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HomeOpinionDon’t politicise Indian armed forces. Just look at what it did to...

Don’t politicise Indian armed forces. Just look at what it did to our police

Deployment of armed forces in Jammu & Kashmir over the past three decades is the single biggest factor in politicisation of armed forces.

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Among the many disturbing issues that came up in the long, bitter election campaign over the past few months was one concerning the politicisation of the armed forces. It demands a dispassionate conversation, and now that the campaign is behind us, it is time to have one.

It is in India’s national interest that our armed forces — as an institution — be non-partisan, professional, and both keep out and be kept out of electoral politics, policy-making and administration. This is the formula that has allowed liberal democracies to protect individual rights, secure prosperity and wield formidable military power without being consumed by it. It is also a formula that served the Indian republic well when it was but an incipient democracy, and generations of our political and military leaders have played their part to keep the civil and military spheres in a state of connected separateness through the ups and downs of our post-Independence history. So, it’s important that we protect and preserve this relationship.

Because “war is politics by other means”, the armed forces are a political instrument and, in a broad sense, are inherently politicised. But when we talk about the politicisation of the armed forces, we are talking about a different kind of politicisation — their getting involved or dragged into domestic politics. The former includes partisanship, public demonstrations, interference in government, involvement in administration and outright capture of power. The latter includes politicians appropriating military causes, personnel and symbols to burnish their appeal to the citizens. And, as we have often seen in our neighbourhood, politicians can invite generals to share or seize power. Whether the politicisation happens at the behest of the politicians or the generals, it quickly corrodes the framework of the state, fatally undermining democracy and damaging military effectiveness.

Also read: Politicise all you want, but Indian soldiers don’t fight in the name of nationalism alone

When eight former service chiefs and scores of retired senior officers thought it necessary to write to the President of India, expressing their grave concern over the politicisation of the armed forces, we ought to take it seriously. The BJP and its supporters might have cleverly defused the significance of this move by veterans during the campaign, but now that Narendra Modi is back in power, it behoves his government to take a cold hard look at the substance of the arguments. Dismissing them merely because some of the supposed signatories recanted in front of television cameras, or because their email was not officially received by the President’s office would be to ignore red flags raised by some of the most responsible persons in uniform.

Campaign polemic might make it appear that politicisation is a yes/no situation, with one side contending that the armed forces have been politicised and the other rejecting the charge completely. In reality, politicisation lies on a spectrum and the veterans are telling us that the needle is moving towards the danger zone.

If political parties can compete on the basis of their track record on development, governance and welfare, they can also cite their achievements in national security and defence. Sure, ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control have been ordered by previous governments too, but if Narendra Modi wanted to showcase the one he ordered, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it. So too the Balakot air strikes, although according to unconfirmed reports, the Indian Air Force decided to wait until the elections were over before revealing that we lost a helicopter crew to friendly fire, showing that its leadership caved in to political pressure.

Also read: Partition unified India in 1947, nationalism of today is slowly disintegrating us

Similarly, a democracy ought to live with the fact that its uniformed citizens have the right to vote and influence political outcomes just as anyone else. If some decide to participate in electoral politics — after a cooling off period — we should not raise eyebrows. Seven decades after Independence, our officer corps are increasingly representative of the society they are a part of, and will carry the same baggage, biases, values, aspirations and preferences as their civilian counterparts.

Furthermore, with smartphones and social media, the distance between the military and civilians has almost completely disappeared. We should not begrudge service personnel their political preferences, and an Army officer is as entitled to support or oppose the BJP as anyone else.

To be able to tackle the sinister sort of politicisation of the armed forces, we should be able to distinguish legitimate political engagement by serving and retired military personnel from the illegitimate ones.

Unfortunately, the undesirable sort of politicisation of the armed forces began in the 1950s when the Army began to be deployed for counter-insurgency operations in the northeast. The long and continuous deployment of the armed forces in Jammu & Kashmir, over the past three decades, is the single biggest factor in the politicisation of our armed forces. This is not to argue that the Army shouldn’t be doing counter-insurgency, but to point out that the inevitable side-effect is politicisation. Unintentional consequences are as consequential as intended ones.

The antidote to politicisation is not de-politicisation but greater professionalisation. That is good news, because it is well within the domain of the armed forces, whose training academies can invest greater effort in building expertise, emphasising responsibility and upholding their corporate identity, Samuel P. Huntington’s three qualities for the military profession. The onus is therefore on the senior ranks of the three armed services to ensure that both the officer corps and the troops continue to climb up the ladder of professionalism.

Also read: If India continues to politicise military, we may not look very different from Pakistan

To understand the stakes, they only need to look at the condition of our police forces, who have fallen in public esteem in parallel with their politicisation over the past five decades.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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  1. The fact that identity based politics has been stirred by the current dispensation and imbued by the majority – representing the majority sections of society in the forces- is startling to say the least. The email groups of retired and serving officer corps teem with openly bigoted views and assessments : even when written by very senior brass. The fact that a majority of the Congress netas – comprising the “other” that are collectively hated now – are from upper castes, seems to have been overlooked by these new worshipers of ascendant right wing politics. Moot it is to ask if the hate openly exhibited now was earlier suppressed with in private circles, or has only now replaced the earlier sycophancy – that saw these gentlemen wag their tails to political correctness, to reach storied assignments without a murmur being raised. Note the willing unasked-for and unmasked sycophancy exhibited by the Army and Airforce chiefs, attempting to score brownies by giving convoluted “explanations” of how “some” Radars actually get blocked by clouds. A similar perturbing assertion was the half-truths on aircraft acquisition given to the Supreme court, presumably under oath. The Minorities – Dalits Christians Sikhs Buddhists others and Muslims existed then as now, and their contribution – individually and collectively – helped build this nation in every which way and no bigot-born-of-a -cow, uniformed or otherwise, can erase that, even if by regenerating selective cooked-up History. It appears that the frailness of character causes the need to “other” a numerically weaker or less vocal group, solely to appropriate their fair share in the Nation’s pie. After all is said and done, it is no secret that an ascendant polity allows only those more rabid than themselves into the inner circle, to eat select portions of fat appropriated from the disadvantaged. Earlier the same polity required submissiveness and won’t tail: today, the more boorish the monkey statements the better the chances of upward movement, maybe even to get that favored rare interview. That, and the fact that mostly Brahman officers call the shots in selective HQ postings (and therefore promotions) of all and sundry, may well explain the mirroring of social upheavals within these rarified supposedly insulated circles the forces rotate within.

  2. Mr. Pai you have written this article keeping in Mind the Modi Govt. Why have you not mentioned any thing about 1948, 1965 and 1971 wars with Pak, where to go to war was a decision of the politicians and when the wars were won, the credit was taken by the concerned PMs. I wish, since you claim to be a director of an institute, you had taken comprehensive and critical view of the whole issue. It is upto you to join the group of so called intellectuals? in India, but these people are nothing but the stooges of the earlier dispensation who were hungry for a piece of a bread thrown to them by the masters i.e. politicians. This is a very complicated issue and sitting in an ac cabin and expressing some views only exposes hollowness and questionable depth of knowledge of the author.

  3. Is it being done for the first time. Nehru started it by making incompetent officers as the Chief of the Army Staff. The result was a defeat in 1962. As a retired defence officer let me put it that the quoted letters were politically motivated in line with so called secular and literary guys returning awards without returning the cash and the pensions of these awards.

  4. You can’t protect men in uniform from influence of social media… the poison will spread to Armed forces too may be at slower pace after all they too are part and parcel of same society. Army personnels too talk of politics in their whatapp groups and they too talk and share partisan messages… How can you stop it when things are not controlled from Top. Army is a top down organisation, when top start maintaining bonhomie with politicians beyond the call of duty for post retirement favors, you can’t expect an unbiased men below. Yesterday one service officer shared a WhatsApp message where in the photos Congress leadership and Pak PM weeping together for the win of Modi. This pic he shared to me from his WhatsApp group of serving officers whose members are in excess of 200. I don’t know about others bit it is alarming the way social media access manipulating minds of men of non partisan service of the country.

  5. As a former IAF officer, let me add a few pieces of actual information to this middling of an article.

    Samuel Huntington in his seminal work recognizes two ways to subordinate the military to the political rule, both of which involve separation (separate institutional roles for the political institutions and the military institutions): “subjective” or “objective” civilian control.These approaches to civilian-political control are more commonly now called the “separation model”.

    However most modern western scholars such as Janowitz, and schiff have now developed other models to explain the essence of civil-military relations.

    Unlike the idea of separation, a high level of integration between the military and other parts of society, including political institutions, was proposed by Rebecca L. Schiff.. Her model relies on a consensus amongst the three social partners (i.e. the military, the political elite, and the citizenry) with respect to four indicators: the social composition of the officer corps, the political decision-making process, the recruitment method, and the military style. She further notes that with respect to these indicators, general agreement amongst the partners diminishes the likelihood of military interventions and produces a more cohesive defence policy and maximisation of national power.

    Also this flies in the face of multiple defence appointments across democracies which are political in nature. Case in point; the US Joint Chiefs are all political appointess.

    I can understand these are complex issues for the author to understand and explain but some effort is warranted by professional op-writers.

    Co-incidentally; economy of action is a military maxim that this author seems to have taken to heart.


  6. Saw a video clip of Haryanvi policemen beating a woman with their leather belts. An ordinary citizen who has been wronged, especially if it is a Dalit or an Adivasi, would tremble to enter a police station, seeking redress. For the police hierarchy, from DGP to SHO, to reflect the CM’s caste identity is routine in Uttar Pradesh. To a greater extent than the IAS, the IPS is enmeshed with the political executive in the states. It would be truly unfortunate if the armed forces start heading in that direction. Deep selection will hasten that process. It will not take long for the respect the armed forces enjoy amongst the public to start eroding.

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