On 21 February, speaking at a seminar on the “North East Region of India – Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders”, General Bipin Rawat spoke about migration from Bangladesh and rise of the All India United Democratic Front. The comments kicked up an immediate storm with accusations that remarks like this indicate a growing politicisation of the Indian Army.
Such allegations have also been made in the past, particularly after the ‘surgical strikes’ of 2016. General Rawat himself stated in November last year, “Of late, we have been seeing that politicisation of the military has been taking place…We have a very vibrant democracy where the military should stay away from politics.”
How real is the danger of politicisation, and is the Indian military ethic strong enough to resist it? The answer to this question lies in the nature of civil-military relations and how the military views its role.
There are two classic models of civilian control. In his seminal work, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington recommends a system of ‘‘objective control’’ that ensures civilian control while maximising the professionalism of the military. He argues that, “In practice, officership is strongest and most effective when it most closely approaches the professional ideal; it is weakest and most defective when it falls short of that ideal’’. An officer corps is professional to the extent it exhibits the qualities of expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. “In addition to enhancing effectiveness, these traits also enhance civilian control because a professional military seeks to distance itself from politics.”
American sociologist Morris Janowitz also discussed civilian control in his book, The Professional Soldier, published three years after Huntington. He argued that an apolitical military is unrealistic, and that the military will invariably come to resemble a political pressure group. He stated that this is not necessarily a problem as long as it remains ‘‘responsible, circumscribed, and responsive to civilian authority’’. He recommended the military’s ‘‘meaningful integration with civilian values’’.
There has been extensive international debate on which system is preferable. However, there has never been any confusion in the Indian military, which has always followed the “objective control” model and distanced itself from politics while concentrating on developing its professionalism. In his book, The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation, Stephen P. Cohen says: “Probably no other group in South Asian society is so critical of politicians… and yet is so strong in its support of the political system.”
It is not only in politics, but the military has generally kept itself away from civil society, living in cantonments and practicing its own values. It is for this reason that I feel that the military is not about to start dabbling in politics. However, it would also be true to state that our military values are under pressure.
Today, the Army seems to be getting dragged into each and every debate in the media, whether it is about patriotism, nationalism, student politics or the national anthem. This repeated exposure could break down traditional values. As Shashi Tharoor wrote in India: From Midnight to the Millennium, “the best of India can only be preserved by insulating the Army from the pressures of the worst of India”.
There is also a feeling in the military that while the political leadership vocally supports the soldier, they are hesitant to give him his due. The angst over One Rank One Pension, the Seventh Pay Commission and status equation is real. The pace of weapons procurement and infrastructure development is slow. Communications by service chiefs, like the letter written by the Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba to the Defence Ministry requesting the government to review the decision to impose a cap on educational reimbursements for martyrs’ children, seem to evoke no positive response.
Therefore, there is talk among the officers about how the military is losing some of its importance and the need to project the military’s role in a different light, e.g. its importance in nation building. There are clear problems with this thought process. The trouble with clearing garbage in Ladakh and building bridges in Mumbai is not that the Army cannot execute it, but that it could come at the cost of its professionalism and its main responsibility of protecting the nation from threats to its security.
The real danger of politicising the military does not come from some statements of senior officers, often taken out of context, but from a breakdown of professionalism. This is what must be understood by political leaders of all parties. By letting the military concentrate on its primary task, keeping it out of political debates, and protecting the vital interests of its soldiers, they will only strengthen the quality of civilian control over the military. As Huntington wrote, “The professional military officer obeys the state not because he shares the outlook and values of its leadership, but simply because it is his professional responsibility to obey.”