The working alliance


The relations between the civilian government and the military is a delicate one, but has set good precedents in India. And it must remain so, says Brig. Suresh Chandra Sharma (Retd.).

Civil-military relations comprise rules and practices to define the relationship between the civil authorities and the military services. In democratic countries, the ultimate authority on all issues rests with the political leadership. The various elements of civil power are the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

Civil power is assisted by the civilian bureaucracy and the military services to execute their decisions. Control of military services by the political leadership should be effective, and there should be minimum interference by the military in political or foreign affairs.

Similarly, the military should be left free to decide their course of action. This perception appears to be right, but there are many historical examples of both success and failure when the political leadership overruled the military. For example, during World War I, then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted a naval operation to break through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea, and overruled the naval chief who was opposed to the operation. The operation ended in a disaster with the loss of thousands of lives. This relationship is critical and decisions should be taken without ego or prejudices.

In India too, there have been occasions of serious difference between the Service Chiefs and the Defence Minister. For instance, General Thimayya opted for retirement and was persuaded by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to withdraw his resignation. Later, Nehru criticised General Thimayya in the Parliament, which led to some embarrassment to Thimayya.

Political power
Before Independence, the Viceroy was the executive head and there was only one incident of controversy between the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), that of George Curzon and Horatio Kitchener. After Independence, the ultimate authority for civil and military affairs rested with the elected political cabinet, as in all democratic countries. In India, Nehru had reservations about the role of the military and was apprehensive about a military coup. This was perhaps due to military coups in newly independent countries. While going around the cabinet secretariat, he was surprised to see a few officers in uniform and asked about them. On learning that they were members of the military wing of the cabinet secretariat, he gave instructions for them to come to the office in civilian clothes. Even stranger was his reply to a note from General (later Field Marshall) Claude Auchinleck for a meeting to discuss the threats to India. Nehru replied that India did not face any threat and the police was adequate to deal with any emergency.

The defence secretary is the advisor to the cabinet on defence issues, and the President is the C-in-C. This is in name only and he has no authority. For instance, the Army was moved to the border after the attack on the Parliament. To an enquiry from the army chief about the aim of this concentration, the Prime Minister replied that they would explain later. Later, the units moved back to their locations and the response to Kargil intrusion was delayed. In 1965, the Prime Minister decided not to use the Navy in any offensive task without consulting the navy chief. Pakistan navy got away by bombing Dwarka. Admiral N. Krishnan said that the Pakistani ship should have been chased and destroyed. It was not the only such decision. Rajiv Gandhi issued orders for the Colombo operations without consulting the military who were not even briefed about the task. The net result was loss of lives without any political gain. The army chief is not a member of the Cabinet Defence Committee and is invited to attend the meetings as and when necessary. In fact, the cabinet remains without timely professional advice on military matters.

The military culture
Unlike other careers, military life demands discipline and pressures on service members and their families in peace locations as well. Living away from families in tents or small mud huts can be accepted without any loss of morale only because of the sense of pride. Rules limit freedom of speech and association. Commanders have widespread authority on issues which in civilian life are considered to be strictly personal. The warrior ethos looks down on timidity and a superiority complex is a natural and essential feeling. This state of view is not well appreciated by the civil bureaucracy. A former cabinet secretary, while writing about his experiences refers to the local military commander (a brigadier) as one with a chip on his shoulder. An individual can offer his life to serve the nation or save his comrade only by considering himself to be a superior individual. A normal person cannot be relied upon to rush in an emergency when everyone is running away.

The role of the Civil Service
The Civil Service is one arm of the civil power. In India, the political leadership has heavily relied on this arm. The military accepts the supremacy of the civil power which is defined as the political power, and not the civil bureaucracy. Supremacy does not imply subservience, and the service chiefs should express their views freely. In India, the civil service has acquired a role of supremacy. The civil service has been putting across fear of a military coup. This has happened in spite of no evidence ever of a military take over. The army is composed of men with linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity. It does not offer chance of a conspiracy.

The legacy of the Curzon-Kitchener dispute has been that strict control of all expenses in the Ministry of Defence has been given to the Finance Ministry. A parallel organisation of Ministry of Finance (Defence) has to approve all proposals for expenses. This includes plans for equipment and arms as well. The proposals can take a long time to mature. They do not restrict their comments to finance matters, and question the tactical and strategic aspects for which they have limited knowledge. Writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri has commented that for its own advantage the bureaucracy in India has placed the army in a cage. It is strange that in 1962, some military commanders were retired, but no civilian officer was held responsible for the poor show.

Military and domestic strife
The army has been frequently called upon to deal with riots, communal troubles and insurgency. The State must use the army to deal with large scale violence, insurgency and organised terror attacks. The prolonged use of the army in riots may erode their discipline and may have a deterrent effect. It causes frustration and may lead to politicisation of the army. It has made the army vulnerable to public criticism. It also is an obstacle to training for their main task, the defence against aggression. For employment against insurgency, the UK had evolved a good organisation in Malaya. A unified command was set up under an army officer who functioned under the head of the government. In India, there is a provision for placing the para-military and police forces under the command of the military during a war, but it has not been implemented in any war. The method has been to exercise operational control and not command. In the case of Doda in Kashmir, an unusual system was used of operational co-operation. There is a need to consider unified command system for good results.

The army must remain subordinate to the civil power which should not be confused with civil administration. The army commanders must give their views freely and not be subservient. This is important in our society due to the prevailing culture of sycophancy. Excessive control can cause a divided and supine military which is not in the national interest. It happened in India in 1962. The army is the most powerful coercive power available to the State and it must remain professional, disciplined and apolitical.The army must be powerful to prevail in war and not make excessive demands or dictate the course of foreign policy.


Brigadier Suresh Chandra Sharma (Retd.)

Brigadier Suresh Chandra Sharma (Retd.) served in the Army for 30 years. Post retirement he served the telecom industry with multinational and Indian corporates. He is also a freelance journalist and has interests in national security issues.