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Some Issues of Civil Military Relations

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 22, 2010

    The study and research on civil military relations (CMR) is one area of neglect in India. The general focus is on civil military relations as it relates to the politicians, the civilian bureaucracy and the services. The military leadership must not exceed its limits in terms of restraining from communicating to the media and the public its differences of opinion with the civil leadership. Against the backdrop of the recent sacking of General McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, the DG of IDSA wrote an opinion piece in the print media. In response commentaries and comments have appeared on the IDSA website emphasising the need for a further dialogue on this aspect in the Indian context. Quoting the US experience or literature is common in India. The classic work on the theory of civil-military relations by Samuel Huntington (The Soldier and the State, 1959) is an example. This work is one way of thinking about CMR. It had two methodological assumptions. First, it assumed that CMR in any society should be studied as a system composed of interdependent elements. The second was that “objective civilian control” maximizes military security. However, CMR is a much broader and deeper subject.

    Srinath Raghavan of the Centre of Policy Research, New Delhi, in the July 2010 special issue of the monthly journal Seminar has commented on another aspect that needs to be further debated. That is on the matter of operational issues and the leading role being played by the services. It is shown that the narrative of civil interference like the one during India’s defeat in the 1962 war is a morality pageant showcased by the military. Citing a number of events from current history, Raghavan shows how the military has carried the day in having its writ written on operational issues such as no withdrawal from Siachen glacier or revoking the Armed Force Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This new insight thus needs to be further debated.

    The need for the military to do it job when it is deployed is best captured by the Weinberger-Powell (WP) Doctrine. Weinberger was the US Secretary of Defence. In 1984 he articulated the doctrine based on collective lessons learnt from the defeat in Vietnam and the desire to avoid such awkward situations. The trigger was the 1983 terrorist attack on US Marines who were serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon. It was felt that the military must no longer be placed in killing fields when there seemed to be no overriding national interest. The Powell doctrine is named after General Colin Powell who articulated his views in the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It is based on the Weinberger Doctrine. The Powell doctrine specified the conditions that the military leadership thought the political leadership should weigh when it made decisions about employing US military forces in conflicts. This doctrine shaped attitudes of the US military from 1984 to 2003. The best example of validation of WP doctrine, as has been mentioned, was in the spectacular victory in the 1991 Gulf war.

    The Iraq war in 2003 was a total turnaround. The Bush administration overruled concerns of the military. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld micro- managed the conduct of the war. The result was a prolonged and protracted insurgency. Surely the US military does not want to have an American Krishna Menon to deal with. Nor does the Indian military.

    Reverting back to the Indian situation, the unique thing about Siachen glacier is that no civilians have stayed there. A ministerial visit for a few hours by helicopter is taken as a national media event. In such situations, it is the military which provides intelligence, inputs and of course advice. But AFSPA is a clear case of a topic under what scholars call the “war and society” school. Both issues need more debate for sound policy making.

    The topic is just not about the military’s relations with the civil leadership and bureaucracy. The debate on CMR has not matured well in India. The current discourse is mostly about the role or the absence of such a role for the military in decision making. While that is important, it misses out on many other drivers and currents in CMR. Some other topics which need to be addressed are:

    (a) It is important to take note of literature which argues that civil military relations may be a more powerful explanation of technological proficiency than human capital. The experience of civil- military relations in not having developed any weapon of worth that can be termed backbone equipment like artillery guns or tanks is one. Rather than finger pointing, there is need for a public debate on how to overcome the massive import syndrome.

    (b) There is an assumption that society has high respect for the military. Though this may be true for mainland India, it needs to be tested in Jammu and Kashmir, North East, Naxal-dominated areas and elsewhere. What is the public perception given fake encounters as those dramatized in the ketchup colonel episode, or by encounter killings or killings of civilians to get recognition as reported by the media and civil society. How does the military sustain its positive image among citizens is the new challenge?

    (c) The role and future mission of the military in patriotic training and nation building through interaction with the youth such as the National Cadet Corps (NCC).

    (d) The blurring of differences in media and public perception between the soldier and the police or paramilitary constable. Even constables of para-military forces are now loosely termed "jawans" - a term which the military was very proud of, as it identifies it with the jai jawan jai kisan slogan coined under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Disruptive combat dress and military type accoutrements are now sported by the police and paramilitary, indeed even by private security agencies. What has been the result of this change?