Despite attempts to cultivate a pliant hierarchy, the military remained apolitical. But now, it is under the onslaught of nationalism-driven ideology

by Lt Gen H S Panag (Retd)

On 15 January 1949, Field Marshal, then General, K. M. Cariappa was appointed as the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. The day is celebrated as Army Day. Post-Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had firmly established civilian control over the military and symbolically converted the residence of the Commander-in-Chief — Flagstaff House — into his official residence-cum-office, rechristening it as Teen Murti Bhavan.

Field Marshal Cariappa, despite being a ‘pucca sahib’, was responsible for ‘Indianisation’ of the Army and laid the foundation for its apolitical character. “Politics in the Army is a poison. Keep off it”— he wrote to all officers, soon after taking over as the Commander-in-Chief. However, he was indiscreet at times and had once publicly aired his views on India’s preferred economic model for which he was advised in writing by Nehru in October 1952 to give fewer press conferences and stick to safer subjects, implying that he should not play the role of a “semi political” leader.

What was indiscretion on part of Field Marshal Cariappa seems to have become a habit with the military hierarchy today. The Service chiefs and other senior officers have been making public statements with political overtones in favour of the government of the day, and instead of being admonished, they are being lauded and defended by the politicians. The latest act of indiscretion has come from the Chief of the Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane, who during his formal speech after the ceremonial parade on the Army Day, said: “Sena ke adhunikaran ke yeh prayas, adarniye Pradhan Mantri ke Aatam Nirbhar Bharat ki pahal ka abhinn hissa hai (The Army’s efforts of modernisation are an inseparable part of the honourable Prime Minister’s Atamnirbhar Bharat initiative).” On 12 January, during his interaction with the media, General Naravane had said that 80-85 per cent of the contracts for modernisation have been signed with Indian companies as part of the efforts to indigenise, and in keeping with “honourable Prime Minister’s” call for an Atamanirbhar Bharat.

This is probably the first time that an Army Chief has linked a government scheme/policy to the Office of the Prime Minister in a manner that is associated with the servile ministers in the government and other politicians, like a ritual before any public/media speech. In the same interaction, General Naravane also thanked the “honourable Finance Minister” for allocating the necessary budget — a duty that the minister does on behalf of the government after Parliament’s approval. Army Chiefs function under the directions and policy of the government, and not of individual ministers.

In all democracies, the military takes an oath to the Constitution but functions under the elected civilian government. Yet, all political parties tend to exploit the adulation of the masses for the armed forces who safeguard the nation and the people from external and internal threats. The endeavour is to make the Army, directly or indirectly, identify with their political ideology and policies. This is done by exploiting nationalism and weaknesses of the military hierarchy with respect to its aspirations for promotions, post-retirement appointments and, at times, due to compromised integrity.

Despite very serious attempts in the first decade-and-a-half after Independence through cultivation of a pliant section of the hierarchy, which played a dubious role in the 1962 debacle, the Indian military has remained apolitical and functioned as per the Constitution. But for the last 6-7 years, once again, it has come under the onslaught of extreme nationalism-driven political ideology. Social media has made the heretofore cocooned soldiers extremely vulnerable to political propaganda. And a weak and pliant hierarchy is only compounding the problem. The hierarchy, on numerous occasions, has transgressed into the political domain to toe the line of the government.

In a sharp contrast, the United States military has remained steadfast and survived the onslaught that President Donald Trump made on various institutions to force them to support his ultra-conservative and Right wing ideology, rather than function according to the Constitution. I say “survived” because on one or two occasions, the military hierarchy did waver. But in totality, the hierarchy remained steadfast with respect to its oath to the Constitution.

On 12 January 2021, six days after the temporary siege of the Capital Hill by Trump supporters, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a signed memorandum “for the Joint Force” – armed forces – reiterating the military’s commitment to defend the Constitution and the limits of the authority of the civilian government. The memo is a model for militaries of democratic countries on how to function under civilian control.

The memo emphasised that the military will obey “lawful orders from civilian leadership”, thereby implying that it will not act upon unlawful orders that go against the spirit of the American Constitution. It was categoric in stating that “the violent riot ……. was a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process” and “Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.” Finally, the memo emphasised that the allegiance of the military is to the elected government and not to individuals — “On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief.” Last but not the least, the military did not give President Trump the ceremonial “send off”.

After Donald Trump began to question the election, General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pre-empted the President’s likely intent to exploit the Pentagon (full of Trump loyalists) and the military for his electoral battle. On 10 November 2020, he had said, “We do not take an oath to a king or queen, or tyrant or dictator, we do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or a religion. We take an oath to the Constitution, and …… every sailor, airman, marine, coastguard each of us protects and defends that document, regardless of personal price.”

On 1 June 2020, General Milley was indiscreet by being present with Trump for a photo op outside a Church while National Guards were quelling riots by a section of Black Lives Matter protesters. Milley made a course correction after coming under pressure from the hierarchy, media and the public. He said, “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

It is time India’s military hierarchy too did a course correction to maintain its apolitical status. The Chief of the Defence staff and the Service chiefs head the most respected institution of the nation that functions under civilian government control as per the constitution. Armed forces are not an appendage of the political party in power.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years