By August 1999, the Indian army had reoccupied most of the posts in Kargil-Drass-Batalik sector from the Pakistan army. The military operation, which left 527 Indian soldiers dead, was hailed as a success and leveraged politically as the country headed for a general election. The popular narrative was one of sacrifice and glory. But the government — and the army — were cognisant of the criticism that had come their way.
K. Subrahmanyam headed the Kargil Review Committee, perhaps the only such high-level committee whose report was made public. Besides the usual courts of inquiry, the army instituted a large number of study groups to ensure that a situation like the one in Kargil never recurred.
A couple of years later, the army was mobilised after the terror attack on Parliament. Without a shot being fired, 1,874 soldiers were either dead or injured during the 10-month long stand-off at the borders. The army was criticised for missing the window of opportunity with its slow, lumbering mobilisation which took weeks. It responded by instituting study groups which suggested ways to cut down mobilisation time, propagating what came to be known as the “Cold Start” strategy.
Robust organisations welcome criticism, and Indian army is no exception. Criticism is its life-blood because that allows it to learn, improve and adapt to new challenges. It learnt from its failures in the 1962 war against China and went on to achieve spectacular success in the 1971 Bangladesh war. The lessons from a military disaster against the LTTE in Sri Lanka were absorbed to help the army see through the tough early years of Kashmiri militancy. Institutionally, the army recognises that if it remains set in its ways, it is doomed to fail.
It is rather ironical that those who proclaim to love the army the most shout the loudest: Don’t criticise the army. They diminish the public image of a professional army by projecting it through their own prism of parochialism, fuelled by a steady undercurrent of chest-thumping machismo. They need to look no further than the route charted by Pakistan army many decades ago when the discourse was set on a similar path there. These are very early days here but no one wants an end-state where it is said that while other countries have an army, the Pakistani army has a country. At a deeper level, these calls of “army above everything” militate against the delicate and sensitive balance of civil-military relations in a modern democracy. Every single institution is bound by a constitutional system of checks and balances, and the military by virtue of its inherent nature and role even more so. The ebb and flow of civil-military relations often reflect the tensions between the three actors of the triad: The military; the civilians who control the military; and the people, who bear the final responsibility in a democracy of holding the military’s civilian masters accountable.
If the military is eulogised by the public beyond reason and shielded from all criticism, it is bound to end up weakening civilian control of the military. The civilians would still pretend to fully control the military, and the military would pretend to be controlled but the actual balance of power between the two would have shifted. This erosion of bonafide moral authority has profound implications, as seen from the debate over the revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the raising of a new Strike Corps on the China border during the UPA government, or over the demand for One Rank One Pension and disability pension in the current BJP government. Notwithstanding the merits of each of these proposals, it was evident that the political leadership had to succumb to what seemed to be voluble public support for the armed forces.
Criticism of the military, whether from elected representatives of the people, or by the people themselves through the media, is part of the constitutional design and not a bug that has entered the system. In our case, criticism apart, even sharing of information between the various stakeholders is a huge challenge. Lack of credible information leads to the vacuum being filled by surmises, rumours, beliefs and opinions in the media. Any criticism based on these half-baked reports is bound to be dismissed as unfounded and amateurish, and thus not worthy of being taken into account by the army. The people are then increasing convinced that they endanger the country by seeking information or questioning the methods or motives of their army, further reinforcing the calls for placing the army above criticism.
Along with a true appreciation of its actions, the army deserves the support of the people. But that support should not be mistaken for a privileged standing that places it above all criticism. It is not only because that is what a democracy needs; the army itself would not have it any other way.