At arm's length

Travelling around India ahead of the fourth general elections in 1967, the correspondent of The Times (London), Neville Maxwell, reported widespread apathy towards democracy.

By Srinath Raghavan
  • Published 24.04.15


Travelling around India ahead of the fourth general elections in 1967, the correspondent of The Times (London), Neville Maxwell, reported widespread apathy towards democracy. He claimed that "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed...." this would be India's "fourth - and surely last - general election". Maxwell also felt that "the army will be the only alternative source of authority and order." Enamoured as he was of the Maoist revolution in China, Maxwell was a jaundiced observer of Indian democracy. But he was far from being alone in thinking that India would sooner or later slip under military rule. After all, by the late 1960s many of the first nationalist governments across the newly decolonized world were being replaced by military dictatorships.

Five decades on, such prophesies about the future of Indian democracy seem risible.Yet to understand the durability of our democracy, we need to explain why India never came close to experiencing military rule. This is the question that Steven Wilkinson sets out to answer in this brilliant book.

The Indian army is one of the largest standing voluntary armies in the world. It played a key role in sustaining colonial rule in India and remains one of the most important public institutions in the country. Yet the Indian army remains curiously understudied. The number of good books -and scholars - on the subject can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Part of the problem appears to be a general, and unexamined, attitude that studying the military is a conservative enterprise - one that doesn't fit with the self-identified radicalism of much of our historical profession. This is patently absurd. For instance, the Indian army was and continues to be overwhelmingly drawn from the peasantry. Does the peasant in uniform who works for the State cease to be a subaltern?

Although a political scientist by training and orientation, Wilkinson has trawled deep and wide in a range of archives. In consequence, the book speaks as much to historians as political scientists. His presentation, however, is very lucid and easily accessible to the general reader. Indeed, his answer to the question posed above should command the attention of all thinking Indians.

Wilkinson starts by pointing out that relationship between the army and the independent state was potentially fraught not just because the army had huge coercive power at its disposal. Rather, the Indian army - like many other colonial armies - was overwhelmingly composed of ethnic minorities: the so-called "martial classes" of Northwest India and Nepal. Minority-controlled militaries often present a threat to democracy because they believe that democratic majorities would undermine their privileged position. The experience of several post-colonial countries bears out this point.

Wilkinson argues that the existing explanations for why the Indian army has remained subordinate to the democratic system are unsatisfactory. The most common explanation is the inheritance of a professional and apolitical military from the British. This appears to fit well both with the institutional legacy of the army and the self-image of the first generation of Indian officers after independence. This explanation, Wilkinson rightly argues, breaks down as soon as we compare the experiences of India and Pakistan. After all, the Pakistan army came out of the same colonial institutional structure and drew on the same norms of professionalism.

He may have made two further points that undermine this argument. First, studies by such eminent historians as Hew Strachan have underscored the fact that the British army (at home) was hardly an apolitical actor. Second, the institutional structure of the raj actually gave the army a large role in matters of policy. The commander-in-chief was also the defence member of the Viceroy's council: imagine the army chief being the defence minister today. This institutional position enabled the army to claim up to half of the government's budget, and so turned the raj into a garrison State.

The second explanation offered by some scholars is that the Indian army underwent considerable expansion during the Second World War - an expansion that brought in a range of groups which did not belong to the "martial classes". This process of "nationalisation" was supposedly accentuated in the early years of independence, resulting in an ethnically-balanced army. Drawing on a range of data, Wilkinson argues that neither the Indian army's expansion during the Second World War nor the recruitment policies pursued after independence made much of a dent on the proportional representation of certain ethnic groups in the army.

These data, it bears emphasizing, are by no means easily available. The army does not make them public, for one thing. Wilkinson has painstakingly collected them from a range of sources. And his superb analysis and presentation of quantitative material is one of the signal accomplishments of this book.

Wilkinson's answer to the question is at once nuanced and convincing. Three factors in combination explain India's ability to control its military since independence - in contrast to Pakistan. First, India's socio-economic, strategic and military inheritance in 1947 was much better than that of Pakistan. Among other things, Partition worsened the ethnic balance in the Pakistan army while improving it somewhat in the Indian army. Second, the Congress party - unlike the Muslim League in Pakistan - was strongly institutionalized and had a political reach and presence that was difficult to replicate, let alone dislodge. Third, during the first decade of independence the Indian government took specific "coup proofing" measures: "new command and control structures, careful attention to promotions, tenures, and balancing ethnic groups at the top of the military, and attention to top general's career pathways after retirement."

Wilkinson also examines how successive governments responded to the requirements of military modernization. In the wake of the 1962 defeat against China, the Indian armed forces underwent a considerable expansion in size and equipment. But this period also witnessed the formation of paramilitary forces that indirectly served as a "hedge" against the army's increasing coercive capacity. Similarly, after Operation Bluestar, when some units of the army actually mutinied, the army was asked to experiment with mixed infantry battalions drawing on different ethnic groups. Concerns about handing the military overwhelming power also lie behind the political leadership's continuing reluctance to appoint a chief of defence staff, a single-point military advisor to the government.

Wilkinson notes that the measures to secure political control may have come at an operational cost by diminishing the military's voice in strategic matters. While this may be true today, it does not hold for the early years. In fact, in the first two decades after independence, the top military leadership displayed a sad lack of grasp of the higher management of war. This was largely due to the delayed Indianization of the officer corps under the British, which implied that top posts in the army were manned after independence by relatively junior officers.

One can quibble with Wilkinson about such matters. But this book is a major contribution to the study of the Indian army and the making of India's democracy. Everyone should read it.