Monday, May 30, 2016

'Army and Nation:The Military and Indian Democracy'. Nehru, Congress and Indian Army

Why did two countries, India and Pakistan, that inherited, from their colonial rulers, a professional army have such divergent destinies with one being a rambunctious and robust democracy and the other being mired in a cycle of military coups where democracy has effectively been snuffed out? Steven I. Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian studies and Professor of Political Science and International affairs at Yale University, has written a succinct and compelling analysis of the above question in "Army and Nation:The military and Indian democracy since independence".

Wilkinson identifies three causes for the divergent fates of India and Pakistan. First, the socio-economic nature of the states inherited by the nations post-partition. Second, the differences between Congress party and Muslim League as vehicles of democracy and democratic institutions. Third, the coup-proofing policy prescriptions of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and the Congress party and the failure of Jinnah and the Muslim league in framing such policies.

"The Indian army had been designed by the British, like most imperial armies, to be loyal to the colonial regime and not to the people". To that end the British, particularly after the near death experience during the revolt of 1857, organized the regiments in such a manner so that, as Sir Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India, put it in 1862, "Sikh might fire into Hindoo, Gorkha into other, without any scruple in case of need".

The Colonial regime made an art out of creating an army built on 'Divide and Rule' and at the same time homogenized enough, by recruiting heavily from so called 'martial classes'. A retired Indian officer recalled that at the Indian army headquarters in 1946-47 a map s "had brown pins for Indian units, green for Gorkha units and red for British, and the strategy was, do not allow clusters of brown pins on their own with no reds or greens". "Gurkhas, Rajputs, Dogras, Garhwalis, Jats and Marathas", were collectively referred to as 'martial class' and the regions of Punjab and NWFP (North West Frontier Provinces) provided the most regiments from the regions. In 1931 Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs constituted nearly 50%, Other Punjabis constituted 18% and recruitments from Madras and Bombay constituted a mere 11% of the then armed forces.

World War I loosened this rigid recruitment formula and compelled more widespread recruiting to meet urgent needs. A 'Mahar regiment' was formed, recognizing that the community once used to be nearly 15% of all troops from Bombay prior to the 'martial class' based recruitments, in 1917 but was soon disbanded, due to caste prejudices, in 1922. Ambedkar, a member of the Defense committee on the Viceroy's council, demanded the re-creation of the Mahar regiment during World War II. A fact little known in India is that by the time the war ended in 1945 India had supplied "2.85 million" soldiers to the Colonial army. Wilkinson underscores the important point that contrary to popular impression this explosion in recruitment did not sweep away the prejudices about some classes being "martial" in nature and others unsuited for combat. The non-martial-classes were still not assigned to frontline duty. The Willcox Committee (1945), of which then Brigadier K.M. Cariappa was a member, looked into whether the class based recruitment should be changed and "recommended, not surprisingly, given the conservatism of the army, that it preserve the status quo".

In this backdrop the carnage of the partition unfolded. Wilkinson, based on his research with a colleague, establishes that one of the chief causes driving the bloodlust in the Punjab and NWFP is the overwhelming presence of ex-soldiers in those areas. He devastatingly observes "an additional average month of combat experience among veterans in a district was associated with a 1.1 percentage point reduction in the minority population". Post-partition the British officers left but the Indianization that had happened amongst the officer corps saw that India and Pakistan had officers who stepped into the vacated posts. However, that had a price as India learned. During World War II non-British officers were excluded, with the exception of General Thimayya, from commanding a combat unit and most importantly from military intelligence. This lack of wartime experience was "felt severely in 1962" during the India-China conflict.

Jawaharlal Nehru with US President Harry Truman in 1949 (Image courtesy and WSJ)
The Congress, notably P.N. Sapru and Sivasamy Aiyer, had a jaded view of the structure of the army and how it was used the British. As early as September 12th 1946 Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to the Commander in Chief ad Defense Secretary pressing "for large scale reforms to the Indian army". However the partition and the security threats it brought basically stalled any reforms on the recruitment and compositional nature of the army. Though it was the stated policy of the government to open recruitment to all the class structure, supported by Cariappa and Thimmayya, remained intact.  However, the partition and the loss of Punjab and Bengal, ensured that the Indian army did not have the lopsided reliance on those regions for recruitment whereas Pakistani army was grossly imbalanced by a near total domination of Punjabi regiments and the near exclusion of all of then East Pakistan in the army. This imbalance, amongst other factors, proved fatal to Pakistan in 1971.

Nehru, prodded by Patel, conceded that no large scale reduction of armed forces could take place in view of the security threats and he further accepted the trade off to development programs that that expense entailed.

Wilkinson quotes Stephen Cohen, "Nehru, Patel and other Indian politicians, as well as their civilian advisers, had a clear idea of which elements of the British tradition they wanted to keep and which they wanted to discard". While Nehru harped on making the army reflect the diverse nature of the country Jinnah and Muslim league were eagerly defending the domination of Punjab's role and "Muslims' over-representation in the army".

When senior officers dragged their feet and were "obstructing Congress's plans for Independence Day celebration" Nehru wrote a stinger to the Commander-in-chief with copies to others including Cariappa laying down an iron clad rule that officers who are insubordinate to Government of India had "no place in the Indian army, or in the Indian structure of Government".

Nehru then in a series of steps began to institute far reaching changes that have protected India from falling to the fate that befell Pakistan. "The commander in chief no longer had a seat at the political decision making table", "all important decisions now had to go through the civilian officials and the politicians at the Ministry of Defense". Civilian leadership over the military has, throughout history and across nations, have produced mixed results when it comes to military victories during wars but wherever the military took the upper hand,almost without exception, nations have been destroyed. From Truman to Obama, firing popular and respected generals for indiscretions or independent policy making, has ensured better results in the long run than otherwise. The aura of military effectiveness often blinds people to assume that unbridled military leadership would be a good thing, at least, in areas of defense. Not at all. For the courage and foresightedness that Nehru and his colleagues showed generations of Indians owe them thanks.

"The pay and perks of the military were also reduced", substantially. This, Wilkinson points out, made "the army less attractive as a field of employment for members of the elite families". Nehru wrote to the Chief Ministers to "discourage the practice of senior officers giving public speeches". I'm reminded the pompous and arrogant speech given by General Douglas MacArthur to US Congress after being fired by Truman.

Of all the steps taken by Nehru in coup-proofing the country none would outrank the decision to abolish the post of Commander in Chief and replace it with a triumvirate of chiefs with equal powers. This, while coup-proofing the country, also promoted inter-agency rivalry that an irascible minister of Defense like Krishna Menon used very shamefully.

Nehru, Wilkinson says, "also recognized the potential danger of letting senior generals stay in their positions too long. "The normal tenure was reduced from four to three years". "Nehru also refused to bring generals into Indian politics at a high level as state governors". Instead, Nehru, sent former generals to far flung countries as ambassadors. Again, the vision and political will for these measure cannot be appreciated enough today, a half century away and from the comfort of peace that was the result of those measures. A cursory survey of India's neighbor and other ill fated nations would show us that to have undertaken these measures in such perilous times while setting the nation on a path of secularism, economic progress and constitutional framework is nothing short of being Olympian.

Other strategic "hedging" tactics to create a "balance outside the army" were taken with great forethought too. Patel, acting through Girija Shankar Bajpai, ensured that the Nepalese Gorkha units came to Indian army and not to the British. The creation of paramilitary forces to be used for quelling internal disturbances instead of the army played a key role in keeping the army out of areas of trouble that usually makes military leadership eager to override civilian control. This, like other measures, had its downsides too.

Too often Indian military is credited, too readily, for staying out of politics and internal affairs and Wilkinson says that it is not entirely true. He points out how Cariappa made statements regarding banning of political parties, restricting the vote to the educated and 'prohibiting students from political activities'. He was not, amongst the military brass, alone in holding such opinions. Wilkinson credits the Congress party for staving off military adventurism unlike the Muslim league in Pakistan.

On the issue of reservation for backward class and linguistic reorganization of states even a larger than life leader like Nehru had to "bend with the wind" reflecting the democratic impulses that were the undertow of a broad based populist party that the Congress was unlike the top-down authoritarian Muslim league of Jinnah which not failed to recognize fissures in the polity but even exacerbated them with their bull headedness. However, we should recognize the sterling quality of a person like General Tapishwar Narain "Tappy" Raina who refused to support Sanjay Gandhi's plan to usurp power from the victors of the 1977 elections by deploying 300 platoons. Raina very adroitly ignored the hot-headed lunatic and instead diplomatically appealed to Indira Gandhi, who was until then a mute witness to the hare brained plan of her son, to devolve power peacefully.

The one area where all reform attempts failed was in making the army reflect a diverse nation. The Indian army continues to be one of the critical arms of the government where all social justice measures, especially recruitment of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, continues to be pathetically flouted.

The chapter "Army and Nation Today" is a brilliant analyses of the current state of Indian army as it relates to its caste composition and why it is so. The Indian army still has a regional imbalance when one considers the proportion of army recruits from each state relative to the 'recruitable male population'. However, it is not entirely due to prejudices. "The recruiting melas in Gujarat, which has a booming economy but no string military tradition, do not yield as many recruits as those in poverty stricken Chhattisgarh and Bihar".

The Indian army, Jagjivan Ram learned, was exempt from caste based reservations. What is worse the army even refuses to count its members on the basis of caste and religion and makes a virtue out of it. This has proved deleterious to the goals of social justice. When a lawsuit was filed in the Supreme Court about the President's Bodyguard being composed exclusively of "Jat Sikhs, Rajputs and Jats" the army responded that "the ceremonial duties demand common height, build appearance and dress for reason of pomp and projection which are important military attributes". The Supreme Court agreed with the army's stand and dismissed the lawsuit. Wilkinson, an American professor, is uniquely suited to present these facts and underscore the unfairness because he must be very familiar with the arguments against desegregating the US military and the current controversies regarding allowing women in combat positions in US army. I'd doubt if an Indian author would've presented these facts likewise.

Nevertheless Wilkinson is sympathetic and says that "no non conscript army in history ever looked exactly like its overall population". That said he also shows how states that are overrepresented in Indian army are overrepresented by "proportions that far exceed anything we see in the United States".

While Wilkinson highlights a US study that found "ethnically cohesive units were more likely to reenlist and less likely to mutiny and desert" he also mentions that recently the US army has shown that "with sufficient attention to training and incentives, it is possible to move from an ethnically more cohesive to an ethnically diverse military".

Partition dealt Pakistan a really bad set of cards. "80 percent of industries in West Punjab had been owned by non-Muslims","banking and insurance, and other financial sectors had also been run by Hindus". The flight of human and financial capital crippled Pakistan. But, Pakistan is what Jinnah and the Muslim league wanted. "The areas that made up the new state had supplied only around 17 percent of India's tax revenues before the war". To add to all that the ethnic composition of the army was lopsided, as pointed out earlier, between the overrepresented provinces of Punjab and NWFP and the vastly underrepresented East Pakistan.

Pakistan, Wilkinson shows in a succinct summary, did almost everything the opposite way and hurtled down a path of destruction. Where Nehru bent to the will of the people on language issue Jinnah was adamantly inflexible telling "let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language". Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used the occasion of a weakened army in the aftermath of the 1971 debacle to initiate reforms but his loss of "popular support because of his increasingly authoritarian rule", "use of FSF (Federal Security Force) like a Praetorian guard" to terrorize his opposition and finally reliance on the army itself to crush dissent all paved the way to his own downfall and the strangulation of democracy.

Wilkinson's book, lucidly written and well researched, is an important one to understand and appreciate India's founding fathers, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, who showed admirable prescience in matters of nation building, the uncommon political courage to institutionalize reforms and, most importantly, a rare democratic spirit in yielding to popular will.

Indians would do well to appreciate the analysis that the author, as an outsider, brings to bear on the subject. The book showcases the importance of diversity in opinion. When I say that an American is uniquely equipped to write this book I do not mean it as an insult to Indians but rather I'm just stating a fact that an American who probably has witnessed similar debates in another country where the military plays a very vital role is better placed to be attentive to similar nuances. It is to Wilkinson's credit that he draws attention to an important but easy to ignore fact like parliamentary questions "on state and community recruitment in the army" spiked during an era when coalition governments where the norm. In a coalition government many regional and diverse voices find expressions and diversity, or the lack of it, in a major national institution draws scrutiny.

"Army and Nation" is a welcome addition to Stephen Cohen's outdated "The Indian army" which deals, mostly, with pre-independence era.


  1. Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence --- Steven I Wilkinson (Published by Harvard University Press, 2015)
  2. Harry Truman firing of Douglas MacArthur
  3. The Indian Army: Its contribution to the Development of a Nation -- Stephen P. Cohen (Published by Oxford India Publications, 2001. Paperback edition)


Anilkumar Kurup said...

Thank yo for the excellent review. I feel peeved and pity those who trivializes and lampoons Nehru and his vision and policies . In retrospect, yes some of his policies were better corrected, but then in retrospect one can be quite pompous in statements.,
India was lucky to have the likes of Nehru, Patel, Azad, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Nehru has indeed coup-proofed the nation unlike Jinnah who failed to do for Pakistan.

//all social justice measures, especially recruitment of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, continues to be pathetically flouted.//

// What is worse the army even refuses to count its members on the basis of caste and religion and makes a virtue out of it. This has proved deleterious to the goals of social justice. //

Can't believe Aravindan sir saying these regarding reservation!!