Eyebrows have been raised over Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat’s statements on Kashmir and Pakistan. While some are cheering him, others say that an Indian Army chief should not make provocative statements. Is the chatter of TV channels and digital India changing the culture of the military leadership? We ask experts Lt. Gen. HS Panag (Retd), Adm. Arun Prakash (Retd), Cyril Almeida, Dhruva Jaishankar, Manvendra Singh and Ayesha Siddiqa about the pros and cons of having an outspoken military chief in a democratic India.
Chiefs should deflect political questions towards the government and restrict themselves to the military domain – Lt. Gen. HS Panag (Retd), former GOC-in-C, Northern & Central commands
In a democracy it is the right of citizens to know how the government and the armed forces are safeguarding the external and internal security of the nation. To know this they must also know what directions the government has given to its armed forces i.e. what is its national security strategy. Based on such a strategy, the government, in consultation with the armed forces spells out the force development strategy which is a continuum. The armed forces execute force development and formulate military strategy to deal with threats.
India lacks a formalised system for strategic decision making and we do not have a formal national security strategy or an approved long term force development strategy. Politicians and bureaucrats are ignorant about matters military. There is little or no interaction between the political government and the three chiefs. When questioned, politicians give cryptic and informal answers laced with political jargon.
Both in terms of force development and execution of military strategy the armed forces have to show tangible results. Media and citizens question them and without formal directions from the government, and inexperience in handling the press, they blunder into the political domain. The current “political” statements by the chiefs are more by default than design.
This environment is unlikely to change in the near future. In the present environment, the chiefs should deflect political questions towards the government and restrict themselves to the military domain. Even there, they must stick to time proven methods where formal cryptic military briefings are given at various levels periodically. More so, when talking about ongoing counter insurgencies which are predominantly in the political domain.
Silent generals only aggravate void created by indifferent or absent defence ministers – Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), former Navy Chief
Good communication skills are indispensable for an effective military leader, because they enable him to convey his intentions and orders, with precision and clarity. The rank and file too expect generals to have the ability (and courage) to articulate their problems to higher authority. Given our intrusive media, it is also incumbent upon the military leadership to ensure that authentic information reaches the troops before social-media chatter. Silent generals only aggravate the void created by indifferent or absent defence ministers.
However, channels for communication in the military are well-defined. Within the services, officers — ranging from unit-commanders to service chiefs — can either speak face-to-face with troops, or convey messages electronically via ‘signals’. Communication with the media (with government permission), on the other hand, is via the MoD and, obviously, calls for discretion and circumspection.
The Army Chief has, recently, attracted criticism for making comments deemed ‘political’. Facing two nuclear-armed adversaries, our military leadership has enough to worry about, without local politics intruding on their mental-space. But, if this is happening, the underlying reason stares us in the face. AFSPA for J&K was enacted in 1990, because elected governments, civil administration and police had failed to control internal unrest and external interference. The Army has stayed on, for 27 years, because these entities continue to abdicate their responsibilities. Under such circumstances, where does one draw the line between the military’s ‘professional jurisdiction’ and ‘politics’?
The world’s oldest democracy has a tradition of military leaders, from Douglas MacArthur (Korea, 1951) to Stanley McChrystal (Afghanistan, 2010), speaking “truth to power”; with some of them paying the price. In India, the government and the chiefs know what they are doing. Carping armchair critics need to hold their peace.
India has drifted to the wrong side of the military-political equation in recent times – Cyril Almeida, Columnist & Asst. Editor, Dawn
Diplomacy and politics can’t really be separated from the professional duties of army chiefs. The problem with Gen. Rawat’s forays into politics and diplomacy is what he has been saying – military bluster does not translate well outside the military sphere. The General himself appears to have recognised the damage his comments have caused in his suggestion this week that the Indian Army respects the human rights of the Kashmiri people.
Anytime a military chief has to reiterate that he and those under his command respect human rights and human dignity, you know things are in a bad place. The view from Pakistan is necessarily different, or maybe perhaps in line with some of the nuanced opinion in India itself. It does seem like the Indian political leadership generally, not just the current BJP government, has ceded space to the Indian military when it comes to national security and some foreign policy debates.
Whether that is because the Indian military itself has undergone a cultural change and has become more assertive or the political class has drifted away from Nehruvian principles of civilian dominance, it is hard to say from a Pakistani vantage point. Inputs in policy debates of military chiefs can be useful and even necessary, but the militarisation of security or foreign policy is always a terrible idea. India has drifted to the wrong side of the equation in recent times. It may not be irreversible yet, but a few more years of a hawkish government that welcomes militarisation could inflict lasting damage.
There are some signs that the tradition of an apolitical military is fraying around the edges – Dhruva Jaishankar, Foreign Policy Fellow, Brookings India
Even among robust democracies, there are no universal best practices or templates for whether military leaders should discuss areas outside their strict jurisdiction, such as political or diplomatic matters. There are significant differences, for example, even between Europe and the United States. In the Indian context, civilian primacy has meant that the armed services have a tradition of being apolitical.
Until recently, few senior Indian military officers have transitioned successfully into national politics or harboured political ambitions, for better and for worse. There are some signs that the tradition of an apolitical military is fraying around the edges. This could mean that senior military leaders increasingly make statements or drive policies in their own personal self-interest, rather than in the best interests of their service or national security.
Diplomacy is another matter. Arguably, military diplomacy – whether goodwill gestures, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, and military training and education – are among the most important tasks conducted overseas by the Indian armed forces. So, it is entirely within the ambit of military leaders to discuss diplomacy, assuming they are in close alignment with India’s political and diplomatic establishment.
This requires better coordination between political leaders, diplomats, and the military, and there are some heartening signs that such coordination is improving, including the deputation of serving military officers to the Ministry of External Affairs. However, some of these positive developments could be offset by increased civil-military fractiousness, driven by the politicisation of the military.
Soldiers and officers are active on social media, have opinions. Their boss was merely echoing them – Manvendra Singh, Editor, Defence and Security Alert magazine & BJP MLA from Rajasthan
Twenty-five years after it won the National War College’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategy Essay Competition, ‘The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012’ remains one of the most important documents in military writing. Its value is not merely its fictionalised American coup, and why it was mounted. Its value is also not only in its copious footnotes that detail the direction of the US military. Its real value is in the fact that a serving Lt. Col. of the US Air Force wrote about the scariest scenario, and Gen. Colin Powell, awarded him. The essayist went on to retire as a major general.
India, on the other hand, remains befuddled by the words of the Chief of Army Staff. “Tradition has been broken”, is the oft-repeated argument, forgetting that this tradition was laid down by an imperial authority to govern the native, as they wanted a silent military to do that. Which is not the case now. Information flies back and forth every second, creating opinions, causing consternation. The Indian military is not oblivious to this phenomenon, and more so an Army which is the most deployed. Soldiers and officers are active on social media, and have opinions. Their boss was merely echoing what most think.
Indians cannot hope to be on the global high table, and enforce silence on the senior most Army man. Many admire and want to ape the US, but won’t want its work ethic, or its freedoms.
What is the guarantee that the comments on war will not extend to matters of peace and politics? – Ayesha Siddiqa, South Asia military affairs expert
War is politics by another means – it is policy of a state to be implemented by generals and soldiers, not commented upon by them. For decades, Pakistanis admired the ability of Indian generals to stay out of direct commentary on military-strategic matters or politicisation of war which seems to be changing now. Notwithstanding reduced capacity of Indian politicians to handle its technologically advanced military, the military’s direct dialogue with the people through the media or the evolving military-media partnership will further eat into the political capability to control the armed forces.
It almost seems that while the Indian military has learnt from its neighbouring states, the Indian political system has not. In Pakistan’s case, the capacity of political governments to influence foreign policy reduced consistently as generals established their control of security policy. But it didn’t stop there as generals moved from security and foreign policies to politics. What are the guarantees that the comments on war will not extend to matters of peace and politics?
The civil-military tectonic plates began to shift gently in favour of the military more than a decade ago due to the Army’s increasing role in counter-insurgency and glorification of military men in commercial media. I can count scores of Hindi films in which, unlike the past, the soldier is an uncontested hero. Add to this the rising number of commentaries by generals, air marshals and admirals and the balance tips even further in favour of the military. This does not mean that there will be a coup in India but then that is just one form of military power. Allowing generals to speak turns armed forces into a more powerful player that will then negotiate power more aggressively even if it is within closed doors.