| A soldier stands guard: No politics, please
London, April 25: The people of India should not take the exemplary apolitical character of their armed forces for granted, a British historian has warned.
Linda Colley, who last night delivered the prestigious Nehru Memorial Lecture in London, flashed a red light at “attempts by Hindu fundamentalists to infiltrate and propagandise among the armed forces”.
Colley, who is a professor of history at the London School of Economics and is about to move to Princeton, also urged the Indian government against “excessive use of armed forces to suppress internal and communal violence”.
“Since the 1970s, the military has been used to maintain internal order far more frequently than it was under the Raj,” she said.
She also spoke of “the growing corruption and division among sections of India’s civilian political class and bureaucracy. The undeniable professionalism of India’s armed forces is no necessary defence against, at some future point, interfering in politics out of a sense of exasperation with the civil order”.
Colley specialises in 18th and 19th century Britain and its empire and her published works includes Captives: Britain, Empire and the World (1600-1850).
She spent some weeks in India, talking to defence sources and preparing material for last night’s lecture, “The Indian Armed Forces and Politics since 1947: putting difference into context”.
It was, on the whole, a glowing report heard in a large lecture theatre at the LSE where the audience included Amartya Sen, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, past and present senior diplomats, and some former senior soldiers.
Colley said she was not being alarmist but stressed that “India’s military — like the military in every other state — needs thinking about far more deeply and far more broadly”.
Her main thesis was that India had done well to take the best of British military traditions but had also introduced several policies to ensure the army stayed out of politics after Independence.
“Since the Second World War, it is estimated that more than two-thirds of all countries in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East have experienced some degree of military intervention in and disruption of their political processes, as have some European states such as Greece. India, though — for all its size, acute internal divisions and sporadic violence — has managed to avoid this fate. By contrast, India’s immediate neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which shared the same experience of British imperial rule, have succumbed to periods of military rule and martial law.”
Colley complained, however, that scholars researching anything to do with the Indian military faced a culture of “excessive official secrecy”.
She pointed out: “In some cases, the relevant documents have been destroyed, as seems to have occurred with many papers to do with India’s disastrous 1962 war with China. Many other documents relating to the civil-military interface remain under wraps far longer than is warranted by considerations of national security.”
She spoke of how India had gained by copying British tradition.
“It has become almost a cliche that one of the more benevolent legacies of the Raj was that India was exposed to the British military tradition of a political military,” argued Colley.
India, she said, had retained the British cantonment system — “the 175 or so self-contained military townships, usually placed on the outskirts of cities, which the Raj created so as to insulate its Indian troops from what was styled ‘the contamination of large native centres of population’”.