Civil-Military Relations In India, The Role Of The Media
Invariably, and it is the trend all over the world, media promotes negative news more than the positive news. And that is because negative news sells. So, it is but natural that in recent months, the media has been focusing on some of the unfortunate and unwelcome developments as far as the civil-military relations in the country are concerned. We have seen some political parties describing the present Army Chief as a “street goonda” over his actions in Kashmir. Some leaders have described the present Air Chief as “a liar”. And some political elements have utilised the controversy surrounding the procurement of the Rafale fighter planes to drive a wedge between the Air Force and the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. And then we have seen earlier the controversies over the OROP, AFSPA and Siachen that dominated the news.
Given this, what I intend to do is to point out some broad features of the civil-military relations in India and the disruptive elements therein. And then I will highlight the role of the media in it.
To begin with, our Armed Forces, comprising the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, have a strength of about 15 lakh personnel and we have over 28 lakh ex-servicemen. If the families of our serving and retired officers and men are also taken into account, we have more than 2 crore people, whom we can describe to be belonging to the broad military-family.
Of course, some of them, particularly the military elites, have joined the civilian sectors, including politics, after retirement. Some retired service chiefs have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the government and made Governors and Ambassadors. One retired Major General, B K Khanduri, became first a union minister and then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. At present, one former Army, General V K Singh is a union minister. He had won the Lok Sabha elections. If one talks of officers of lesser ranks, many of them have also been successful politicians and parliamentarians. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh also has an Army background. Of course, unlike in some major western democracies, in India former Chiefs of the armed forces have not become the chief political executives of the country. For instance, General Charles de Gaulle became the President of the French and in the United States, two Generals, U S. Grant and D. Eisenhower, turned out to be very powerful Presidents.
Having said that let it be noted that India has been one few decolonised countries where there have been neither military coups nor distinct domination of the military over the politics. And it is not a mean achievement, compared to what we have seen in newly independent countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including those such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar in our immediate neighbourhood. In fact, controlling the military has been one of the biggest challenges for all the post-colonial democracies.
There are many factors why India has not been military-dominated, but two of them are particularly noteworthy. One, of course, is the democratic nature of our freedom struggle and deep commitment to democracy by India’s political leaders, cutting across parties and regions, soon after independence.
Secondly, the Indian armed forces have been thoroughly heterogeneous in the sense that the composition of the forces has been from not only all the regions of a vast country but also representative of all classes, castes and ethnicities. Invariably military coups or dominations take place in those countries where the armed forces come from a dominant community, class or the region. For example, in Pakistan, the Army has an overwhelmingly dominant representation of about 70% from Punjab, its largest state.
In contrast, the Indian military, over time, has internalised the idea of civilian control and its professional ethos prides itself of being ‘apolitical’. This phenomenon can be best described in terms what late American political scientist Samuel P Huntington had described in his 1957 classic “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” , according to which, the optimal means of asserting control over the armed forces is to professionalise them. This is in contrast to “subjective control”, which involves placing legal and institutional restrictions on the military’s autonomy.
According to Huntington, ‘professionalism’ entails a mutually binding relationship between society and its ‘professionals'(officers). The latter are entrusted with evaluating the security of the state and providing expert advice to its leaders, who, in turn, must afford a measure of deference to their professional expertise and institutions, without usurping, for instance, the military hierarchy such as “appointing a lieutenant to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff”.
Huntington argued that allowing military professionals autonomy within their own realm minimised the danger of military intervention in politics by “rendering them politically sterile and neutral” and “at the same time, ensuring that a professional officer corps carries out ‘the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state’”.
On the other hand, “the subjective control” presupposes “military participation in politics”, with the society or the state moulding the military in its own image either by transplanting civilian elites into the military or by promoting senior military officers on the basis of their political beliefs.
Huntington described how the two ideologies – fascism and Marxism – based on authoritarianism resulted in “subjective control”, which, in turn, could boomerang in military backlash and coups.
In the specific context of India, there are scholars who cite traces of “subjective control” during the India-China war in 1962 and fight against the LTTE in 1987-90. There are some instances when the government of the day has appointed chiefs by overlooking the normal factor of seniority. There are also the unhealthy practices of neglecting the military inputs in determining strategic goals and over-influence of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence. So much so that late strategic guru K Subrahmanyam wrote, “this directly translates into a system where politicians enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without any accountability and the military assumes responsibility without any direction’.
However, despite these aberrations, Indian military, by and large, fits into Huntington’s framework of objective control. The political class in the country has rarely intervened in purely military matters. And the military has hardly threatened the civilian leadership on any issue. Broadly, both have developed a healthy system of negotiations and bargaining on most of the issues, notwithstanding some aberrations that I pointed out at the outset. But then there are some structural issues in this relationship that need to be addressed if this healthy relationship has to be endured.
In a narrow meaning, the core of civil-military relations is the distribution of social and political power in a society. Harmonious relations depend on successful interactions in which the interests of both sides are satisfied, and the military can do its job properly. A fundamental problem arises when there is the dissonance in views of the civilian and military leadership on the proper role of the military in policy formulation and decision making. Here, the civilian administration considers the military as an agency that should deliver on policy decisions taken by them, but the military considers itself an equal stakeholder in the decision-making on security issues.
It is not too difficult for a military man to accept an adverse decision based on nonmilitary considerations. But it is difficult for him to accept adverse decision on military considerations. The maintenance of a high degree of military professionalism is essential to the preservation of our nation’s security. The challenge to military professionalism is reflected in each of what Samuel P. Huntington calls the essential characteristics of a profession: corporateness and responsibility.
A sense of corporateness is especially strong in the military profession. Like other professions the military has its community of interests, common experiences and common values which bind the profession together. But two additional factors make the corporateness of the military especially strong. First, the military man can pursue his profession only within his own national military establishment. Although he may transfer some of his expertise to other areas of endeavour, he cannot continue as an active member of the military profession outside the national military establishment. Second, the sharing of common danger, inherent in the profession, provides a unifying bond-and one which grows stronger as the danger becomes more immediate. Moreover, geographically, politically and philosophically the military profession lived its own life in a military society set apart from the normal society.
A fundamental challenge to military corporateness today stems from the fact that the military is no longer isolated from the mainstream of Indian life. The military has become intermingled with civilian society both within their local communities and in the nation. In the intermingling process, many military officers have become less willing to sacrifice personal convenience and have become more concerned with the adequacy of military pay than when they were living on military stations isolated from the impact of the more attractive wages and hours of work of the civilian community.
Similarly, while with the change of time, the responsibility of the military has clearly increased, their authority has been progressively eroded. The military today does both external and internal duties, but their power has been continuously diminishing. The political leadership tends to be influenced more by the civilian advisers than the military officials and nongovernmental experts in thinks tanks, academia and media. In the official hierarchy, the military officers are also losing their eminence.
In short, we have a serious problem in our higher defence management process, with the military resenting the civilian supremacy over what it considers to be strictly military matters. We have not been able to consider the long-standing proposal on creating the post of a single-point military advisor (to the government), whether it is the CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) or a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PCCOSC). And then there has been the lingering question on the need of an integrated Ministry of Defence (MoD).
(The 11-member committee led by Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd), which included several other top military officers as well as civilian experts, had submitted the report last month. The committee was set up in May this year to chalk out an action plan to enhance the combat capabilities of the over 13-lakh-strong armed forces and “re-balance” the overall defence expenditure in view of the escalating salary and pension bills. The basic idea was that utilisation of the resources and the manpower in a judicious manner would not only save money but also sharpen the capabilities.
It may be noted that Shekatkar committee report is not the first of its kind to suggest reforms in the Higher Defence Management (HDM) of the country. We have had the report of the task force led by former MoS Defence Arun Singh (2000) and the report of Naresh Chandra (former Cabinet Secretary) national task force (2012) on similar themes in a more detailed manner. The 11-member committee led by Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) in 2017) Of course, here, the three armed services are not even on the same wave length. They all agree on an integrated ministry so as to be at par with their civilian counterparts, but differ when the question of integration of the services themselves arises.
As things stand today, there are seven major participating groups dealing with India’s defence, with each one, to quote retired Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara, “jealously guarding its turf and mistrustful of the other six” . These seven groups are — three military services, and the non-military four concerned with overall direction, finance, research and development(R&D), and (defence) production. But these seven are inside the MoD; there are three others outside the domain having considerable influence on the defence matters – the Ministry of Finance (controlling the defence spending), the Cabinet Secretariat (policy matters that have implications for other ministries) and the Prime Minister’s Office (which can always intervene or arbiter selectively).
The three services do have a point when they say that though their chiefs sit in the South Block office of the MoD, their offices are designated as “Attached Offices of the Department of Defence”.
And what is worse, as retired Admiral Arun Prakash rightly points out, the three Chiefs have been accorded “no locus standi in the structure of the GoI, so much so, that the Secretary of Department of Defence is deemed to represent the three Services in most forums”.
According to the “Government of India Allocation of Business Rules” (AoB Rules) and the “Government of India Transaction of Business Rules” (ToB Rules), the Secretary of DoD (a IAS officer) is allocated the responsibilities of “(a) Defence of India and every part thereof including preparation for defence and all such acts as may be conducive in times of war to its prosecution and after its termination to effective Demobilisation; (b) The Armed Forces of the Union, namely, Army, Navy and Air Force; (c) Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence comprising of Army Headquarters, Naval Headquarters, Air Headquarters and Defence Staff Headquarters”.
In contrast, in equivalent democracies of the United Kingdom and United States, service officers are very much part of the MoD, occupying important positions. Under the amended rules brought out by the then British Defence Minister (Secretary of State for Defence) Michael Heseltine in 1985, in the integrated Ministry of Defence, the Secretary has two principal advisers – one is the Chief of Defence (CDS) representing the armed forces and the other is the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) representing the civilian side – with neither being subordinate to the other. Then there are the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS), Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief of Defence Procurement. Under this scheme, individual Service Chiefs in UK have only a limited role to play in policy formulation, even though they have been allowed the privilege of direct access to the Prime Minister. As regards the composition of the below, there is a mix of military and civilian officers. Here, a military official reports to a civilian official, who, in turn, reports to a defence official in the hierarchy and the vice versa.
Similarly in the United States, Pentagon is manned by both the military and civilian officials. The Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff (JCS), is the principal military adviser to the President and Defence Secretary according to the ‘Goldwater-Nicholas Department of Defense Reorganisation Act’ of 1986. Under this Act, the military chain of command in the US runs from the president through the defense secretary directly to “the Unified Combatant Commanders” in various parts of the world and thus bypasses the service chiefs, who, though have the role of advising the president and the defence secretary, are principally concerned with training and equipping personnel for their respective forces for the unified combatant commands.
In India, we have the Andaman and Nicobar Command, which is the only tri-service theater command of the Indian Armed Forces, based at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar. This was established in 2001 as per the suggestion of Arun Singh committee-report. But this committee’s main recommendation for creating a CDS could not be carried out; what was done instead was the formation in 2001 of the post of the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). But the problem with the COSC system is that the chairman here is the senior-most service chief (in terms of years served), who is the first and foremost chief of his own service. Therefore, he has the little time for the job of COSC. Secondly, there are often quick successions in this post as the senior most service chief retires (upon attaining the age of superannuation) within months of assuming the position. So there is hardly any time for him to develop his vision.
That is why the Arun Singh committee strongly recommended for a separate post of the CDS. The Naresh Chandra committee talked of a different designation, “Permanent Chairman COSC” (This committee had also talked of deputation of officers from services up to director’s level in the MoD). The idea is that irrespective of the designation, this office, like its counterparts in the UK and USA, will be able to undertake perspective planning, including force structures and defence expenditure, to the Defence Minister.
In fact, Stephen P Cohen, one of the foremost experts in the world on the Indian military has written in his classic, The Indian Army: Its contribution to the development of a nation, how from time to time various army chiefs have been in favour of a CDS (KM Cariappa in 1949, J N Chaudhuri in 1965, Krishna Rao in 1982), but the idea was strongly resented by both the civilians and other services. Initially, the political leadership was afraid that a CDS would be too powerful at a time when newly liberated countries were witnessing military coups. Subsequently, the bureaucrats suggested that a CDS would naturally empower the Army at the cost of the Navy and Air Force; in fact they encouraged the inter- services rivalry. So much so that when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, impressed as she was with the leadership of then Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw during the 1971 War, suggested to appoint him as the first CDS of independent India, this was vehemently opposed by the then Naval Chief, Admiral S M Nanda and then Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal P C Lal.
The latest one heard in this regard was when the then Air Chief P V Naik openly reacted against Naresh Mohan committee’s recommendation of a Permanent COSC by arguing that whereas integration of services under such an officer is relevant for countries like the United States that fights wars outside the country, in India’s case it is not so as operations are only “confined to our shores”.
Be that as it may, the idea of a CDS/Permanent COSC generates fears among the services under the notion that he will be partial in favour of his own service and neglect the other two. They are not convinced by the counter-arguments that such will not be the case as the number two to CDS/Permanent COSC will be from other services and that he will operate through the Integrated Defence Staff that consists of personnel from all three services, apart from the senior civilian officers.
In other words, there is a big factor of inter-services rivalry that is a stumbling block on the path of an integrated MoD in the ideal sense of the term. They may all agree on their fight against the civilians for pay and ranks, but when it comes to “promoting jointness” in military matters, the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy have different ideas. There is an intense rivalry amongst them.
Now let me come to the role of the media. The media, true to its nature, has, more often than not, exacerbated these differences between the military and the civilians on the one hand and created on the other hand a love-and hate relationship with the government as a whole ( representing both the civilians and the military) in matters of collecting information and their dissemination. Three points here are noteworthy.
The first is that the media has often acted as a forum for elite debates over the formulation of defence policy and has also been utilised as a means of furthering the conduct of bureaucratic tussles at the governmental level over the development of defence policy. The second is that this tendency, despite the best efforts of the government to ‘centralise’ media management, has been consolidated by the increasing diversification of the media in the Internet age. This tendency has already had a disturbing impact on the government at the time of taking a rational decision on vital security issues, including military operations and wars. The third issue is the persistence of an uncertain media-government relationship over official secrets and national security. These factors combined, in turn, have been further complicated by the questionable ability of the media to remain completely independent as it becomes increasingly subject to a competing array of interests at the interface of the corporate, government and military sectors. We have seen this over the acquiring of Rafale fighter aircraft.
With regard to the relationship between the media and the military, it has always been a matter of “love and hate”. A journalist wants information but the military is not always in a position to tell the truth. American generals never spoke the truth when they were losing the war in Vietnam. There are times when the journalists themselves get influenced by the military. During a war, the journalists often move along with the troops and begin to identify themselves too closely with the officers and soldiers.
On the other hand, there are times when the military officers succumb to the charm of the media glamour. They lose the balance and discipline and say things which may not be the reality but ensure for themselves headlines and temporary glory. In this age of “breaking stories”, it is entirely possible that the scoops are based on uninformed and out-of-proper-context information that has been “disclosed” by the military sources.
What then is the solution? Well, there cannot be any objective criteria of what to report, when to report and how to report. Definition of what is selectivity, being discreet and responsibility in sharing information having impact on national security often varies from person to person and is always a matter of subjectivity. And that means there will be always media-generated or media-accelerated controversies on civil-military relations , particularly in democracies like ours. This is the bitter truth.
( A talk delivered at Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration, Mussoorie on February 28, 2019)
By Prakash Nanda