Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, May 07, 2010 – From the 1950s to well into the 1980s, Western countries favoured for their client countries in the Third World rule by those in uniform over control by civilians. The military looked more organized, and could always be counted on to make a smart impression in meetings and on parade. They avoided asking for detailed explanations as to why certain requests were being made, eagerly carrying out the wishes of the Western countries, even where these were in conflict with the interests of their own people.

Although a time came when he was on the run, chased by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, it remains a fact that General Augusto Pinochet of Chile (for example) was backed by the US in his takeover of Chile from the communist-leaning but elected President Salvador allende Gossens. The US and the UK also welcomed the coming to power in Pakistan of the Sandhurst-educated General Ayub Khan in 1958.They were assured that he would ensure that Pakistan remain what had been visualised for the country by Winston Churchill, a reliable ally of the West against the communist threat.

Unlike India’s civilian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who seldom passed up an opportunity to lecture the US and the UK about their past or present policies, President Ayub ensured that Pakistan avoided controversies with these powers, even though it was during his time that Pakistan got close to China, soon after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. With strong backing from the US and the UK, Ayub was able to make Nehru sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960,which ensured a steady flow of river waters from India. Since the serving army chief was made Defense Minister of Pakistan in 1954, the Pakistan army has been in the forefront of policy, as recently as a few years ago, during the peak of the authority of General Pervez Musharraf, who was even more skilful than Ayub in managing relations with the US. The record shows that the Pakistan army has made got the better of the civilian government in Delhi on a number of occasions, in both international relations as well as in asymmetrical warfare.

Both Nehru and his daughter Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi distrusted the military. In the case of the latter, the Chilean coup, together with a string of US-backed military governments across the world, ensured that a policy framework got created that excluded the military from the inner counsels of government. Unlike in the case of democracies such as Japan, where the military were integrated into the decision-making matrix within the Ministry of Defense, in India those in uniform found themselves on the outside, even in situations where their experience and expertise would have been valuable. Till today, there is no Combined Headquarters for the Armed Forces of the Republic of India, nor any military officer seconded to the labyrinthine Ministry of Defense, a fiefdom ruled by civilian officials jealous of their privileges. If in Pakistan the pendulum may have swung too far, it has gone in the opposite direction in India, despite the military’s impeccable record of keeping out of politics.

One of the few remaining privileges of the Indian military is the freedom given to the Service chiefs to express their views on issues involving national interests and security. In a democracy, input from the uniformed services is crucial in the formationof public opinion, given the respect that people in India have for those in uniform. However, this right has now been takenaway, and the three Service chiefs will from now onwards not have the freedom to express themselves in public, except in situations where their views have been vetted by the Ministry of Defense. As always, this new restriction has been accepted without protest, especially because it has come on the instructions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who would like to see an “orderly” government rather than the babble and babel that policymaking becomes in a democracy. The loser is the Indian public, who has been deprived of military expertise in the formulation of policies that affect his or her interests in the security sphere, and is now to be deprived of hearing the views of senior commanders on the many challenges that the country faces.

Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrashekhar, following the orders given by the Prime Minister, has imposed the new guidelines on public statements by the top rung of the Indian military. However, what needs to be understood is that the strength of a nation is not related only to the number of tanks and aircraft it has, but to industrial production and income from services as well. What the Chinese refer to as “Comprehensive National Power” is critical in the mix of safeguards, and it is the right of the military to participate in the national dialogue on such matters. Together with the Prime Minister, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram too is known to be in favour of restraint by the military.

He was embarrassed a few months ago, when – following the massacre of 72 policemen by Maoists in Dantewada – the chief of the air force expressed himself against the use of air power “on Indian citizens”. Air Marshal Fali Major was wrong. Modern war does not lend itself to neat boundaries between “national” and “international”, and sometimes the full range of resourcesavailable will need to be utilised to fend off a threat that seems “domestic” on the surface but which may have international repercussions, if not linkages. However, he has the right in a democracy to air his views in public, while of course unhesitatingly implementing even orders that are contrary to his views, a right that has now been taken away from him as well as from the chiefs of the navy and the army.

The Indian military has always demonstrated its commitment to the values of democracy, in which civilian control of those in uniform is at the core. However, it seems unfortunate that even after six decades of fealty to the republic and its traditions, the military is still excluded from the inner counsels of governance, even in the Ministry of Defense. Because of this, India has not been able to leverage the “soft power” of its military,for example by broadening the range of its contacts with foreign countries,and in the creation of audio-visual products that celebrate the role of the uniformed services. No one can deny that the US is a democracy, and yet in that country, each year almost movies come out that show the heroism of those under fire, such as this year’s Award-winning “The Hurt Locker”. In India, such movies are few and far between, the emphasis being more on “masala” fare that mixes generous potions of sex and titillation with very little in the way of a social message. Across the country, those in uniform are serving the Republic with dedication and courage, and they need much greater recognition and respect than they are currently getting in a country whose politicians still seem to have the fear of a Musharraf-like figure emerging from the services to overthrow them. Such an apprehension is fantasy.

What is not is the system of restrictions that have been in place against the Indian military since the country became free in 1947, controls that have the past few days been extended to the issue of military’s right to make its views heard on questions of national importance.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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