Soldiers, statesmen and strategy


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POLITICAL control of the military is seldom considered problematic in the Indian context. The country is routinely lauded for being one of the few post-colonial states where the military has not intervened in political issues. As a recent assessment puts it, ‘India is among only a handful of nations in which civilian administrations wield so much power over the military.’ Another important study claims that, ‘The Indian military, despite growth in its geostrategic importance, increased technological and organizational sophistication and use in internal security operations, stands firmly subordinate to civilian leaders of all parties and ideologies.’1 

Such appraisals, however, tend to overlook the one area where civil-military relations are usually fraught – the potential or actual use of force. Strategy is the creative element in the exercise of power. It is the search for an optimum relationship between available military means and desired political ends. Strategy, then, is the key domain of civil-military interaction. It is the area where theoretical notions of civilian supremacy and military subordination can be tested most closely in practice. It is surprising, therefore, that most discussions of civil-military relations in India blissfully bypass the terrain of strategy.

This essay suggests that the conventional wisdom on civil-military relations in India needs substantial qualification. Whilst the military has not intruded in the formal machinery of politics, it is an important and influential player in certain areas of policy. It has managed to do so by an expansive definition of what constitutes its domain of ‘operational expertise’ and by insisting that the politicians stay clear of its operational turf. Its ability to do so has been supported by a skewed narrative of civil-military interaction in past conflicts – one that remains influential well beyond military circles. In order to understand this neglected dimension of civil-military relations we need to range back in time.

In establishing the norm of civilian supremacy in the republic, Jawaharlal Nehru played a key role. Even before he took control of the levers of state power, Nehru realized the importance of keeping the military subordinate to the political authority. Nehru’s views were shaped by his understanding of the pernicious effects of militarism in Europe and Japan. From the outset, therefore, he took special care in ensuring proper relations between the civilians and the military. At the eve of independence, the army commander-in-chief had issued orders to keep the public away from the flag hoisting ceremony. Rescinding this order, Nehru wrote to General Rob Lockhart: ‘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.’2 


In October 1947, the British chiefs of the armed forces protested the government’s decision to position troops around Junagadh state which had acceded to Pakistan. Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel took a grim view of the matter and made it clear that they were prepared for a showdown. This incident led to the creation of a Defence Committee of the Cabinet to institutionalize civil-military interaction on matters of strategy.3 A few years later, when the first Indian chief of the army, General K.M. Cariappa, began airing his views on policy matters, Nehru advised him to avoid straying into these areas. Further, as Ramachandra Guha has argued, Nehru sent Cariappa away as envoy to Australia in order to obviate the possibility of his entering politics after retirement.

Perhaps the most controversial episode in civil-military relations during these years was the army chief General K.S. Thimayya’s offer of resignation in September 1959. According to the received wisdom, Thimayya’s resignation was sparked off by a disagreement with Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon over the promotion of senior army officers. However, the archival evidence now available shows that the reasons for the resignation ran deeper. Just a few weeks before the affair, Indian and Chinese forces had clashed along the eastern frontiers. To counter the growing threat from China, Thimayya wanted the political leadership to consider seriously the proposal mooted by President Ayub Khan for joint defence arrangements between India and Pakistan.


Nehru had previously turned this down, as it would imply forsaking non-alignment. Menon, too, was opposed to this course. Thimayya broached this matter and others directly with the prime minister. Nehru assured him that he would discuss the issues with Menon. When things did not progress, Thimayya sent his resignation to Nehru. The prime minister naturally saw this as a step to force his hand on policy issues. Nehru managed to persuade Thimayya to withdraw his resignation without giving him any assurances. But by this time the issue had been leaked to the press. When questioned in Parliament, Nehru played it down as arising out of temperamental differences. Nonetheless, Nehru’s concerns were obvious when he stressed that ‘civil authority is and must remain supreme.’4 

It is deeply ironical, therefore, that it was in Nehru’s own time that the fabric of civil-military relations began to fray at the edges. The origins of this process can be traced to the disastrous war against China in 1962. In the aftermath of the war, the political leadership came under intense attack for having interfered in military matters. Curiously, a two-member military committee tasked with inquiring into the army’s operational performance reinforced this perception. The Henderson-Brooks Report told a cautionary tale of meddlesome civilians, timorous military, and the ensuing, but avoidable, catastrophe. Despite being unable to access documents from the ministries of defence and external affairs, the report grandly concluded that the higher direction of war was ‘out of touch with reality’. Although the report was never published, its conclusions percolated into the public realm.


This narrative, at best radically incomplete and at worst downright false, soon became a morality pageant for the military. The principal lesson drawn from it was the importance of ‘standing up’ to politicians who sought to intrude in professional matters. Brigadier John Dalvi, to take but one example, devoted an entire chapter in his memoirs to the ‘Faulty Higher Direction of War’, excoriating civilians for ‘hustling’ the military and the top army leadership for failing to ‘resist improper orders’.5 More importantly, the civilians, frazzled by the war, tacitly accepted this critique. Thenceforth, they restricted themselves to giving overall directives, leaving operational issues to the military.

The changing dynamics of civil-military relations were evident in the months following the war.6 In January 1963, after China’s unilateral withdrawal, the prime minister directed the army to move back into the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). But the army chief, General J.N. Chaudhuri, and the corps commander, Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw, decided against the move, believing that it would provoke a renewed Chinese offensive. Accordingly, the Army Headquarters instructed the Eastern Command that, ‘Recent operations in this area have brought out clearly our inability to maintain adequately the troops deployed there [NEFA]. No regular army units will, therefore, be moved up until they can be maintained by land routes.’ The army chief was, of course, entitled to hold a different opinion. But instead of raising the matter with the political leadership, Chaudhuri kept them in the dark and pursued his own military policy.


The dissonance between the government’s policy and the army’s actions came to the fore in early July 1963 when the Intelligence Bureau (IB) issued a grim warning of Chinese troop concentrations north of the McMahon Line. In inter-agency meetings Chaudhuri played these down, claiming that if Indian troops re-entered NEFA China would definitely strike. Lieutenant-General Manekshaw concurred, and urged the general staff against inducting troops. The defence minister was under the impression that some forces were already in place, and asked for an operational update. During the briefing, the deputy chief (Chaudhuri was travelling) vaguely alluded to the presence in NEFA of ‘elements of forward brigades’ of a division in the plains.

The minister realized that the army had been tardy, but did not probe beyond seeking some clarification. Nor did he confront the army chief on the matter subsequently. Chaudhuri, for his part, persisted with chicanery. After conferring with Manekshaw, he decided to send one brigade into southern NEFA for training, and informed the MoD that he had a brigade for defensive operations. In the event, the Indian Army began to deploy in NEFA only towards the end of 1963.


The civilians’ reluctance to intervene in military matters could be carried to absurd lengths. Consider a little known incident from the war with Pakistan in 1965. India’s decision to strike across the border in Punjab was leaked to a journalist by a military source a day before the operation commenced. The Ministry of Defence learnt of it soon afterwards, and was naturally alarmed at the leak of such sensitive information. In fact, to maintain secrecy, the government had not even informed President Radhakrishnan and the Indian representative at the UN. On enquiring, it was found that the source was none other than General Chaudhuri. Although the defence minister was aware of the matter, the army chief was not even asked for an explanation, let alone being reproved. As the then defence secretary explained later, ‘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’.

Such an attitude proved detrimental in the closing stages of the war. Two weeks into the offensive against Pakistan, New Delhi found itself under increasing international pressure for a ceasefire. Chavan and the prime minister sought the army chief’s assessment of the situation. General Chaudhuri counselled for a ceasefire, claiming that most of the army’s ammunition had been used and that there had been considerable tank losses. The Indian government accordingly decided to accept the UN proposal for a ceasefire. Chaudhuri should have known better. The official history of the war notes that at that point ‘only about 14 per cent of India’s frontline ammunition had been fired, and the number of tanks held by India was twice the number Pakistan had.’8 If anything, the logistical situation of the Pakistani forces was perilous. The politicians’ refusal to delve deeply into military matters or to ask searching questions resulted in the war ending in stalemate.


Coming in the wake of the fiasco against China, the ambiguous outcome of the 1965 war was hailed as a triumph. The war, it was widely assumed, vindicated the ‘lessons of 1962’. The politicians, too, concluded that spectre of 1962 had been exorcised. The defeat against China thus prompted both the politicians and the military to avoid the bruising discussions and arguments that are par for course in civil-military interaction over the use of force. The subsequent pattern of civil-military interaction in India is informed by the notion that civilians should eschew involvement in operational matters.

As a senior Ministry of Defence official has observed: ‘While the operational directive is laid down by the political leadership, the actual planning of operations is left to the chiefs of staff, and, over the years, a convention has been established that in purely operational matters such advice of the chiefs is almost automatically accepted.’9 

The notion that there is an inviolable operational domain where the military’s writ runs supreme has been deeply problematic. It has enabled the military to trespass into areas that would ordinarily be the preserve of the political leadership. In so doing it has led the military to depart, in important ways, from the ideal of a non-political entity. Two major issues in recent years have underscored this role of the military – in internal and external affairs.


Consider first the long-standing dispute with Pakistan over the Siachen glacier. In the present state of bilateral relations it may be unrealistic to expect any major progress on this matter. But not long ago, when the prognosis was much better, the Indian Army’s institutional stance had proved a major hurdle in moving forward towards eventual resolution. Of all the disputes between India and Pakistan, the Siachen issue is the most susceptible of progress. The area is of little strategic value to either side. This was one of reasons why the Line of Control (LoC), defined in 1972, stopped south of Siachen, at grid point NJ9842. It was expected, mistakenly as it turned out, that the glaciers would keep the two sides out of the area. Both India and Pakistan now agree that withdrawal of troops is a prerequisite for further negotiations on delimitation of the LoC in the Siachen area.

Several rounds of talks on demilitarization were held as part of the composite dialogue, but to no avail. The last rounds of discussions indicated that the nub of the problem was New Delhi’s insistence that Islamabad must record the current deployment of Pakistani and Indian troops on a map that will be attached to the agreement on troop withdrawals. The Indians consider this an essential hedge against the possibility that Pakistan might occupy the areas vacated by Indian forces; re-taking the glacier militarily would be a costly affair. The Pakistanis were concerned that such an authentication would prejudice their position when negotiations on delimitation commence, for India contends that the line should run north of NJ9842 along the major watershed, while Pakistan claims that it should extend north-east towards the Karakoram Pass, so placing the glaciers on its side of the LoC.


The problem became all the more intractable because the Indian Army came out in opposition to withdrawal without authentication. The then army chief, General J.J. Singh, publicly aired his views on more than one occasion. The army also expressed its position through leaks to the media. For instance, before the defence secretaries’ talks on Siachen in November 2006, senior army officials claimed that the glacier was important, not just strategically but also as a ‘5000 square km water reservoir’ that would apparently be critical for the ‘water wars’ of the future.

Retired military officials also chimed in with their views. A former vice-chief of the army wrote: ‘Are we to just up stick and come back? Surely, the nation will not accept it.’ The political leadership was consistently loath to override the army’s advice. Visiting Siachen in early May 2007, Defence Minister A.K. Antony made it clear that there would be no withdrawal without the consent of the military. It seems safe to assume that the political leadership’s wariness about treading the military’s toes on this matter persists to date. The military, in effect, exercises a veto on a critical foreign policy issue.

This trend is equally noticeable in matters relating to internal security. Take the controversy over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Among other things, the controversial legislation empowers army personnel, down to non-commissioned officers, to use force after giving due warning ‘even to the causing of death’, if they are convinced that it is necessary to do so for the ‘maintenance of public order.’ Moreover, it allows them to enter premises, search and arrest without a warrant.

The AFSPA attracted public opprobrium following the kidnapping and murder of a Manipuri lady, Thangjam Manorama, in 2004. Faced with a groundswell of protest, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that he would consider replacing the AFSPA with a more humane legislation. Thereafter, the prime minister appointed a committee headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy. The committee was mandated to advice whether the act should be amended or replaced. The committee submitted its report in June 2005. It recommended repealing the AFSPA. The Administrative Reforms Commission, too, has recommended scrapping the act.


The government, however, took its own time to make up its mind. This was mainly due to institutional resistance from the army. Eventually, the government decided to amend the AFSPA rather than scrapping it. In October 2009, the home minister announced that the amendments had been finalized and were being submitted to the Cabinet for approval. But it now appears that army remains dissatisfied with the proposed amendments. The new chief of army staff, General V.K. Singh, stated recently that the AFSPA was not a ‘draconian’ legislation, and that it was being ‘demonized’. A senior army official has been quoted as saying that the proposed changes mean ‘asking us to fight with our hands tied.’ The government feels, on its part, that the amendments cannot be moved in the face of opposition from the army.


To be sure, the army has genuine concerns about legal protection against prosecution for its personnel operating in areas beset with insurgencies. In fact, the Jeevan Reddy Commission took on board the army’s view, but observed that Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act provided adequate safeguards against prosecution for army personnel acting in good faith. If anything, this act needed to be modified, by inserting safeguards to prevent abuse of human rights. In this context, the stances adopted both by the government and the army are deeply problematic. The government is concerned to avoid meddling in issues that are related to operational matters.

But the AFSPA is not simply an operational issue. Indeed, its portrayal as such shows the extent to which the category of ‘operational matters’ has stretched. Given the widespread revulsion against its provisions in all regions falling under the act, the question of repealing it is not merely operational but rather a political one. Hence, the army’s view cannot be the deciding factor. The latter’s claim that the ‘dos and don’ts’ issued by the army headquarters are a sufficient safeguard against human rights abuse is ludicrous. For this laundry list does not even begin to address the legal and moral complexities confronting troops on the ground. And yet the government remains unwilling to exercise its political judgement and overrule the military.

In any event, the assumption that civilians should abide by the military’s views on ‘operational’ matters is untenable in a democratic polity. The chain of accountability is clear: the military is responsible to the political leadership, who in turn are answerable to the people. If in disregarding military advice, civilians jeopardize national security, it is for the people to take them to task by voting them out. The military must also realize that the line between advising against a course of action and resisting civilian efforts to pursue it is rather a fine one. In issuing statements opposing a withdrawal from Siachen without recording existing positions or resisting amendment of the AFSPA, the Indian Army comes perilously close to transgressing this line. The military, moreover, is competent only to assess risks. It is the politicians who must judge them, and decide what chances are worth taking.

The defence minister’s assertion that the government will go by military advice on Siachen as well as the government’s reluctance to move ahead with repealing the AFSPA is tantamount to an abdication of responsibility. Unless the elected leadership asserts its supremacy on such matters, the notion of democratic control of the military will continue to be hollowed out in key areas of public policy.


More fundamentally, the notion of a separate operational domain simply does not survive contact with reality. Clausewitz’s celebrated dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means neatly captures the fact that the management of strategy is a political business through-and-through. All activities, including those at the tactical level, are imbued with political implications. Hence, civilian involvement is essential, even if it may not always have a salutary effect. This is particularly so in a democratic system. The political scientist Peter Feaver puts it well: in a democracy, political leaders have the right to be wrong.



1. Harsh V. Pant, ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine and Command Structure: Implications for Civil-Military Relations in India’, Armed Forces and Society 33(2), January 2007, p. 243; Paul Staniland, ‘Explaining Civil-Military Relations in Complex Political Environments: India and Pakistan in Comparative Perspective’, Security Studies 17(2), April 2008, p. 323.

2. Cited in Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Macmillan, London, 2007, p. 760.

3. Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010, pp. 44-46.

4. Ibid., pp. 267-69.

5. J.P. Dalvi, Himalayan Blunder. Thacker & Company, Bombay, 1969, pp. 397-446. Subsequent works echoed this view. See, Neville Maxwell, India’s China War. Jonathan Cape, London, 1970; Stephen Cohen, The Indian Army: Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation. OUP, New Delhi, 1990, p. 176.

6. D.K. Palit, War in High Himalaya: Indian Army in Crisis, 1962. Hurst, London, 1991, pp. 386-87, 411-19.

7. P.V.R. Rao to Additional Secretary Ministry of Defence, 18 May 1973; ‘Note on Incident’ by P.V.R. Rao, 5 September 1965 in Y. D. Gundevia Papers, Subject File 7, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

8. B.C. Chakravorty, History of the Indo-Pakistan War, 1965. Ministry of Defence, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 333-34.

9. P.R. Chari, ‘Civil-Military Relations in India’, Armed Forces and Society 14(1), November 1977, p. 13.