Affairs, Civil And Military
By the time you read this, the Supreme Court of India would have decided the course of the controversy surrounding the Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh’s “date of birth”. At the time of writing, the two sides—the Army Chief and the Government of India—seem to be sticking to their respective positions. General Singh says that he was born on May 10, 1951 and this is the date on the basis of which he got all his promotions up to the rank of Lt General. The government of India, that is, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), says that the General’s date of birth should be May 10, 1950 as he had agreed to this date at the time of being considered as a Corps Commander and then as the Army Chief.
I do not intend to go to the merits or otherwise of the General’s case, even though I find that he is on a stronger wicket. There are greater merits in his contention and enough has been written on the subject. Instead, what I intend to focus on is how the controversy has been reflecting poorly on the civilian-military relationship in India, of late. After all, it is first time since Independence that a serving Army Chief has gone to the highest court of the country seeking justice, which, he thinks, has been denied to him by the MoD. Unfortunately, neither the Defence Minister nor the Prime Minister nor the President (who also happens to be the Supreme Commander of the country) has intervened effectively to resolve the matter.
When one talks of civil-military relationship, India, contrary to the trends existing in our part of the world, has a proud and deep-rooted system that ensures supremacy of the elected government over the military. And this has added great strength to our vibrant democracy. In contrast, see what is happening in our neighbourhood. Maldives has just witnessed a coup, supported by its armed forces that include even the Police. Last month, there was an attempted coup in Bangladesh. Though it failed, one was reminded once again of how fragile was democracy in Bangladesh, a country that did witness two prolonged spells of military dictatorship. In the neighbouring Myanmar, notwithstanding all talks of political relaxations in recent months, the fact remains that the military junta is the real and ultimate ruler. If Nepal is yet to adopt a democratic constitution after the overthrow of the monarchy, it is essentially due to the fact that the ruling Maoists are not prepared to ensure their armed cadres—the so-called Maoist Army—surrender arms and accept the supremacy of an elected civilian government.
The roots of democracy in Pakistan are skin-deep. The whole world knows that ultimately it is the writ of the Army that runs in Pakistan. The Army owns major economic assets in Pakistan. The normal laws of the country do not apply to the armed forces. Even when the country has a semblance of democratic rule (and it has been very rare), say of Bhuttos, Sharifs or Zardari as is the case now, last words on foreign policy, security contours and scientific establishments are that of the Army. No wonder why it is said that Pakistan is not a country with an Army but an Army with a country. In fact, the Pakistan—model is a replica of the one that one sees in China, Pakistan’s most important ally and India’s most formidable adversary and neighbour. The totalitarian communist regime in China draws its real strength from the fact that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a part of the leadership. Whosoever is the chairman of the central military commission is the real ruler of China, not its President or the Prime Minister. It may be noted here that whether it was Mao Tse-tung or Deng Xiao-ping, the chairmanship of the military that made each of them “Strong Man”, the term used globally, China’s most powerful leader.
If we look a little farther towards West Asia and North Africa, the region in the news following the so-called Arab Spring, the dictators who have been toppled—the likes of Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Abdullah Saleh in Yemen—were essentially soldiers. The military factor also explains the present troubles in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is not exactly a military man, but he is in power because he inherited from his late father Hafez al-Assad, who assumed Presidency through a coup in 1966. Prior to that, he was the “General” and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force.
All the aforesaid examples underscore the point that we are living in an area where democratic ethos is not usually strong. In that sense, we are a proud country to have defied this trend and developed a political culture in which the political leadership has emerged as the most important factor, affecting the forms of civilian control over the military. We should be equally proud of our armed forces that they, unlike their counterparts in the region, have internalised the concept of civilian supremacy. The basic features of our institutionalised systems and processes for operational and administrative control of the military by civil leadership are very sound.
However, if anything that the episode involving the present Army Chief has highlighted, it is the unfortunate trend amongst our civilian leadership—and this includes the civilian bureaucracy in the MoD- and a section of intelligentsia—and this includes some misguided civil rights activists—to put the armed forces in a poor light. The genuine grievances of the military are shown as its defiance of the civilian supremacy. If the Army says that it does not want any dilution of the Armed Forces Special Act that provides the officers some immunity in carrying out internal-security work, a work that is supposed to be done by the normal Police forces under normal circumstances, then it is being braded as an act of defiance. All told, if under normal laws the police are not able to control a situation, how can the Army achieve results under the same legal constraints? In fact, the Army is called into the internal security work, something the Army does not like and has repeatedly said not to be interested in, because situations at times are abnormal. That being the case, why shouldn’t one see merits in the Army’s arguments that special laws enabling its officers to deliver in abnormal situations are the needs of the hour?
Similarly, it is being alleged that it is because of the Army’s defiance in the knotty Siachen issue—the army is not prepared to forgo its present advantages over the Pakistanis in the world’s highest battle field—that India is not able to reach a peace- agreement with Pakistan. Nothing can be more unfair to the army. As it has been seen in the wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999, advantages earned by the heroic deeds of our military were surrendered without eliciting any peaceful gestures from the Pakistani side. That is why our armed forces are hesitant to repeat the past mistakes.
In my humble opinion, the armed forces do have and should have a voice in the operational matters. But it is the political leadership that should have a final say in the broad strategic and administrative matters. The idea is to find the right balance in the relationship between the armed forces and the civilian leadership. There is no question of any scope for military chauvinism. But at the same time it has to be ensured that the military is not shown as an inferior organisation. Like all other organs of the State, the military’s ultimate allegiance is to protect and preserve the Indian Constitution. Every Indian soldier is as much an Indian as we civilians are. Their grievances need to be seen with care. Unfortunately, our political leadership, obsessed as it is with vote-bank politics, has been, more often than not, arrogant or negligent in taking our armed forces and their needs for granted. That explains why our forces do not have the latest weapons and equipment to fight. And that explains why General VK Singh was forced to go to the country’s apex court.
By Prakash Nanda