‘Military should be used sparingly in maintaining law and order’

Civilian oversight over the military is firmly entrenched in Indian democracy. Yet there are bouts when the ties between civil and military establishment become uneasy and volatile. Therefore, understanding civil-military ties in India remains a daunting task for the uninitiated.

In an e-mail interaction with Zee Research Group’s Ajay Vaishnav, Ayesha Ray, who recently published ‘The Soldier and the State in India’, offers a theoretical perspective to delve into the critical issues that have emerged in Indian civil-military relations. The book uses Samuel Huntington’s ideas on military professionalism and Peter Feaver’s discussion of military expertise in the American context as the theoretical framework for addressing similar issues that have emerged in debates on Indian civil-military relations. Ray is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at King’s College, Pennsylvania.

Q1. What motivated you to explore civil-military ties in India?

There were two driving forces that shaped my initial interest in studying Indian civil-military relations. First, I hail from a family of officers who served in the Indian military. Growing up in a military family shaped my immediate interest in examining issues of peace and war more closely. Second, while undertaking research as a graduate student both in India and America, I found the literature on Indian civil-military relations rather sparse and wanted to make a contribution that could help explain the changing relationship between India’s political leadership and the military over time.

Q2. What factors keep Indian military subservient to the civil-political establishment even as we have seen juntas ruling in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar for long durations?

The political leadership in India exercises complete civilian control; a hallmark of most thriving democracies. The Indian leadership’s caution in giving the military too much power can be traced back to Nehru’s fears of a powerful military that could have challenged civilian supremacy. In the context of India’s independence and partition, Nehru’s distrust in the Indian military helped institutionalise a very tight form of civilian control, thereby preventing it from going the route of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Therefore, the role of elite and the institutional apparatus of higher defense organisation in India have kept the military under tight civilian control.

Q3. How Indian military is engaged in policymaking? Is there a statutory framework to engage them or factor in their viewpoint on key policy decisions?

In my book, I argue that India’s overt nuclearization, and the frequent use of the Indian military in counter-insurgency operation has generated friction in the relationship between civilians and the military, consequently giving the military an avenue to make its concerns on policy public. While this in no way implies that the military will challenge overall civilian control, it does point to various issues that have increased disagreement between the two domains giving the military a somewhat greater leverage or bargaining power in policy decisions.

Q4. If disagreement(s) becomes irreconcilable, what are the chances of military ever attempting a coup in India? Last year a report surfaced in an Indian English daily about an attempted coup by the Army, which was rubbished by the government.

That’s always a legitimate concern for any democracy. I think last year’s reports of an attempted coup were exaggerated in the media. Also, public statements made by the military’s top brass revealing disapproval with political directives do not necessarily imply an attempt to seize power. Despite contentious issues between the military and civilian leadership, democratic control over the armed forces in India has and will always remain tight. Our institutional apparatus of higher defense organization reflects this political and bureaucratic control over the three services. Also, the Indian military prides itself in maintaining a high degree of professionalism which should act as an internal check against any possible seizure of power.

Q5. What is the way forward to improve civil-military ties in India?

Greater communication and transparency between the military and political leadership might help reduce civil-military friction. Also, in accordance with existing external and internal security threats, the government must follow through on its initiatives to reform institutions in higher defense organizations to maintain a robust and professional war fighting force. Moreover, the Indian military should be used sparingly in the maintenance of law and order as that moves it further away from its conventional war-fighting functions.

Q6. Why do you suggest the military should be used sparingly in the maintenance of law and order?

If the military is routinely called in to assist civilians in the maintenance of law and order as evidenced in cases of internal insurgency and insurrection, its traditional war-fighting functions (defense preparedness against external threats) can get adversely affected in the long term. Also, “stretching” the military’s traditional functions always carries the danger of politicizing the military. Hence, in any democracy, the military should always be used cautiously. Such contentious issues are emerging in American civil-military relations too with the over-stretching of the American military in fighting ill-defined wars abroad.