regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Democratic leash

When Nehru became VP of Viceroy’s Executive Council, one of the first steps he took was to replace the commander-in-chief as defence member of the council with a civilian leader

Sushant Singh Published 28.05.24, 06:28 AM
Jawaharlal Nehru accepting guard of honour from the army during his Kashmir visit.

Jawaharlal Nehru accepting guard of honour from the army during his Kashmir visit. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Much is written about his achievements in establishing democracy in post-colonial India. But an important aspect of instituting a constitutional system that continues to ensure civilian rule in the country is often overlooked. Hardly any post-colonial country that won independence in the mid-twentieth century can boast of having avoided a spell of military rule. The malaise was far worse in South Asia where the countries and the military shared heritage and history with colonial India. Many others, which moved away from direct military coups, experienced a balance of power where the military acted as a supra-constitutional institution, often exercising vetoes over major national decisions taken by democratic leaders.

How did this not happen in post-colonial India and what was Nehru’s role in it? The thinking started well before India gained independence even as the Congress formed various committees and expert groups — remember Subhas Chandra Bose’s Planning Commission? — to have a clear formulation to act on a myriad subjects of governance once the British left India. The Motilal Nehru Committee had submitted its report in 1928, laying the vision of India’s future as a liberal, secular, constitutional republic. One of its recommendations was that the defence member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council — a dual role performed by the military commander-in-chief of India — should be a civilian.


When Nehru became the vice-president of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, one of the first steps he took was to replace the commander-in-chief as defence member of the council with a civilian leader, Sardar Baldev Singh. This was part of a longstanding belief of the Congress that the military had to be kept firmly under civilian control. Nehru’s personal views, as expressed in his periodic letters to chief ministers, were also shaped by his understanding of the pernicious effects of militarism in Europe and in Japan in the early twentieth century. When India attained Independence in 1947, General Rob Lockhart, the British army commander-in-chief, issued orders to keep the public away from the flag-hoisting ceremony. Nehru rescinded the order and wrote: “In any policy that is to be pursued in the army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy he has no place in the Indian Army.”

Nehru and his deputy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, were livid when the British chiefs of the armed forces protested the government’s decision to position troops around Junagadh in October 1947 after it had declared accession to Pakistan. The two leaders made it known that they were prepared for a showdown if the military commanders didn’t follow the orders of the civilian government. This led to the creation of a defence committee of the cabinet to institutionalise civil-military interaction on matters of national security.

This should help clarify the myth that the tradition of civilian political control was bequeathed by the British to post-colonial India. The British colonial rulers ran India as a garrison State with a very powerful military calling the shots. Besides the military commander-in-chief acting as the de facto defence minister under the viceroy, in 1943, the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, was himself appointed as the viceroy. This had to be set right in independent India without diluting the professional effectiveness of the Indian military that had been loyal to its British colonial masters even as the Congress suffered for spearheading the struggle for India’s Independence. Nehru spent nearly nine years in British prisons. When the British colonial masters asked the Indian army to stay out of politics, they only meant nationalist politics of the kind pursued by Nehru.

India’s extraordinary success in establishing civilian superiority is not owed solely to the professional norms of the British military or the institutional inheritances from the British. These traditions were important but Pakistan — born at the same time — even though it had the same inheritances and professional norms in the military, underwent periods of military rule that independent India escaped. In fact, a similar British military ethos and professionalism could not prevent military coups in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and many other former British colonies. It is a question answered by the renowned political scientist, Steven Wilkinson, in his book, Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence.

However, despite numerous pro­mises, the recruitment base of the Indian army could not be restructured post-Independence. It remained imbalanced in terms of national representation to meet the demands of inherited regiments. But it was never as imbalanced as that of the Pakistan army, which completely ignored more populous East Pakistan while drawing its soldiers from a small pool of districts in southern Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. Pakistan, as B.R. Ambedkar had predicted, got the tougher part of socio-economic, strategic and military inheritances at the time of Partition. On top of that, newly-independent Pakistan chose to wage a military campaign to forcibly capture Kashmir, further distorting its relatively poor inheritances vis-à-vis India.

The Muslim League, which took power in Pakistan, was not as politically institutionalised as the Congress. Propped up by the rich Muslim elite from areas that were not to be part of Pakistan, Jinnah’s party did not have the broad ethnic and regional support across the country that the Congress garnered in India on account of its history of leading the anti-colonial struggle against the British. This made the Congress more representative and democratic which forced it to take steps such as reservations for the socio-economically backward classes and the creation of linguistic states. It moderated the ethnic, regional and linguistic cleavages in India that were to subsequently prove deeply divisive in Pakistan.

These would have mattered little had the Indian State under Nehru not taken specific coup-proofing and balancing measures in the first decade after Independence. These were a reflection and the distillation of the Congress’s thinking over decades on how to deal with the military in a new democracy with weak State capacity. It included changes to the symbolic structure of power, altering the status of the army in warrant of precedence and in public life by limiting the wearing of uniforms in public and by taking over the Teen Murti Bhavan, the residence of the British commander-in-chief, as Nehru’s new prime ministerial residence.

Simultaneously, immediately after Independence, instead of one commander-in-chief, the army, navy and the air force got their individual chiefs. In 1955, they were further downgraded to chiefs of staff — the three equivalent posts making it difficult for them to successfully coordinate against the political leadership. This structure was later misused by the civilian bureaucracy to play one service against the other. Senior military officers were given a fixed tenure and not given an extension in service. Some of the retired army chiefs like General Cariappa were packed off to far-off lands as ambassadors and high commissioners, reducing their ability to play an active role in Indian political life. The government, through its intelligence agencies, also kept a close eye on the movement of troops and on conversations between senior military leaders.

A lot of this was to change in the aftermath of India’s defeat to China in the 1962 war. As the then defence secretary later noted, “In the view of the public outcry since the 1962 debacle about the relative role of politicians and the Services and their chiefs”, the military leadership had been given “a long rope”. Within a decade, this became the new norm in civil-military relations and continued in the same vein till 2019 when the Narendra Modi government upturned the existing structure of civil-military relations with the creation of the post of chief of defence staff. The effect of Modi’s decisions is too early to assess but Nehru’s moves held India and its democracy in good stead for many decades. It is something that should be remembered on the sixtieth death anniversary of India’s first prime minister.

Sushant Singh is Lecturer, Yale University

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