Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy as a prime minister is often tarnished by two issues — Kashmir and the China debacle. In recent years, revisionist versions of history have tried to portray that Nehru failed in both these ventures because he devalued the military. That is far from true, but an official version of history, where Nehru was shown as a dogmatic pacifist, has helped in that misleading portrayal. Nehru, as historians aver, was a geopolitical realist, but that is a story for another day. This is about his legacy on matters military which go beyond Kashmir and China — he laid the foundations of firm civilian control of the military which has held steady for the last seven decades.
It started early, well before independence. In September 1946, when an interim government of Congress and Muslim League members took office to assist the transfer of power from the British crown to independent dominions of India and Pakistan, Nehru was sworn in as the vice president of the Viceroy’s executive council, a de facto prime minister. One of the first steps taken by Nehru was to replace the commander-in-chief as defence member of the council — de facto, the defence minister — by a civilian leader, Sardar Baldev Singh. This was not done on a whim. It was the culmination of a longstanding demand of the Indian nationalists and the Congress party. As part of the measures to keep the military firmly under civilian control, the Motilal Nehru committee had recommended that the defence member of the council should be a civilian as early as in 1928.
Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t stop at nominating Singh. He also instructed the commander-in-chief to initiate urgent reforms to nationalise the Indian army. Another recommendation of the Motilal Nehru committee, to widen the recruitment pool of officers to reflect the composition of society, was to be implemented. It was meant to enable the armed forces, hitherto serving a colonial empire, to appreciate the values and aspirations of the country they served. The interim government also asked for the raising of the paramilitary forces to avoid using the army for internal security and to insulate it from domestic politics and politicisation. Nehru’s regular letters to the chief ministers, after Independence, provide us an insight into how his views were shaped by his understanding of the pernicious effects of militarism in Europe and Japan which led to World War II.
If Nehru’s thinking was clear, his orders were clearer. On the eve of India’s Independence, Indian army’s British commander-in-chief, General Rob Lockhart issued an order to keep the public away from the flag hoisting ceremony. Rescinding this order, Nehru wrote back: “In any policy that is to be pursued in the army or otherwise, the views of the government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy, he has no place in the Indian army.”
Nehru was not alone in institutionalising firm civilian control of the military. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, his deputy prime minister, was angrier than Nehru when the British chiefs of the armed forces protested the government’s decision to position troops around Junagadh state in October 1947, after it had declared accession to Pakistan. Both leaders made it clear that they were prepared for a showdown if military commanders didn’t follow the orders of the civilian government. This incident led to the creation of a defence committee of the cabinet to institutionalise civil-military interaction on matters of national security.
Steven Wilkinson, professor at Yale University, says Nehru’s high point of dealing with the military was in 1955, when he reduced and split up the unified armed forces hierarchy into three separate commands, one each for the army, air force and navy. Each of them was headed by a nominally equal chief of staff. Nehru did this deliberately, Wilkinson argues, as he acknowledged in February 1963, “to reduce the role of the military on the Indian scene.”
By late 1950s, Krishna Menon’s assumption of the defence minister’s office led to situations which have raised valid questions about Nehru’s handling of the military, the most controversial among them being army chief General KS Thimayya’s offer of resignation in September 1959. Thimayya’s resignation, which Wilkinson rates as Nehru’s lowest point in civil-military relations, was due to a disagreement with Menon over the promotion of senior army officers.
Historian Srinath Raghavan says reasons for the resignation ran deeper. Following a clash between Indian and Chinese forces along the eastern borders, Thimayya wanted the political leadership to agree to Ayub Khan’s proposal for joint defence arrangements between India and Pakistan. Nehru and Menon were opposed to this. Thimayya broached the matter with Nehru, who assured him that he would discuss the issue with Menon. When things did not progress, Thimayya sent his resignation to Nehru, who managed to persuade him to withdraw it without giving any assurances. Nehru played it down in the Parliament as a matter of temperamental differences, but he stressed that “civil authority is and must remain supreme.”
“The general assumption that (the) Thimayya episode was civilian interference in military affairs is unfounded. It was over an issue of policy in which military can’t have the final word,” says Raghavan. The debacle of 1962, however, weakened Nehru’s position vis-à-vis the military. Unnerved by the public perception following the defeat, civilian leaders acceded to the military’s demand to stay away from its operational turf. The narrative had gained ground in the military that the principal lesson drawn from 1962 was the importance of “standing up” to politicians. In 1963, army chief General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri and his corps commander, Sam Manekshaw, ignored Nehru’s orders for the military to move into the erstwhile North Eastern Frontier Agency.
The fabric of civil-military relations, woven so deftly by Nehru, had started fraying at the edges in his final years. But the culture, norms and institutional structures established in the early years have shown India as an exception to all other post-colonial societies. The British did not bestow a structured template of civil-military relations to independent India. Between 1857 and 1947, almost 40 per cent of the government’s expenditure went to the military, and the commander-in-chief served as the defence member on the Viceroy’s council. In 1943, the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, was appointed as the viceroy. Nehru had to, thus, create a new template for dealing with the military in an independent India.
In the final analysis, however, Wilkinson says that “Nehru was unusual in that as early as 1946 he saw the potential threat from the military to India’s new democracy, and then acted quickly to prevent any potential threats by changing the military’s organisation and making some astute promotions”.
Raghavan concurs: “Nehru’s real contribution has to be the conversion of a colonial state where military had excessive power to a liberal system of democracy. He converted a garrison state into a post-colonial state with firm civilian control of the military. That was an unusual achievement of the times and we must give due credit to him”.