Published daily by the Lowy Institute

India's civil-military dysfunction

India's civil-military dysfunction
Published 9 Dec 2013 

Various Indian newspapers have reported that Indian Defence Miniser AK Anthony has written to all the country's political parties requesting their opinions on the creation of a long-mooted Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post for the armed forces. 

This might appear to be an arcane point of military reform. In any case, nothing will be done until next year's election, and the idea of 'consulting' other parties has been a way to kick the can down the road. But the question of whether India needs a CDS touches on some of the most important questions of civilian control over one of Asia's most powerful militaries at precisely the moment when India's civil-military relations are fraught with difficulty.

Historically, India has had one of the most civilian-dominated armed forces of any democratic nation. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, viewed the military as a colonial instrument and disliked what he described as its culture of violence and obedience. In the 1950s, periodic coup rumours were worsened by next-door Pakistan's army takeovers.

These fears lingered long after Indian democracy firmed up. [fold]

Stephen Cohen, an authority on the Indian military, has written that 'senior intelligence officers indicate that they have detected at least three major coup attempts by Indian generals', most recently in the late 1980s. Cohen points out that 'there is no credible evidence of such plots, but insecure politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom have a stereotyped image of the military, listen to these warnings'. I've heard several Indian generals complain about the lengths to which India's domestic intelligence service, the Intelligence Bureau, will go to keep tabs on what officers are up to.

Last year, during a period in which then army chief VK Singh was locked in an administrative dispute with the Defence Ministry over his age of retirement, those insecurities re-emerged after reports of curious troop movements towards Delhi, prompting the brief activation of contingency plans for mutinies. The military, in turn, resented what they dismissed as 'this phobia or paranoid feeling...utilised by various other groups, to keep the armed forces slightly away' from policy making. On top of all this, members of the armed forces are furious about what they see as eroding pay, pension, and status in comparison to their civilian counterparts.

These accumulated anxieties largely explain why successive Indian governments, from Nehru's onwards, have ignored the recommendations of committee after committee that the army, navy and air force should be knitted together by something other than the relatively powerless institutions currently in place. Some have suggested a CDS with command functions, like Australia's Chief of the Defence Force. Others, like analyst K Subrahmanyam, looked to the US model: a Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJS) with purely staff functions, and theatre commanders actually in charge of troops.

Either way, the point is simple: to provide the government with better military advice, and dampen what defence journalist Ajai Shukla once called 'an increasingly unhealthy fratricidal competition for attention, roles and resources' between the three service arms. Amalgamation would allow a more coherent defence strategy to emerge, rather than the seemingly ad hoc and halting process we see today. But every time the issue has come up, the air force and navy have opposed the idea on the basis that the larger army would dominate them, while bureaucrats and politicians (in government and opposition) have fretted that the post would become too powerful, perhaps one day challenging democratic supremacy.

Complicating all this is a series of events that have put India's civil-military relations under 'unprecedented stress', in the words of historian Srinath Raghavan.

Following his quarrel with the government and subsequent retirement, former army chief VK Singh made a public appearance alongside opposition BJP leader and favourite to be India's next prime minister, Narendra Modi, at an event where Modi was mobilising ex-servicemen. Some newspapers even speculated — wrongly, as it turned out — that Singh was about to join the BJP. Immediately afterwards, a six-month old internal army report was leaked to the press documenting the activities of a 40-man military intelligence unit established in Delhi during VK Singh's tenure, alleged to have bribed Kashmiri politicians, tapped phone calls in the capital, and sponsored bombings in neighbouring countries. 

Whether or not VK Singh's activities were sanctioned, the point is that the level of mutual distrust between civilians and those in uniform has rarely been higher, with a more garrulous army and insecure civilians both willing to air their grievances in the press. The wrangle with VK Singh is just one symptom of the anxieties outlined above.

Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to imagine that even a change in government next year would shake things up sufficiently to reset civil-military relations and lead to the creation of a CDS or CJS. If these trends continue, there are longer-term implications for India's military effectiveness, military modernisation, and its burgeoning defence relationships with other countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Photo by Flickr user Suyash.

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