Gravest Fault Line of our Polity

Unresolved Military-Civil Equation – Part I

It is ironic, historically speaking, that the one institution that was, at the time of transfer of power, in the best shape and form and whose services had almost immediately to be deployed to defend the State of Jammu and Kashmir, has taken an unconscionably long time to evolve an ironclad working equation with national political authority.

Those who led the Independence struggle against the Raj tended to regard, to begin with, the Army created by the British as an instrument of oppression deployed by their colonial masters against the Independence movement. This attitude is reflected in the oft-quoted comment of Gandhi.

“Up till now”, he had famously written, “the armed forces have only been employed in indiscriminate firing on us. Today they must plough the land, dig wells, clean latrines, and do every constructive work that they can, and thus turn the people’s hatred of them into love”.

(Judging from this perspective, the same can be said about all the then existing institutions. However it was the prescient insight of Sardar Patel that helped independent India to harness all these institutions to serve India’s development needs.)

Fortunately, almost immediately after Independence, the national perspective about India’s military, changed from being viewed as an imperial lackey to the nation’s saviour. What brought about this volte face? Thank Pakistan – our bête noir – for that, and its misguided decision to send its Army regulars disguised as tribals to force Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. The adventure misfired. This led to the State’s accession to India and the deployment of Indian Army to defend India’s territorial integrity – a job that endeared the Indian Jawan to a grateful nation.

Going back a little, may I narrate an anecdote recorded by Pyarelal and later popularized by our reputed defence analyst, the late K. Subramanyam while delivering the 6th Field Marshal KM Cariappa Memorial Lecture in Delhi.

Cariappa-Gandhi Meeting

Soon after the Indian independence, Cariappa had thundered at a meeting in London that in the then-prevailing circumstances, the concept of Ahimsa – Gandhian non-violence – was not going to be any help to India, and a powerful army alone could make it one of the strongest nations in the world.

Gandhi was, understandably, indignant at this candid outburst and shot back a rejoinder in Harijan, saying that even Generals greater than Cariappa would admit that they had no right to talk on non-violence. The concept of non-violence alone, the Mahatma said in his usual idealistic tone, could eliminate the causes and chances of wars.

Also, while undergoing the course at the Imperial Defence College in London, as a Major General in early 1947, General Cariappa was quoted as advocating that Jawaharlal Nehru and Jinnah should meet to work out a solution without partitioning India and in any event, division of the Indian Army should be averted.

Gandhi again reprimanded him, in no uncertain terms, in his weekly column in the Harijan for expressing his views on politics as a military man.

The General wanted to clarify matter with the Father of the Nation. They did not know each other personally and so he sought an audience. In December 1947, in full military attire, he visited Gandhi in Delhi. He called on the Mahatma, who was then staying in the Bhangi Colony on Panchkuian Road, New Delhi. When he reached Gandhi’s cottage, the meticulous soldier took off his shoes before entering the hut. Gandhi, who knew enough about soldiering, having served in the battlefield in South Africa during the Boer War, told him that his shoes were part of his uniform and, therefore, it was not proper to take them off. The General replied that according to Indian tradition a person did not wear shoes in the presence of a deity, mahatmas and saints.

After some polite conversation, General Cariappa came to the point. He told Gandhiji,

“I cannot do my duty well by the country if I concentrate only on telling troops of non-violence all the time, subordinating their main task of preparing themselves efficiently to be good soldiers. So I ask you, please, to give me the child’s guide to knowledge – tell me please, how I can put this over, that is, the spirit of non-violence to the troops without endangering their sense of duty to train themselves well professionally as soldiers.”

Gandhi replied,

“You have asked me to tell you in tangible and concrete form how you can put over to the troops the need for non-violence. I am still groping in the dark for the answer. I will find it and give it to you some day.”

The man was ruthlessly honest. Wasn’t he?

You find this story in Pyarelal’s book Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase. Pyarelal, you may recall, was Gandhiji’s private secretary at the time.

This was the candid answer of the apostle of non-violence to the first soldier of independent India. He did not have an answer, on how to defend India using non-violence.

This happened in December 1947. Gandhi indeed seemed to suffer from amnesia after Independence – a malady he passed on to Nehru as well. For centuries marauders from Central Asia had been invading India. Mahmud of Ghazni alone, for instance, had led seventeen raids into north-western India at the end of the 10th century. How did Gandhi forget that right from the seventh century onwards India had, on innumerable occasions, been invaded and humiliated militarily as the vanquished always are? Mahatma’s own beloved Gujarat was repeatedly invaded and Somnath temple desecrated mercilessly, Mahmud looting wealth worth 20-million Dinars. The famed temple was at immense distance from Ghanzni, but he had an easy passage because the then rulers of India couldn’t repulse him. The later day attacks of Nadir Shah in 1739 and Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1750’s should always be remembered by those who are charged to fashion India’s defence policies.

Following Pakistan’s invasion in January 1948, the Government was forced to defend, and for this fell back on the services of our Armed Forces. Next month, the Mahatma was assassinated. Even as Gandhiji was searching for an answer on how to use non-violence in defence, he approved and indeed strongly supported the use of the Indian Army to defend Kashmir against Pakistani invasion. Before assuming his command of the Kashmir operations Brigadier LP Sen obtained Gandhiji’s blessings.

It would have required enormous moral courage on the part of General Cariappa to raise the issue of non-violence in defence with the Mahatma. It is a pity that this exchange between the Mahatma and the General has not been publicised widely. This exchange made it clear that Gandhi, who successfully practiced non-violence in the offensive mode vis a vis the British Raj, which was on the defensive, had not resolved the problem of application of non-violence to defence and therefore, as was demonstrated in Kashmir, was prepared to support the use of the Indian Army in defence.

Civilian-Military Equation

Despite its almost immediate need of military to deal with the Kashmir situation, the civilian nationalists who took charge of India in 1947 wanted to pare down the military and keep it firmly in line. Many of the Congress party’s leading figures at this stage were the products of Oxbridge or the Inns of Court or both (Jawaharlal Nehru for instance). Both Gandhi and Jinnah were barristers. They were, therefore, familiar with English constitutional and legal theories about the necessary subordination of the military to the civilian power. Nehru, in particular, was intellectually ambivalent about the military.

The Indian army is, as we know, a professional and wholly non-sectarian body. It is also apolitical. Almost from the first moments of Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru made it clear to the army top brass that in matters of state – both large and small – they had to subordinate themselves to the elected politicians.

At the time of the transfer of power the army was still headed by a British general, who had ordered that the public be kept away from a flag-hoisting ceremony to be held on the day after Independence.

As prime minister, Nehru rescinded the order, and wrote to the general as follows:

“While I am desirous of paying attention to the views and susceptibilities of our senior officers, British and Indian, it seems to me that there is a grave misunderstanding about the matter. In any policy that is to be pursued, in the Army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy, he has no place in the Indian Army, or in the Indian structure of Government. I think this should be made perfectly clear at this stage.”

A year later, it was Vallabhbhai Patel’s turn to put a British general in his place. When the government decided to move against the Nizam, the Army chief, General Roy Bucher, warned that sending troops into Hyderabad might provoke Pakistan to attack Amritsar. Patel told Bucher in his characteristically forthright manner that if he opposed the Hyderabad action he was free to resign. The general tamely backed down, and sent the troops as ordered.

Because of his socialist inclinations, his commitment to Gandhian ideals, and his belief in internationalism and non-alignment, Nehru was ambivalent towards the Military. After 1947, he maintained, for instance, a ceiling on the Indian army of 175,000 men. Until the Chinese shook him up, the defence budget was kept tight, as resources were shifted to industrial development as per his developmental priorities as spelled out in Five Year Plans. Also, various constitutional and symbolic devices were adopted to underline military subordination to the civil power. Thus Nehru pointedly selected as his prime ministerial residence in New Delhi, Teen Murti House, which before 1947 had been the mansion of the British Commander in Chief in India, the second most important position after the Viceroy during the Raj. The office of Commander-in-Chief was abolished, and each of the three services was given its own chief of staff (thereby of course carefully encouraging inter-service rivalry).

These service chiefs, and other senior Indian officers, were expected to communicate with the politicians only through the Defence Ministry, which was headed by a civilian and staffed solely by civil servants. There were also changes in the warrants of precedence in 1951 and 1963 – and again, after Nehru’s death, in 1971 – so that even the most senior army, navy and air force officers were placed below civilian grandees from the Supreme Court, the cabinet secretariat, and even various state bureaucracies.

This distancing from and diminution of things military had its downside. Nehru’s choice of civilian defence ministers was repeatedly unwise and injudicious. His instinctive suspicion of those wearing uniform sometimes compromised Indian foreign policy. When in 1951 the Chief of the Army Staff, General Cariappa, delivered a lengthy warning to Nehru about Chinese military pretensions, he was, as pointed out by C.B. Khanduri in Field Marshal K M Cariappa: His Life and Times, bluntly told it was not his job “to tell the Prime Minister who is going to attack us where”. Until the 1962 debacle, defence budget never absorbed more than 14 per cent of central government expenditure, and the armed forces were left seriously under-funded. For instance, in the 1962 War, Indian troops dispatched to fight the Chinese had no emergency rations; some of the lower ranks even lacked boots and basic equipment since India’s ordnance factories were, under Defence Minister Krishna Menon’s orders, directed to divert their production facilities to turn out espresso machines.

Any assessment of why civilian rule was able to take tenacious root in India has to give the credit almost entirely to Nehru. His political stature and commitment were very largely responsible for the firm civilian supremacy over the military.

Also longevity in office contributed. It is sometimes forgotten that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was just as ambivalent about the military as Nehru, and just as desirous in Pakistan to keep it in line. “You do not make national policy”, he told his soldiers: “it is we, the civilians, who decide these issues”. Of course Qaid-e-Azam didn’t stop at that. He – peace be upon him – went to the extent of getting passed in a Cabinet meeting presided over by him on December 30, 1947 that:

no question of policy or principle would be decided except at a Cabinet meeting presided over by the Quaid-i-Azam and that in the event of any difference of opinion between him and the Cabinet – not just the PM – the decision of the Quaid would be final and binding. (Italics added)

Did he want to be a de facto dictator wearing the fig leaf of democratic nomenclature? Across the border, Nehru couldn’t go that far. But Jinnah died in 1948, only thirteen months after getting the country partitioned and couldn’t therefore leave any lasting imprint on the civilian-military equation which Nehru did.

Continued to 
Building Crucial Civil-Military Equation - Gen. Cariappa’s Significant Contribution


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3313      Comments: 3

Comment The principle of the independence movement was that India had a right to self-rule. Once independence was achieved, the right to self-rule would morph into a defence of that right, and Gandhi would have realised the distinction. It appeared to him to contradict the principle of non-violence as applied in non-violent resistance to British Rule; but there was no resistance to maintain when independent, and 'non-violent defence' is a contradiction in terms. Non-violence on its own is an abstraction: Gandhi’s perplexity was in divorcing the principle from its application.

20-Apr-2013 22:44 PM

Comment An excellent article every Indian should read. It deals with an area which is unknown to most of us. This explains why India is different from Pakistan, why, in spite of everything, our country has been able to keep the democratic tradition alive. Incidentally, Lord Curzon had to leave India because of his row with his Commander-in-chief Kitchener who could not tolerate the subordination of the military by the civil authority. This is unthinkable in a democracy and at that time India was not a democratic state. The same thing could not be allowed in Britain.

kumud biswas
20-Apr-2013 04:31 AM

Comment The development of the post independent Indian politics and its subsequent fault lines are nicely articulated with historical events and facts as the back drop. This perspective is a must to find any corrective remedies.

You should be a Professor of Modern Indian Political History - and if you were - I would line up to be one of your students.

Looking forward to reading the sequel on this article on Civil-Military Equation.

19-Apr-2013 23:33 PM

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