Why did India succeed in keeping the military out of politics after 1947? The popular answers to this question include an apolitical army, a democratic Constitution and a strong political leader in Jawaharlal Nehru. While these factors played their part, there was much more that contributed to keep the Indian military out of politics. Using newer data and estimates about the composition of the Indian army, Steven I Wilkinson’s Army and Nation highlights issues that have escaped the attention of scholars.
The state of civil-military relations in India is invariably compared with its neighbour Pakistan, a country that inherited the same colonial military, and was situated in a similar political and social milieu as India’s at a similar point in history. Scholars such as Taya Zinkin, WH Morris-Jones and Ayesha Jalal have argued that Pakistan inherited a poor share of economic resources, human capital, and administrative and military infrastructure, while Myron Weiner, Philip Oldenburg and Maya Tudor blame it on the political weaknesses of the Muslim League, which created fertile conditions for military intervention.
Wilkinson makes three additional points. One, the ethnic imbalance in the Pakistan army, where West Punjab with a quarter of the population provided three-quarters of the infantry, while East Bengal had virtually no representation despite having over half the population. Two, the deep grievances between the major provinces of Pakistan and Bengal on one hand, and Punjab and NWFP on the other. In Wilkinson’s words, “The new state had in fact combined the most privileged province in British India with its most disgruntled and unhappy province, which felt that Pakistan ought to make amends for the many injustices that had been done to it. That proved a very combustible combination.” And three, the narrow and top-down nature of the Muslim League, embedded in a particular ideology of the state, meant that it had not thought in detail about ethnic and linguistic issues, leaving it incapable of dealing with the institutions of the state like the military.
In contrast, the Congress party stalwarts had thought deeply about the issues of civil-military relations before Independence and were clear about the path India needed to take. Leaders of the Indian freedom movement wanted the Indian army to be a truly representative army, recruited from all classes and provinces. Wilkinson, however, digs out data to show that independent India did not undertake any massive ethnic restructuring of the army. Much of the Indian army is drawn from the same groups, and structured in the same way as the British Indian army was, on the basis of martial classes. Despite vocal promises made by the government and the army brass in 1949 to radically reshape the recruitment pattern, the institutional conservatism of the army, military belief in the effectiveness of class units, and the need for quick expansion in the wake of the Chinese defeat have precluded any plans for a national army. In April 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed a PIL against caste recruitment in the Indian army on the grounds that it did not want to “rock the army’s boat”.
While ethnic imbalances remain in the army, they are no longer large enough, as in the pre-Independence era, to threaten the democratic polity of the country. With six per cent of India’s population, the area of pre-Partition Punjab (Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab) provides less than 20 per cent of army recruits today. Furthermore, even these soldiers are cross-cut by religious affiliation — between Sikhs and Hindus; and among Sikhs, between Jat Sikhs and Mazhabi/ Ramdasia Sikhs. This means that no state or community can dictate to others or endanger the overall stability of the country. When Jat Sikhs mutinied in a few units after Operation Blue Star in 1984, their Mazhani and Ramdasia Sikh brethren in the Sikh Light Infantry did not follow suit.
Besides the internal balancing, India has aggressively tried to maintain the balance outside the army with a huge increase in the paramilitary forces, which are now 850,000 strong. They perform a dual role, as a direct hedge against the military, but more critically, as an indirect hedge by undertaking internal security duties which keeps the military insulated from frequent interventions in politics, administration and society.
But all this would have come to nought if not for the federal and broad-based character of the Congress party and a series of crucial decisions about civil-military relations taken by Nehru’s government in the first decade of Independence. In his first week in office, in September 1946, Nehru was already talking of measures needed to reduce the influence of the military in politics. With the unquestioned legitimacy and authority of a popular democratic leader, Nehru was able to implement these measures as the prime minister: diversification of the recruitment of officers, diversification in the appointments of senior generals, ethnic balancing within the army, reducing the military’s prestige by rationalising pay and perks, creating a new ministry of defence bureaucracy with oversight of the military, and downgrading the commander-in-chief position so that the head of the army was now one of the three nominally equal chiefs . But the measures for civilian control of the military, implemented by Nehru before 1962, had their disadvantages too. They substantially weakened the military’s ability to defend the country against China.
In a rapidly changing society and polity, the civil-military structures have evolved since then to create more robust and professional armed forces, while keeping the military firmly out of democratic politics. It is something most other post-colonial countries have failed to achieve. Wilkinson explores the contours of India’s unique success and Army and Nation is, perhaps, the most important book to come out on India’s armed forces in the recent years.