The increasing politicisation of the issue of the One Rank One Pension (Orop) for the retired armed forces personnel seems to be disturbing the delicate civil-military relations (CMR) in the country. India has been one of the 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, 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. This explains why a Subedar’s son has become the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) as is the case with present Chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag. This will be unimaginable in a country like Pakistan. Invariably military coups or dominations take place in those countries where the armed forces come from a dominant community, class or region. For example, in Pakistan, the Army has an overwhelmingly dominant representation of about 70 per cent from Punjab, its largest state, and most of its officers happen to come from the upper feudal strata of the Society.
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, “the theory of objective civilian control”, 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’”.
Subsequently, some scholars brought slight modifications in Hunting’s thesis of objective control. In his 1999 book, Civilian Control Of The Military: The Changing Security Environment, Michael Desch espouses a construct with a thin permeable layer operating between “political ends” and “military means”. In this model, though there is substantial military autonomy in the military, technical and operational realms (how to fight wars) in return for complete subordination to civilian control of politics and grand strategy (when, and whether, to fight them), in exceptional circumstances there can be civilian intervention in what would normally be the military realm and vice versa. But Desch is emphatic that in the ultimate analysis, civilians must prevail in the event of divergence between civilian and military preferences.
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. Dealings with the Chiefs sometimes by the government of the day have also shown some political overtones. In a clear violation of the seniority principle just before the imposition of Emergency in 1975, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appointed Lt. General T N Raina as the COAS by superseding a more senior officer. She did this for the second time in 1983 by appointing Lt. General A S Vaidya as the COAS, who was junior to then Vice Chief Lt. General S K Sinha. The latter, to keep his dignity, resigned from the Army. Next such incident was under the Vajpayee regime, when in 1998 the Navy Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who was having a turbulent relationship with the then Defence Minister George Fernades, was dismissed from the job on the ground of “deliberate defiance of the government.”
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. But this does not mean that there have been no healthy differences between the two. However, these differences have been essentially on the personnel policy - pays, perks, distribution of power and responsibilities between the military and civilian officials. It is a fact that while the military does not have any problem with the supremacy of the civilian political leadership, it does grudge the increasing domination of the civilian officials (bureaucracy). Its consistent demand for integrated ministry of defence, an issue that needs a separate analysis, has fallen on deaf ears.
It is perhaps not well-known that even in individual services, there are substantial civilians. In his book, Society, State and Security, Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara has shown that civilians constitute 42 percent in the three uniformed services. In addition, there are lakhs of civilians working in ordnance factories and defence public sector undertakings, and they make up nearly 26 percent of the personnel. Naturally, therefore, there are frequent frictions over pay and perks.
It is also a fact that since independence, ranking military officers have come down in the government’s warrants of precedence vis-a-vis the civilian officers. There are also 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 the 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, the heartening feature of Indian democracy has been that these legitimate grievances of the military have been subject to a healthy system of negotiations and bargaining by the government of the day. Unfortunately, this delicate balance – seen under “objective control”—seems to have been broken by the current manner of agitation over the Orop. And here three aspects of the agitation are really worrisome.
First, the agitators’ main arguments that armed forces are unique, that their services to the country are incomparable and that they must get superior treatment compared to other services. This demand is essentially fascist in nature. Because of the nature of their work, they need “special treatment” and “special incentives”. One may have no problem with that. But when they openly say they are “superior” to others, the demand becomes dangerous. They are not in a mood to listen to any voices towards compromise and rationality.
Secondly, most of the Orop agitators seem to be hailing from four to five states, thus negating the principle of heterogeneity in the composition of Indian armed forces. Thirdly, there are distinct political overtones in their demands—see the way they are trying to lampoon some ministers and bureaucrats and the way some political leaders are blindly but dangerously supporting their causes and leaders, without hesitating to be seen publicly with them. Incidentally, some of the agitators have even formed special outfits to fight elections. There is already one by Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, who, many military veterans (with whom I have interacted) agree, is playing possibly the dirtiest role in politicising the Orop agitation.
In my considered view, the Modi government is the most military friendly government in independent India’s history. It is not often highlighted that Modi has two ministerial colleagues who are from the military background (I do not think it ever happened before)—a former Army Chief and a former Colonel. Earlier one had only seen retiring bureaucrats entering the electoral race and becoming ministers. In the last general elections too, a former Home Secretary and a former Commissioner of Police were successful in becoming the ruling party MPs, but Modi broke past pattern by choosing General V K Singh and Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as members in the Union Council of Ministers.
Under normal circumstances, it is under the Modi government that two long-pending but much needed goals of the military—an integrated Ministry of Defence and a Chief of Defence Services—could be easily achieved. But the agitating veterans are virtually taking those two goals out of reach, with each passing day. They are missing the wood for the trees.