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JUST IN DEFENCE
- The civilian authority must respect the military in a democracy

Recent events seem to have cast a shadow on how the nation views the institution of its military. In the hierarchical divisions between the societal institutions of a democracy and its military institutions, when seeming conflicts occur, it is always the military which suffers. This is because in this information age, information is power. Those that can court the media, write books and articles will have the power to mould opinion. Those that by tradition and law are forbidden to go public must suffer in silence.

The ongoing agitation in Manipur sparked off by the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi by members of the Assam Rifles acting under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, is a case in point. The Assam Rifles are not strictly part of the institution of the military as they are a paramilitary force under the ministry of home affairs. They are, however, officered by army officers on deputation from the army and in times of hostilities or counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir and some north-eastern states, they come under the operational control of the army. It is not the writer's intention here to comment on the merits of the case, which is currently the subject of inquiry. What is worrisome is the wider perception that has been created of the guilt of the soldiers involved, their unit, the Assam Rifles and indeed the army even before the inquiry processes are complete.

The army claims that the deceased was part of the underground and was shot while trying to escape from custody. Locals claim that the deceased was not part of the underground, was raped and murdered in cold blood. Here is a case, which needs impartial inquiry and action according to the law of the land, something that will promptly be applied to those in uniform, but rarely happens to those outside, as the Tehelka case amply demonstrates. On his visit to Manipur, the army chief was emphatic that those found guilty would face disciplinary consequences. Surely, the benefit of a cardinal principle of justice, that one is innocent until proven guilty, ought also to have been extended to the military'

But even before the inquiry was completed, the Central government, in deference to the demand of those agitating, notified that the Assam Rifles headquarters would be moved out of Kangla Fort in Imphal. There were reports of Assam Rifles being replaced by the Border Security Force in the state of Manipur. There were even reports that repealing of the AFSPA from Manipur was under consideration, but the army had advised against the idea because of its cascading effect on the rest of the North-east. Thus an unambiguous impression was created that some misdemeanour had already been established. The situation in Manipur was politically delicate and needed political sagacity. The temptation to take the soft option of pacification at the cost of the basic principle of justice and military morale should never have been considered. We cannot escape the stigma of being a soft state.

As if this entire episode had not heaped enough indignity on the institution of our military forces, who are forbidden to present their own defence in public and are thus condemned in the mind of the public anyway, we have another shot fired against their bow. In his just released biography, Through the Corridors of Power, and subsequent interviews on television, P.C. Alexander, who was principal secretary to Indira Gandhi and later to Rajiv Gandhi, has cast aspersions on the professional judgment of General Vaidya, who was the chief of army staff, and Lieutenant General Sundarji, who was army commander during Operation Blue Star in 1984. The criticism centres on the fact that at the eleventh hour General Vaidya convinced the prime minister to change her decision from a siege of the Golden Temple to a commando type operation. It was this poor professional military judgment and poor intelligence on the part of the military that resulted in the botched-up operation.

Neither General Vaidya nor Lt Gen. Sundarji is alive to tell his side of the story. But much like the Manipur episode, the professionalism of the institution of the military forces stands condemned notwithstanding the sacrifices they made to pull political chestnuts out of the fire. The TV channel that interviewed Alexander then projected another side to this story by interviewing Arun Nehru and Lt Gen. Brar who actually commanded the operation. Again, it is not the writer's case to judge the merits of the two sides of the story, but to present what stands reported. Nehru pointed out that in our system, the highest political authority is the cabinet committee of political affairs, which takes such far-reaching decisions and must accept responsibility for them. He emphasized that to the credit of Indira Gandhi, she displayed leadership and accepted the blame for this operation, never passing the buck, least of all to the army.

To the criticism of changing to a commando option in a hurry and failing to obtain proper intelligence, Lt Gen. Brar told the viewers that a full commando type operation had actually been planned for and rehearsed extensively by paramilitary forces, before they threw up their hands and the army was left holding the baby. Also that time was of essence as there were calls for an uprising. As for failing in intelligence, this remains the designated task of civil intelligence agencies and not the military.

Should such an assessment be even partially correct, then national security managers need to take note. It is perhaps not appreciated that because of the collective ethos, of the military, even personal failures translate into failures of units, regiments and indeed the military service as a whole. This is how the militaries perceive them to be.

One cannot help but feel that we are forgetting that it is sound institutions that make for a healthy and vibrant democracy and not mere elections.

Any civilized society needs a professional and effective military to protect it against external threat. The challenge is to synergize this necessity with societal needs such that there is the least friction between the two. This calls for a clear definition and indeed legislation of civil and military institutions and their roles. It also calls for good governance that does not necessitate military force for internal security duties as a routine.

The ever-changing national and international security environment has a direct impact on new roles and missions for the military and internal security agencies. It is also resulting in traditional organizations and governing processes coming under considerable stress. A fallout is differences of perception of civil and military officials about their own roles, which in turn is resulting in debates and friction not only between the civil and military institutions and leaderships, but also within the militaries themselves. We are beginning to see these within our system of governance and security management, of which the above are two recent examples.

That the military must work under civilian control is an undisputed fact. But this control must be exercised by democratically constituted civilian authorities that in turn are answerable to the parliament and to the people and not by the bureaucracy as has become the norm in our country. It is worth recalling what the Kargil review committee had to say. 'India is perhaps the only democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are outside the apex governmental structure.' Notwithstanding this, the status quo remains.

The time has come when the legislature must play a greater role in legislating on defence and security matters and in decisions concerning defence and security policy and high-level appointments. All this must be done against the backdrop of the vastly changed national and international security scene, which still continues to change. There is also need for the civilian and uniformed defence authorities to define responsibilities in a way that political authority and accountability on the one hand, and military professionalism and expertise on the other, are maximized. A welltrained and experienced professional military, that is respected by civilian authority is a prerequisite for the survival of our democracy and the nation state, not a threat to it.

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