Raag Desh, the recently released movie on the Red Fort trials of three officers of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), refers to an entity called the British Indian Army. No such entity ever existed, at least officially — the filmmaker took the cinematic liberty to simplify things for his audience. Once the armies of the three presidencies — Bengal, Bombay and Madras — were reorganised after the revolt of 1857, it became the Indian Army. It has remained so since, although it has evolved as any other institution would.
The first major disjuncture came in 1947, and it, perhaps, had less to do with Independence and more with Partition. For an army, which prided itself on being above all divisions of caste, creed or religion, it was a shock to be divided on religious lines. Such was the disbelief over partitioning the army that the then senior-most serving Indian officer, Brigadier KM Cariappa — who became the first Indian army commander-in-chief on January 15, 1949 — approached the British government in London with a proposal to have a single army, even if the country was divided into two.
Deservingly, the proposal got shelved and within a few months of Partition, the two armies — still led by British officers at the top — faced each other in Kashmir.
Once the war resulted in a ceasefire, the Indian Army slowly started moving from a colonial army to an army of a democratic country. It required a towering political leader like Jawaharlal Nehru to steer the change, which was unique in nature and far-reaching in consequences. That India remained the only honourable exception among all newly independent countries to have never experienced military rule owes it to that period.
The role of the military in political decision-making was one such important break from the past. After the Curzon-Kitchener feud, the Commander-in-Chief was the de facto defence minister of the country. On taking over as the interim Prime Minister in 1946, Nehru made Sardar Baldev Singh the defence minister, a post which has never gone to a serving military officer since.
After 1947, the post of the Commander-in-Chief was split into three service chiefs, and the government’s rules of business kept the service headquarters as attached offices to the defence ministry. The house of the Commander-in-Chief at Teen Murti became the official residence of Nehru as Prime Minister, and the warrant of precedence was amended, which altered the status of the army. The concept of “martial classes” for recruitment, which had been actively promoted by the British, was officially jettisoned, though continued in practice as caste- and region-based regiments remained biased towards historical precedent. The defence budget was not the highest priority as India focused on development and growth — when dams, steel plants, power plants and IITs came up — after two centuries of economic stagnation and financial exploitation under colonial rule.
Outside the two World Wars, the British had used the Indian Army for internal security duties and it continued with that role in the Northeast. The controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), with its origins in the British ordinance to suppress the Quit India movement of 1942, was enacted to give the army protective cover in Nagaland. Nehru also emphatically denied the army permission to use heavy weaponry and air-power against Indian citizens, setting a precedent which has largely not been violated since — except in Mizoram in 1966.
For the first decade and a half after Independence, the soldier was not at the forefront of social consciousness. Freedom fighters and other leaders occupied a much higher position in the public mind than the army, which had been dismissed before Independence as a mercenary army. The army was neither heavily criticised nor unduly valorised, even though some eyebrows were raised about the military coups in Pakistan and other countries in the neighbourhood.
India’s humiliation in a border war with China in 1962 changed that. Nehru’s response was to highlight the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers. The emotional lyrics of the song, Aye mere watan ke logo…, famously sung live by Lata Mangeshkar as tears rolled down Nehru’s eyes, captured that moment. The Indian soldier was the tragic hero, and the Indian Army had become India’s army.
The defence budget shot up exponentially and the armed forces were expanded at a quick pace. The government also supported all initiatives to raise the morale and rally public support for the army. Chetan Anand’s 1964 film, Haqeeqat, based on the battle of Rezang La fought by 120 soldiers of 13 Kumaon in Ladakh against the Chinese, received extensive support from the government. It was shown in small towns and far-flung villages across the country, and shaped the popular narrative of the 1962 War.
The post-1962 expansion of the army also brought in a large number of new officers, around the time the old generation of British era officers was on its way out. Already, some of the hopes about an independent India were fading and cynicism about the Indian state was growing in the youth. The soldier gained in prominence and Lal Bahadur Shastri put him on the same pedestal as the farmer, with the slogan: ‘Jai jawan, jai kisan.’ The Indian soldier had arrived and there was no looking back as the armed forces brought glory by winning the 1971 War with Pakistan which lead to the creation of Bangladesh.
Through the period of immense political turmoil in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, the army played its role in internal security duties, first against Naxalites in Bengal, and then in Punjab and Kashmir, while remaining committed to fighting the various insurgencies in the Northeast.
A flag-march by the army during communal riots, which is nothing but a group of soldiers marching through the streets with a request to maintain peace, became the ultimate symbol of army’s standing in the public eye. The soldier may not have been at the forefront of the public discourse but he was respected for doing his duty.
That relationship with the public shifted dramatically during the 1999 Kargil War. Television screens brought the war home to Indians, and the images of tricolour-draped coffins and a young child lighting a funeral pyre evoked a passionate stream of nationalism in the country. This undoubtedly had its political uses because it shielded the government of the day from the failures that led to Kargil. But it could have happened only in a post-liberalisation India where advertising mattered. The late Captain Vikram Batra became a public hero as much for his legendary bravery, as for using the catchphrase of a soft drink commercial: Ye dil maange more.
Although the army had been fighting a tough insurgency in Kashmir since 1990, the perception changed after the Kargil War. Not only was there more attention to the army’s action in Kashmir or on the Line of Control, media coverage tended to place the soldier above all reproach. This change had its effects, as the army could veto a democratically elected government on revocation of AFSPA or refuse to accept the recommendations of the pay commission. The delicate balance of civil-military relations had shifted, even if infinitesimally, in the opposite direction from the early years of Independence.
In the last few years, the army has gained further public prominence even though the discourse sometimes sounds caricaturish. The soldier has been used as a cul de sac political argument, and as a metaphor for nationalism. There are calls for tanks to be displayed in top academic institutions, and militarisation of young, impressionable minds is being hailed as a welcome thing. The army can do little about it except remain focussed on its apolitical and professional role as an instrument of the democratic state.
The past seven decades have been quite a journey for the army. It has come a long way from rejecting the integration of INA soldiers who fought against it in Burma to universally embracing the salutation given by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: Jai Hind.