On New Year’s Day 2020, the Government appointed the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), accord with the Prime Minister’s announcement on Independence Day 2019 from the ramparts of the Red Fort. As India’s first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, will perform multiple and overlapping functions. He will act as the principal military advisor to the defence minister; however the service chiefs will continue to advise the minister on their respective arms of defence. The CDS is envisaged as the first among equals.
To enable him to perform this function, the Government has also created a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence that will deal with issues relating to matters military, notably coordination and integration, prioritizing for budgets and leaving wider defence policy ~ including capital acquisition ~ to other segments of the ministry. The CDS will also hold the post of permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee as recommended by Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011 in which capacity he will oversee tri-service organizations and be part of the chain of nuclear command.
These moves have been hailed as major reforms, possibly the “most significant development in the national security domain since independence.” The idea of a CDS has been mooted for decades, including reports of the Subrahmanyam Task Force in 2000 after the Kargil operations. This was followed up by the Group of Ministers under Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani in 2001 and the high-powered Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011. The Government has not only established this office, but has ushered in related changes. The Department of Military Affairs does away with the peculiar arrangement whereby the service headquarters were kept at arm’s length from the Government as “attached offices” of the ministry.
The military had long maintained that this arrangement enabled bureaucratic dominance of defence policy. The CDS will accord the military a prominent seat at Cabinet Committee on Security, indeed the decision-making body. Similarly, the CDS appears well positioned to deliver on longstanding, if also contentious, goals of integration, including the creation of integrated theatre commands, which is likely to take another two to three years to achieve a win-win situation and minimum casualties during future warfare. As we reflect on the tasks and challenges that lie ahead in defence and national security, it may be useful to take a historical view of the evolution of civil-military relations in India.
The institutional pattern and its infirmities that we now look to transcend were not cast in stone at the time of Independence. Rather, they evolved over a period of time. Further, even its more problematic aspects, such as the desire to limit the military’s role in policy-making structures, evolved against broader concerns about its implications for democratic politics and not merely owing to unfounded fears of a military coup. It is worth analysing as to how the British Empire was misused by a loyal and strong Indian Army. The British bequeathed the tradition of political control over the military to independent India.
On the contrary, the British Empire in India was in its origins a military autocracy and the military remained prominent in the Raj throughout its existence. Even in peacetime about 40 per cent of the central government’s revenue was spent on the army in India. In 1900-01, for instance, the government spent nearly three times more on the army than it did on irrigation, famine relief and education. This was not merely because of the deployment of the Indian army for imperial wars or the payment of “home charges” as held by theorists of the “drain of wealth” from India.
Rather it was because of the institutional heft of the military and the consequent ability of the Commander- in-Chief of India to lay claim to a large chunk of the government’s budget on grounds of military necessity. Following the spat between the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, and Commander-in- Chief General Kitchener, which led to Curzon’s resignation in 1905, the institutional balance of power tilted further in favour of the Commander-in-Chief. The latter was not only the commander of all military forces in India, but also became the Military Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council.
In effect, the Commander- in-Chief was also the defence minister of the government ~ hardly a model of political control of the military. The emerging Indian nationalists were quick to grasp these issues. In his speech on the budget of 1903, Gopal Krishna Gokhale argued, “Indian finance is virtually at the mercy of military considerations”. Military security, he conceded, was undoubtedly a “paramount consideration”, but military preparedness had “no definite standard and might absorb whatever resources can be made available for it practically without limit”.
The military’s own assessment of its requirements was being accorded excessive weight in the government’s consideration of the matter. These issues came to the fore after the First World War. The “Army in India Committee”, led by Lord Esher, asserted the importance of imperial duties, rejected increased democratic control over the military, and proposed the buttressing of the Commander-in-Chief’s position. These recommendations drew sharp criticism in the newly constituted legislative assembly.
Indian members of the House tabled 15 resolutions as recommendations to the Viceroy, which covered the central structural problem of civil-military relations. The absence of “a fully responsible government in India”, they argued, did not warrant a different form of civil-military relations from Britain. To realize the “principle of ultimate supremacy of the civil power”, it was imperative that the Commanderin- Chief ceased to be a member of the Executive Council. Instead, the portfolio of defence should be entrusted to a civilian member.
The Commander-in- Chief should not be allowed to commit the Indian government to “any pecuniary responsibility or any line of military policy that has not already been the subject of decision by them”. Indeed in its final years, during and after the Second World War, the British Raj returned to its origins as a military autocracy with the promulgation of the Defence of India rules and the appointment of military officers as Governors-General.
It was only when the interim government was formed in September 1946 that a civilian, Sardar Baldev Singh, was appointed the military member of the Executive Council. At the time of Independence, the chiefs of air force and navy were designated Commander- in-Chief, thereby reducing the primacy accorded to the army. Still later, in 1955, the title of Commander-in-Chief was abolished altogether and the heads of the defence services were designated chiefs of staff.
Now in 2020, the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff is based on threat perception and has been projected as needbased. However, a large number of issues need to be ironed out by reducing the influence of the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence. Bureaucrats need to undergo Army courses that are conducted at the Defence Services Staff College, Higher Command and National Defence College before their induction into the Ministry of Defence.
(The writer is author of World Trade Organisation: Implications for Indian Economy (Pearson Education) and is retired senior professor of International Trade. He may be reached at [email protected])