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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Working Together and Equally
The civil–military disconnect in independent India has to change
Maj. Gen. Sheru Thapliyal (retd) By Maj. Gen. Sheru Thapliyal (retd)

The civil–military disconnect in India started right at the time of Independence. Disheartened and worried by what they saw around them in countries which were under military rule, the Indian political leadership devised a plan whereby the armed forces would remain firmly under political control exercised through the bureaucracy.

Influenced by Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence, the political stalwarts of that era treated the armed forces with disdain. They believed that the military had been an instrument of suppression during the British rule and had not contributed to the freedom struggle. But for the Kashmir war,
Jawaharlal Nehru would have gladly disbanded the armed forces. There is the famous story of how the then General, Rob Lockheart, went to Nehru with a draft of the defence doctrine for his approval. Nehru is said to have lost his cool and shouted at Gen. Lockheart. “Rubbish, total rubbish. We do not need an army. Our policy is non violence. We have no enemy. As far as I am concerned you can disband the army. Police are good enough for our needs,” he is believed to have said. Little wonder then that with this mindset, civil–military relations were in trouble right from the beginning.

In order to ensure that the armed forces remained completely under civilian control, which in India means bureaucratic control, a committee was set up under the late H.M. Patel, defence secretary, in 1955 to evolve rules of business of the ministry of defence (MoD). Two rules dealt a body blow to the civil–military relations. In the first instance, defence secretary, and not the armed forces, was made responsible for defence of India. But whenever a military debacle took place, no questions were asked from the defence secretary. It was the general who was sacked. In the other instance, a system of parallel file was evolved in the MoD. Whenever a file from the Service HQ is received, the MoD starts a parallel file which contains remarks of bureaucrats in the channel and then in the file that is sent to the political bosses who endorse their remarks on this file and never see the Service HQ file again. Decisions are conveyed to the Service HQ in the form of a letter. This permission system has done more harm to the Services than any other system. The business rules of the MoD also ensured that Service chiefs did not figure in decision making. More importantly, they seldom saw or met the defence minister.

These oddities come as a culture shock to a Service officer only when he is posted to the Service HQ. He is shocked to see how the sole aim of the civilian bureaucracy is to keep the armed forces under its thumb. This contradiction is beautifully brought out in Brig. John Dalvi’s book Himalayan Blunder, and what he wrote in 1967 about the functioning of bureaucracy is true even today. The Brigadier’s 7 Infantry Brigade was decimated by the Chinese at Namka Chu in 1962. To quote him in the book: “Both the politician and the civil servant found it convenient to keep the soldier in his place and devise a system whereby the army is always asking, begging, pleading and justifying. Over the years this method has worn down the army and many army chiefs are content to let cases drop through sheer exhaustion. The role of perpetual appellant can be very frustrating”. And mind you, Brig. Dalvi served in the Army HQ from 1954–58. The system had already been perpetual and continues to be so even nearly six decades later.

Recently in an article in the ‘USI Journal’, N.N. Vohra, the current Governor of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and a former defence secretary in the early Nineties, makes a political attempt to justify the functioning of the bureaucracy in MoD. For example, one of the long outstanding issues is integration of Service HQ with MoD. What has been done so far is shameful. Service HQs have been named Integrated HQ of MoD (Army), navy and air force, and that is about all. Why the Service chiefs have accepted this is beyond anybody’s imagination.
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