Wednesday, December 9, 2015

‘Army and Nation’, by Steven Wilkinson : Why There Have Been No Coups in India? - Review by Shashank Joshi

    It is now a truism that the Middle East’s chaos has its roots in Europe’s fetish for lines in the sand. But another colonial strategy was just as important.

A century ago, France cultivated Syria’s minority Alawite sect as a bulwark against Sunni revolts. Bashar al-Assad is only the latest of his clan to cling to power through brutal methods.  

Europeans similarly built up armies stacked with ethnic minorities from Togo and Ghana to Burma and Indonesia. This was the military essence of divide and rule, and decolonisation was predictably followed by a spate of coups. But not everywhere: while Pakistan quickly slipped into a rhythm of juntas, India, with much the same colonial heritage, consolidated the world’s largest democracy. Why?

Steven Wilkinson’s Army and Nation offers a new answer to that old puzzle. It is a story of what happens when armies fail to reflect the societies they defend, as well as a meditation on Juvenal’s famous question quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — who shall guard the guards?

The plot begins in 1857. After that year’s rebellion in India, the British stopped recruiting from the mutinous Hindi-speaking heartland. They instead filled their army with loyal soldiers from the newly conquered Punjab and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), sorted into ethnically homogenous companies that formed a check on one another. As per the spurious Victorian taxonomy, these men represented so-called “martial races”. They were strapping Punjabis, rather than pusillanimous Bengalis. Even when this army was forced to expand during the second world war, “non-martial” recruits were shunted into support roles behind the front lines.

By the time of partition in 1947, the result was a grossly unrepresentative army, utterly dominated by Punjabis, Pashtuns and other Northerners in wild disproportion to their share of the population. However, the new nation of Pakistan was unfortunate enough to inherit those provinces that were both the most over-represented (western Punjab and NWFP) and under-represented (Bengal and Sindh) in the colonial army.

The result was an army controlled by a narrow, cohesive group. It swallowed up its civilian masters with ease. India was also imbalanced, but far less so. For instance, eastern Punjab’s share of independent India’s army fell from 60 per cent in 1939 to 32 per cent in 1948. Today, no single state provides more than 13 per cent of recruits.

Yet Wilkinson argues that India might still have succumbed to a coup had its leaders not taken several crucial steps.

Indian officers were placed below civil servants in the order of precedence, given large pay cuts, and discouraged from making speeches. The office of Commander-in-Chief was abolished, leaving separate — and weaker — Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs. Retiring Army Chiefs were dispatched as Ambassadors to distant countries. New officer academies were opened far from the original sites, to diversify the leadership and prevent cliques from forming. Senior officers were kept under surveillance.

Until the 1970s, the government imposed a near-blanket ban on appointing Punjabis as army chiefs, even though — or, rather, precisely because — they comprised over half the senior officer corps.

And other tactics were drawn from the playbook of the Raj. From the 1960s onwards, huge paramilitary forces hedged against the regular army, particularly in and around the capital. The British had used the Gurkhas in much the same way.

Wilkinson’s lesson is that healthy civil-military relations, vital to sustaining any ethnically and religiously diverse democracy, are the product of entrenched institutional legacies and diligent civilian oversight. Pakistan was dealt a bad hand in 1947, but it also failed to re-balance its army or to tie down its generals in the crucial years after independence.

Of course, India preserved civilian supremacy at some cost to military effectiveness, as it discovered in its defeat by China in 1962. And in extremis, political control of a military can hollow it out entirely; consider last year’s sorry example of Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq in the face of Isis.

As India raises 80,000 new troops to face down China, Wilkinson’s book is an excellent guide to the world’s biggest democratic army. It is also a fine answer to Juvenal’s cautionary question.

(Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Inde-pendence, by Steven Wilkinson, Harvard University Press, RRP£29.95/$39.95, 304 pages)    
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

No secrets here - Why India has never seen a military dictatorship? by
Anvar Alikhan (June 03, 2015 Quartz india)

A true story:

In 1957, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, visiting the office of General Thimayya, The Chief of the Army Staff, saw a steel cabinet behind his desk, and asked the General what it contains. The General replied that the top drawer contained the Nation’s Defence plans. And the second drawer contained the confidential files of the Nation’s top Generals.

And what about the third drawer, enquired Nehru. Ah, said the General with a straight face, the third drawer contains my secret plans for a Military Coup against You.

Nehru laughed, but there was apparently a tinge of nervousness to his laughter.

Military dictatorships have been a common phenomenon in the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa, and in the 1950s and 1960s, a dictatorship in India was not an impossibility. In fact, while covering the 1967 general elections, The Times correspondent, Neville Maxwell, prophesied that these might well be the last elections ever in the country. And he was not the only one who believed that sooner or later, India would fall under military rule.

But that eventuality, of course, never happened. Why not?

The question why the Indian Army never attempted to seize power has sometimes been attributed to the fact that it is disciplined, highly professional, and steeped in proud 250-year-old traditions inherited from the British. But this theory doesn’t work, because the Pakistani army was born out of the same traditions and that didn’t seem to stop it from assuming power.

Indeed, one could argue that it was precisely because the Pakistan army was such a highly professional force that there came a time when it felt it could no longer stand by and watch the country slide into chaos, and felt it was its duty to step in.

Military dictatorships have been a common phenomenon in the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa.  So clearly this is a question one needs to look at more closely. Which is what political scientist Steven Wilkinson has done with his excellent new book, Army and Nation.

In order to understand what didn’t happen in India, it is perhaps useful to first look at what did happen in Pakistan. The military dictatorship in Pakistan has had an interesting pre-history. It begins in undivided India, where the largest single component of the army was drawn from the undivided Punjab. Hence at the time of Partition, of all the institutions that Pakistan inherited, the most substantive was its army. Moreover, while in India the Congress Party was a highly evolved, durable organisation, in Pakistan the Muslim League was not much more than “Jinnah and his Private Secretary.” Hence, there was a dangerous structural imbalance in Pakistan, especially after Jinnah’s death in 1948.

Mashallah ho gaya

The military dictatorship in Pakistan did not come out of the blue. In the early 1950s, for example, there were riots in Lahore that raged on because the civilian authorities were unable to control them. Finally the army was called out, and it swiftly and firmly put down the trouble.

Then the commanding officer made an unusual request: He asked for another couple of days before withdrawing his troops to the barracks. In those few, quick days, the army proceeded to clean up the city, paint public buildings, repair roads, pull down unauthorised structures and plant trees. Then, having performed all these long neglected civic tasks, the army quietly withdrew, leaving Lahore looking as clean and well-ordered as an army cantonment.

This earned the army a great deal of respect among the public: It had managed to do for the city in a few days what the civilian authority had failed to do over the years.

Hence, when in 1958, the governor-general of Pakistan responded to a state of political chaos in the country by declaring martial law, and calling out the army, there was a section of the public that rejoiced at the news. In fact, a saying that went around at the time was, “Pakistan mein ab toh mashallah ho gaya,” playing on the term ‘martial law,’ and translating, roughly, as “By the grace of God, things in Pakistan are well now.”

What followed over the next few years was a period of remarkable national development in Pakistan, under the presidency of General Ayub Khan—before the Military Government began to get corrupted by its own power (as always, inevitably, happens in such a system).

Ring-fencing the Indian Army

The Indian Army was born out of the same tradition as Pakistan’s. In British India, the Army enjoyed a prominent position in Indian life, and even played a role in policy matters. The Commander-in-Chief, was also the De Facto Defence Minister, and was the second most powerful person in the hierarchy after the Viceroy himself. But after Independence things began to change. The Indian Army was born out of the same tradition as Pakistan’s. 

Prime minister Nehru believed that the new India needed to rethink the role of the Army, and initiated a policy that would firmly subordinate it to the Civilian Authority.

One of the first things that happened after Independence, for example, was that Teen Murti House, traditionally the grand residence of the Army Chief, was assigned instead to the Prime Minister: A small matter by itself, perhaps, but a clear indicator of the way the wind was blowing.

Next came a series of budget cuts (resulting, among other things, in hefty cuts in army officers’ generous Raj-era salaries). And when India’s first Army Chief, Field Marshal Cariappa, publicly criticised the Govt’s economic performance, he was immediately rapped on the knuckles, and told not to meddle in matters that did not concern him.

Over the years a systematic programme was pursued to ring-fence the armed forces, and their influence in Indian society—a programme that was given fresh urgency in 1958 by the military coup in next-door Pakistan (an occurrence that was worryingly praised by Field Marshal Cariappa, who had recently retired as Army Chief).

A highlight—or, rather, lowlight—of that ring-fencing programme was the appointment of Krishna Menon, a powerful, abrasive, leftist intellectual, as Defence Minister. It was an attempt to put the Armed Forces unambiguously in their place. Unfortunately, it also had the unintended side effect of leading to the stinging defeat of 1962, but that is a different story.

An un-recognised achievement

By the 1970s, the Indian Armed Forces had finally been rendered ‘coup-proof’ by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that had been put in place. And that might be considered to be one of the major achievements of the Nehru era: Ensuring the durability of Indian democracy. It’s an achievement that is not sufficiently recognised; an achievement underscored by the fact that all our South Asian neighbours—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka—have experienced military coups, actual or attempted. All our South Asian neighbours—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka—have experienced military coups, actual or attempted. 

Wilkinson explains how this ‘coup-proofing’ was implemented, through a package of carefully thought-out measures, ranging from diversifying the ethnic composition of the armed forces to setting up rugged command and control structures, re-casting the order of precedence between civil and military authorities, paying close attention to promotions, disallowing army officers from making public statements, creating a counter-balancing paramilitary force, and topping off this entire effort with little touches like ensuring that retired chiefs of staff are usually sent off as ambassadors to faraway countries.

The end result of all this is that when, in 2012, newspapers breathlessly reported that there had been a coup attempt, with army units being surreptitiously moved towards Delhi in the wake of the general V. K. Singh affair, people like you and I, merely shrugged, said, “What nonsense,” and turned to the sports page.

We perhaps don’t realise what a luxury that kind of certainty is.

(Source- Via e-mail from Colonel Ronnie Burjor Mistry Veteran)


  1. Dear sir,

    All chiefs of armed forces are castrated and impotent, they are selfish in nature, they do not bother about jawans or country, even selection of top brasses are made in line with the politicians ambitions, they have been assured of post retirement appointment, you take the case of VK SINGH he is date of birth trouble maker, now he has been catapulted to the minister post, I do not think military coup is not impossible, why because in service and ex army people are expecting cohesive opportunity to behave radically in the interest of nation

  2. They are not Chief they may be called thief.