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Print edition : Aug 13, 2010 T+T-
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with BSF and CRPF jawans in Srinagar on October 29, 2009.-PTI

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with BSF and CRPF jawans in Srinagar on October 29, 2009.-PTI

It speaks for the strength of our democratic system that it survived those generals who did much harm.

PRESIDENT Obama's dismissal of General Stanley A. McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan, for speaking to the media in intemperate language, is in the sound tradition of democratic governance. It flows from the fundamental principle of civilian supremacy over the military. Even in Communist China, Chairman Mao Zedong pithily prescribed that the party directed the gun. This tradition has been followed by India but not without serious breaches in the past and in recent years. Debate in the country has been uninformed and simplistic. The nuances of the principle have been ignored. The penchant for idolising the Army, accentuated since Kargil, has not helped in the discussion nor helped that splendid institution that has served the nation nobly, the Army.

Since the records are locked up in foreign archives, few know that there was a time when a Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) discussed the possibility of a military coup in India with the British High Commissioner and, for good measure, with the Defence Minister. And that, at the Minister's initiative. Another COAS, when he presided over the Eastern Command, revealed to the U.S. Consul-General in Kolkata the strength of the forces under his command which, the Consul-General told his bosses, he already knew and claimed to have told off the Defence Minister and to have wielded clout enough to change India's policy on Vietnam, if only the listener had spoken to him earlier. One wonders about the range of his candour if it was an Ambassador who had lent him an ear. One wonders, no less, how voluble must these two COAS have been in instances not known to us. The habit and the trait in these times are very evident.

In recent years, one Army chief successfully thwarted the government's policy on a sensitive issue with his calculated pronouncements on the eve of successive diplomatic parleys and well-advertised briefings to the media on precisely such occasions. More recently, we have heard comments by the COAS and a corps commander on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, (AFSPA) in crass ignorance of the law and with scant respect for its critics. They included a former judge of the Supreme Court. The trend is glaringly evident. When will it be arrested? And by whom? The government can go only thus far and no further. For, it faces not only the media but an opposition party (the Bharatiya Janata Party) that is out to break all the rules in its mad craze for power.

Read this: The rise of the Hindu Right to power was anticipated by the systematic infiltration of the highest levels of the Army apparatus. While the bulk of the Army leadership remains avowedly apolitical, the BJP has made methodical efforts to subvert this tradition, dragging a section of senior officers on to expressly partisan terrain. The decision of Director General Military Operations [DGMO] N.C. Vij and Air Vice Marshal S.K. Malik to brief the BJP national executive on the Kargil war on May 6 [1999] is just one example of this process. Infantry Division commander Major General [V.S.] Budhwar helped provide logistical support for the RSS-organised Sindhu Darshan festival at Leh in 1998. [L.K.] Advani and ideologue Tarun Vijay were among those who attended. In 1999, he again attended the Sindhu Darshan, organised with official aid, and graced by [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, [George] Fernandes and Advani. Asked by a journalist whether it was appropriate for him to associate with political organisations, Budhwar claimed not to understand the question (Praveen Swami; The Kargil War; LeftWord Books; page 95).

Large sections of the public view the armed forces with an awe that suspends judgment. They chafe at the law of contempt as laid down by the Supreme Court. Presidents have not been immune to criticism, as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam discovered. The Army remains the one institution that is not subject to criticism. It strongly resents that, yet pronounces freely on matters beyond its legitimate domain. It regards itself unaccountable and above the law, a law unto itself.

Before one considers the record on which these comments are based, the constitutional position must be borne in mind. The position in Indian law is no different from that in British law. The chiefs of staff are the professional heads of the armed forces; they give professional advice to the government on strategy and military operations and on the military implications of defence policy. Major questions of defence policy cannot be decided in purely military terms without reference to the government's financial and economic policies, which affect the size, disposition and equipment of the armed forces.

The chain of command within the police stops with the chief constable, and neither local police authorities nor Central Government may give him instructions on the operational use of the police. This is not the case with the armed forces. In the case of the army, for example, the line of command runs upwards from the private soldier, through his commanding officer and higher levels of command to the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence. During active operations many immediate decisions have to be taken by soldiers in the field. But the tasks which are undertaken by the armed forces, the objectives which they are set and the manner in which they carry out these tasks are matters for which the government is accountable to Parliament whether it be the activities of the troops in Northern Ireland the making of a controversial public speech by a high-ranking army officer, the sinking of the Argentinean ship General Belgrano during the Falklands conflict in 1982, or the conduct of the armed forces during the Gulf hostilities. The full range of parliamentary procedures which are available in respect of other branches of central government may be used in respect of defence and the armed forces. Thus the Public Accounts Committee has often investigated case of excessive spending by the services (A.W. Bradley and K.D. Ewing; Constitutional and Administrative Law; 12th Edition; page 376; emphasis added throughout). The government is accountable if any officer of the armed forces shoots off his mouth.

Now for the record, past and present. On April 7, 1966, D.A. Scott of the British High Commission reported to London: It so happens that just before your letter was received the High Commissioner had a talk with the Chief of Army Staff on this very subject, and I enclose a note of their conversation. The fact that General [J. N.] Chaudhuri was prepared to discuss such a delicate topic shows that it is not so far below the surface in the minds of the government and of the Army. (This is confirmed by a speech made by [K.] Kamaraj, the Congress president, in Madras on 17 March in which he said that if violence continued on the scale recently seen in the Punjab and Bengal, the military might conclude that democracy was unworkable and themselves take over the government.) We have accordingly set in hand a rather more detailed study of the subject and hope to be able to let you have it before the High Commissioner goes on leave on 22 April. [John] Freeman [the High Commissioner] would, of course, be prepared to discuss the subject with you and with anyone else who is interested when he is in London.

Chaudhuri did reject the idea of a coup. But it was a nuanced rejection, not an unqualified one. General S.H.F.J. Manekshaw takes the cake. Here is the record (see box). In a talk with the U.S. Consul-General in Kolkata, he opined freely on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations; belittled the politicians' capacity to achieve a settlement; with revealing lack of realism and the constitutional position, he held that civil servants and soldiers would accomplish it; mentioned the strength of the troops he had in his command; criticised his bosses, the Defence Minister as well as the Army chief, to a foreign official; criticised the government's policy on Vietnam, criticised its policy of purchasing arms from the Soviet Union for which he held Generals Chaudhuri and P.P. Kumaramangalam responsible, not the government; discussed his chances of promotion as COAS; and the like.

Not all were amused by his comment, half in jest, that Pakistan would have won the war if he were its Army chief. It belittled the jawan. But more reprehensible was his repeated claim, made, significantly, after her death, that he had told Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that he could lead an Army coup; that he reaffirmed it when she contested the claim, whereupon she graciously conceded that he would not. And he magnanimously accepted that. That the blatant falsehood passed muster for so long reflects poorly on retired officers of the Army and indeed on our defence experts. That fine soldier and gentleman Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar is an outstanding exception. He publicly criticised Manekshaw.

Now for the realities. Army commanders do not owe their job to the Army chief. Both are appointed by the same authority, the government. Since they do not owe the chief anything beyond a proper respect and obedience, there is no reason to believe that they would have complied with any such sordid game. Still less the chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force. Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal was a man of strong moral fibre. The survival of India's Constitution owes nothing to the forbearance of General Sam Manekshaw. Henry Kissinger sized him up correctly after they met in 1971 and told Richard Nixon, on October 7, 1971, that he was so cocky, he thought he could defeat everyone in sight, all at the same time. This is not the impression which the Prime Minister would have liked her Army chief to give to the U.S. in mid-1971.

In this regard, one of his recent successors, Gen. J.J. Singh, set a record. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged himself publicly to a settlement of the Siachen question. Differences have so narrowed as to lend themselves easily to a political decision. The dispute entails heavy loss in men and material and an environmental degradation without any strategic gain. Soldiers of high eminence have advocated a settlement in these last 25 years. Just when the prospects seemed bright, Gen. J.J. Singh intervened publicly and repeatedly to thwart the government's policy. On May 20, 2005, talks on the Siachen issue were resumed in Islamabad. That very day, Gen. J.J. Singh said in New Delhi that India's interests would be served only when the 110-kilometre-long Actual Ground Position Line, from NJ 9842 to the upper Saltoro range, was authenticated. The Army had given its views to the government. We are awaiting the outcome of the talks. They ended in failure the next day.

On June 12, 2005, Manmohan Singh addressed the Army jawans at the Siachen base camp, the first Prime Minister to do so. He was familiarising himself with the realities in a constructive spirit. Siachen is called the highest battlefield where living is very difficult. Now the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to the symbol of peace. He assured the jawans that in the talks with Pakistan, your well-being and the security of our nation would be kept in mind. But he left no one in doubt that he sought a change. How long shall we allow such conditions to prevail? But, how else could that be achieved except through a compromise acceptable to both?

Gen. J.J. Singh was not one to let that happen. On June 21, 2005, mediapersons asked him to comment on the Prime Minister's speech. He did not tell them that it was not his place to do so but replied all too readily. He had already given his views to the government, he said, and reiterated that the Army wanted that Pakistan should recognise the new buzzword the existing ground position. In short, the Army disagreed with the Prime Minister and he wanted the public to know that.

A pronouncement avowedly on behalf of the Army, soon after the Prime Minister had spoken, has few precedents, if any, in India. Trust is a political judgment that is entirely for the political leadership to make, albeit after hearing the Army's views. As Lt. Gen. P.N. Kathpalia, former Director General, Military Intelligence, said on November 12, 1988: A soldier always over-assesses. If you know this character of the Army, it is for the civilian government to make a correct judgement and put the actions right. He spoke specifically in the context of the Siachen trap.

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, is a committed friend of India who bravely incurred criticism in his country for his staunch commitment (vide his interview to the writer, Frontline, December 5, 2008, pages 59-63). But even he could not resist a telling comment on one of the general's statements calculatedly timed for the occasion. Arriving in New Delhi for talks with India's leaders, he was appalled to read in the day's papers one of Gen. J.J. Singh's pronouncements. He tartly told mediapersons that while Pakistan was criticised in India for letting the Army shape policy, things were no different in India itself, evidently.

The virus has seriously infected others. Unrest in Kashmir finds expression in stone-pelting because avenues of democratic peaceful protest are banned to the youth.

Last year, the violence declined steeply. The young, freed from the fear of the gun, wielded alike by the security forces and the militants, began to voice their protests peacefully on the streets, a fundamental right recognised in all democracies. But not by the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Northern Command, Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal. Manmohan Singh's visit to Jammu and Srinagar, on October 28 and 29, 2009, and his statements had raised high hopes. Immediately thereafter, on October 31, Lt. Gen. Jaswal told the media at Udhampur: Violence in Kashmir was on the decline since 2006, with just 26 incidents of violent incidents reported this year as compared to 276 in 2006. However, the agitational terrorism' was a cause for worry. He admitted that militancy is down but my orders are to the troops not only fight insurgents but also insurgency because that is the root cause of the whole trouble ( Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir, November 1, 2009).

The insurgent is a human; insurgency is a movement, motivated by an idea. It is one thing to use the gun against a violent insurgent, another to use it against those who peacefully propagate an idea in meetings or processions. Jaswal equates that with terrorism, coining the expression agitational terrorism.

In 2005, this writer interviewed Lt. Gen. J.R. Mukherjee, GOC-in-C of the 15 Corps, in Srinagar (A report on Kashmir, Frontline, September 1, 2000). I had to interrupt him to stop the flow of his river of irrelevant rhetoric in spate in order to raise issues of the moment. For, his oration was devoted to the preposterous thesis that Kashmiris are not in a majority in Kashmir. He sought to establish it with slides and tables. The point is not that he was wildly off the mark. It is that he had no respect for the people or their feelings. Can you imagine the reaction to such a statement about Marathi-speaking people in Mumbai? After retirement, Mukherjee argued his thesis in a Kolkata daily, reflecting the depths of his disdain for Kashmiris.

Jaswal, endowed with a talent for elegant phrasing, spoke recently of the AFSPA as a pious document. One has heard of holy books, not pious ones. It is rather hard for an inanimate thing to achieve piety. He declaimed in Srinagar on June 14, 2010: Don't touch this pious document or provisions of the Act giving the similarity [sic ] to a religious book. The AFSPA is beyond reason and discourse. I would like to say that the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act are very pious to me and I think to the entire Indian Army (Kashmir Times, June 15, 2010).

His claim about the entire Army was perhaps not wrong. For, on June 25, Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh said that the AFSPA is a misunderstood Act and all who ask for its dilution/withdrawal do so for narrow political gains.

That would include presumably Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has been working on the amendments for nearly a year. Since they are before the Cabinet, the COAS' duty is not to go public with his views but communicate them to the Defence Minister. His attribution of motives is unworthy of a respected soldier like him. Would he care to recall Chidambaram's statement in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, on April 3 this year? He said: There was a statement by the Prime Minister that he will take steps to replace the AFSPA with a more humane law ( Asian Age, June 26, 2010). Is the Prime Minister also politically motivated? And so also Justice Jeevan P. Reddy, a former judge of the Supreme Court?

For, a committee to review the Act was set up by the BJP government on November 19, 2004. It was headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy (retd) and comprised Lt. Gen. V.R. Raghavan, former DGMO; Dr S.B. Nakade, former Vice-Chancellor and jurist; P. Shrivastav, Indian Administrative Service (retd) former Special Secretary, Union Home Ministry; and Sanjoy Hazarika, a journalist. The terms of reference cited the concerns of the people of the north-eastern region and studiously ignored those of the people of Kashmir. The committee held no hearings there. Its recommendations cannot be so restricted. They were explicit. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, should be repealed. Therefore, recommending the continuation of the present Act, with or without amendments, does not arise (Part IV; page 74 of the report).

The COAS' charge of political motivation reflects arrogant rejection of reasoned discussion. All such laws prescribe reasonable use of force. But the AFSPA contains a carte blanche, unheard of in any statute whether in India or abroad. Section 4(a) of the Act enables any officer of the armed forces to use force, even to the causing of death. This is a juridical obscenity, a licence to kill with impunity. No COAS has any right to dismiss concerns about abuse of the AFSPA in the way Gen. V.K. Singh did.

The COAS is not bereft of rights. He has not only a right but a duty to speak up publicly, depending on the circumstances, besides, of course, his right to voice his fears and objections to the government in private. He is perfectly entitled to take the people into his confidence if he is asked to achieve the impossible. A recent instance suffices to establish this since it has been a subject of comment though it falls into a settled tradition.

It bears recalling that the GOC-in-C 15 Corps in Srinagar, Lt. Gen. Krishna Pal, said on March 8, 1998, that a military solution was not possible in Kashmir and a political solution must be sought. That was 12 whole years ago. On September 11, 2000, Army chief Gen. V.P. Malik said in Mohali, ultimately there has to be a political solution to the [Kashmir] problem, adding that it was imperative to counter the alienation of the local population (Asit Jolly, Asian Age, September 12, 2000). Such candour is rare.

Not by the Army alone

His successor, the new COAS, General S. Padmanabhan, said at a press conference in Srinagar on October 5, 2000: We have no magical solution to any problem of this nature. In the history of mankind, no insurgency has been solved by any army. He explained that the Army's duty is to hold insurgency within acceptable levels so that the government here continues to function. Ergo, it is then for the government, which won the reprieve, thanks to the armed forces, to take advantage of it and reach out to the militants politically and thus establish peace, not use the peace to perpetuate its power.

Gen. Padmanabhan said that all the organs of the state had to work together to address the causes of the insurgency. He knew the realities having served as GOC Northern Command and as commander of the 15 Corps (1993-95) when he played an important role in resolving tactfully the crisis when militants occupied the Hazratbal dargah in 1993. It was a turning point in the decline of the insurgency (Showkat A. Motta, Greater Kashmir, October 6, 2000).

What sins, then, did the present COAS Gen. V.K. Singh commit when he reiterated in honest candour these very views in a press interview? He said: I feel there is a great requirement for political initiatives which take all the people forward together. Militarily, we have brought the overall internal security situation in J&K firmly under control. Now the need is to handle things politically (Rajat Pandit, The Times of India, June 30, 2010).

On July 11, after the troubles had erupted fiercely, he remarked that when the security situation had improved, the State administration should have reached out, but instead has frittered the opportunity away ( Indian Express, July 12, 2010). This is a restatement of what Gen. Padmanabhan said 10 years ago in 2000. Gen. V.K. Singh was within his rights on both occasions, June 30 and July 11.

Asked to comment on Gen. V.K. Singh's statement of June 30, Gen. V.P. Malik defended him on a wrong notion in his interview to the BBC's Urdu Service on June 30. The COAS, he asserted, was a politico-military adviser. That, he is not. He is a military adviser.

It is another matter that his advice will have political implications. They are for the politicians in power to assess. Unless the distinction is fairly maintained, the military will not only assess threats but also decide on the response. Israel provides warning enough. Kobi Michael of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel has described the grim situation there in an erudite and insightful article entitled, Who Really Dictates What an Existential Threat Is? The Israeli Experience ( The Journal of Strategic Studies, October 2009, pages 687-713).

Amir Oren wrote in the respected Haaretz of January 24, 2008: In the dispute between the system's leaders, the CGS (Chief of General Staff) is still the most powerful (actor) in comparison to the Head of the Mossad, Head of GSS (General Security Service) and even (the) Minister of Defence and Prime Minister because nobody dares to decide against the position. The military echelon in Israel is the ultimate knowledge authority on the definition of security threats and shaping the responses for tackling them.

Kobi Michael rightly asserts: National security is the clear domain of political leadership. Therefore, the responsibility for defining existential threats and their appropriate responses is the political leadership's responsibility. The meaning of this responsibility is the supremacy of the political thought from which grand strategy is derived... when military strategy becomes hegemonic, existential threats will be defined on the basis of conceptual systems from the world of military thought, whose weaknesses are a bias towards conservative realism, anti-intellectualism, and worst-case scenarios.

The military claims superior access to information and also to assessment. Most politicians yield to both claims because they know no better and there is an absence of alternative knowledge infrastructure to military ones.

Both soldier and politician collaborate to propagate the religion of security. Joseph McCarthy used security as a political tool. So does the BJP. Hence its fondness for the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). A vacuum is created and the public looks for the military's professional advice. The public is seduced by the worst-case scenarios painted by the irresponsible opposition, which preys on its fears.

The talkative generals have done no little harm. It speaks for the strength of our democratic system that it survived those of the past even as it condones the trespasses of the recent ones. But the trend is clear and it must be arrested now. Only the moral and intellectual authority of the political leadership can nip the creeping menace in the bud.