Ominous signs that the delicate balance of civil-military relations in this country is under strain.
The perspicacious Srinath Raghavan, in his op-ed in the Telegraph, hits the nail on the head with the most damaging fallout of keeping the Henderson-Brooks report secret.
The committee’s approach and findings reflected the dominant view in the military regarding the reasons for the debacle. Among other things, the report told an admonitory tale of meddlesome politicians, a timorous military, and the ensuing but avoidable catastrophe. Determined to trespass beyond its remit, the report concluded that the higher direction of the war was “out of touch with reality”. This was, it bears emphasizing, a judgment passed by two not-so-senior military officers on the elected political leadership of the country.
This narrative, at best radically incomplete and at worst downright false, was congenial to the military and soon became a morality pageant. The central lesson drawn from it was the importance of ‘standing up’ to politicians who intruded in professional matters. In the loss of nerve induced by the war, civilians too came to believe that the military must be given a free hand. So, following the defeat against China, a convention was established whereby the civilian leadership restricted itself to giving overall directives, leaving operational matters to the military. As the then defence secretary later observed, “In the view of the public outcry since the 1962 debacle about the relative role of politicians and the Services and their chiefs”, the military leadership was given “a long rope”. This institutional pattern of civil-military interaction persists to date and has served us ill.[Telegraph] (Emphasis added)
Two recent examples will further buttress the point being made by Srinath Raghavan. The first is the debate over the employment of defence services for anti-Maoist operations. Whatever be the merits or demerits of employing the defence services, first there was this overtly vocal campaign by the service chiefs to oppose any participation in security operations against the Maoists. After the government imposed a gag on service chiefs speaking out openly, enough stories appeared in the media to suggest that the defence services were not amenable to being employed against the Maoists. Indubitably, the government’s decision-making is constrained by such reportage. It is another matter, however, that the political executive and the ruling coalition have cleverly used the army’s reluctance to cover-up for their own lack of political will to undertake concerted security operations against the Maoists.
The second one is about the continuation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the states where army is employed for counterinsurgency operations. The Union government is already considering proposals to amend the AFSPA on the basis of the recommendations made by Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee. Defence Ministry, on the basis of the inputs provided by the Army, has floated its comments on a cabinet note prepared by the Home Ministry on the subject. While the Union government is yet to take a decision on the sensitive political issue, senior army brass has gone on record to publicly advocate that army wouldn’t be able to function without the protection of the AFSPA.
The point is rather simple and has been made earlier. All decisions in an institutionalised democracy are political decisions, though they must be based, as and when required, on security inputs. The defence services have a right to, and are in fact duty-bound, to render a free and frank opinion on security matters to their civilian masters. They must do so, but only at appropriate forums within the government setup. If done in any other manner, it distorts the institutional pattern of civil-military interaction in a democracy: the dangers of the same are only visible once the country is confronted with a serious national security challenge. Let us be warned.