defence Secretaries to check on protocols that existed for troop movements in the National Capital Region. Not happy with the lack of clarity on the troop movements, Sandhu contacted the Defence Secretary, Shashi Kant Sharma, who phoned General Chaudhary just before midnight and asked him to account for the movements and order the troops back to base. Chaudhary was told that there was concern at “the highest level,” and apparently the civilian and intelligence leadership was sufficiently worried to send a helicopter from Delhi the next morning with three intelligence officials on board (one from the Research and Analysis Wing), to check that the armoured vehicles were indeed on their way back to Hisar (in Haryana) and drove away from New Delhi.
The troop movements were in apparent violation of what one well-informed interviewer—in a TV programme after the report came out— said were established norms that there were to be no large-scale troop movements in the National Capital Region without prenotification and the permission of the Defence Ministry. The fact that these norms were in place was something tacitly admitted by Defence Minister of State Pallam Raju during an interview with TV journalist Karan Thapar, himself the son of a former COAS.
The controversy over the troop movements and whether they had or had not violated protocols that have surely been in place for the National Capital Region since at least the 1960s symbolized the continuing nervousness over potential threats from the army. Former COAS General V.P. Malik said in 2012 that “the harsh fact (is) that in civil and military relations, which have never been very cordial, the friction seems to have increased.”
Lieutenant General Choudhary, after his retirement in February 2014, referred to one reason for the civilian skittishness over the troop movements as due to distrust “between two individuals” and “immaturity” on both sides. Choudhary also reported that several months after the 2012 troop movements, new rules were put in place to make sure the army informed the civilian leadership about all major army movements in the National Capital Region.
This friction and nervousness do seem to have increased over the past decade, as political party competition in India itself has become more fractured, and as the army becomes less a society apart and more influenced by the corruption, caste conflicts, and bureaucratic backbiting that characterizes other parts of the polity. That said, we should not go overboard; the army is still held in wide esteem as one of the best-functioning institutions in the country, and as the focus of national pride.
It is also true that in the new cable news and internet environment in India, the mass media and press are ready to find controversy wherever they can, in the search for ratings and sales.
Excerpted from Steven Wilkinson’s (Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies, Yale University) recent book Army and Nation.
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