Defence Forces a low priority?
by R Hariharan on 26 Feb 2018 3 Comments

Civil-military relations in India have been on a downslide for a long time. They touched a new low when the Supreme Court was approached by a serving officer’s father to protect his son from prosecution while performing his official duty. The Court directed the Jammu & Kashmir government and the Centre that “no coercive action shall be taken” against Major Aditya Kumar based on an FIR filed in connection with the death of three civilians in alleged Army firing in Shopian last month. That the Army convoy was on bona fide military duty in an area under the AFSPA is a matter of detail.


The Court was responding to a petition filed by Lt Col Karamveer Singh challenging the action taken against his son who was named wrongly under sections 303, 307 and 3336 of the Ranbir Penal Code. The Court also issued notice seeking the response of the State and Centre within two weeks. Incidentally, the Ranbir Penal Code or RPC is a criminal code applicable to J&K. IPC is not applicable under Article 370 of the Constitution.


In addition, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognizance of a complaint by three children of Army officers alleging violation of human rights of the army personnel in recent incidents in the state. NHRC has sought a “factual report” from the Ministry of Defence in four weeks. The children have also appealed to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against the violation of human rights of soldiers, adding an unsavoury international dimension to the issue.


Apathy, confusion and contradiction sum up the present state of civil-military relations.  While the Centre has not been able to overcome its indifference, State governments are no better.  The mess in J&K is testimony to the mindless way in which the BJP-PDP coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti is functioning. For too long, this coalition of convenience had been running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Driven by the sole desire to continue in power, Mehbooba has been adopting a soft approach to lynch mobs and Pak Fifth Columns targeting security forces, while “cooperating” with the Centre in the operations against infiltrating terrorists. And the BJP in the State, with its double-speak, bears equal responsibility for this.


The J&K government’s handling of the “killing” of three stone throwers by an army convoy escort on January 27 in Shopian is a case study of botched civil-military relations. Though the army escort fired to protect the convoy from the mob which damaged army vehicles and injured seven soldiers, including a JCO (serious), Mehbooba wasted no time in registering an FIR against Major Aditya and his unit on charges of murder, attempt to murder and endangering life.


Former army chief General VP Malik tweeted that the incident affected the morale of security forces working on the ground. He found political leaders’ silence inexplicable. However, a media report quoted Mehbooba as saying, “I do not accept that the Army gets demoralised by such actions. The Army is an institution and has done a wonderful job. But a black sheep can be anywhere… If some Army officer has committed a mistake, an FIR has been lodged and it is the duty of the government to take it to a logical conclusion.”


Mehbooba also mentioned that she had reported the matter to Union Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman. The minister broke her stoic silence on the CM’s statement only when she visited J&K when terrorists carried out two more attacks on security forces a few days later. While an attack on a CRPF camp was thwarted in time, the one on family quarters in Sunjuwan garrison was prolonged and four soldiers and one civilian were killed. 


The defence minister during her visit referred to the FIR on army personnel and reassured: “The government and MoD will stand by the Army, which is working under severe duress in J&K. We will not let our soldiers down.” Her words would have carried more credibility had the state government immediately withdrawn the FIR issued against Major Aditya and his unit. Evidently, the CM is looking for a politically opportune moment to withdraw the FIR or just ignore Sitharaman. In the meanwhile, Major Aditya will be kept on tenterhooks for the next few months or years, while the state pushes the case to its “logical conclusion,” whatever that is.


In the light of these happenings, the army has no option but to develop a thick skin to survive as a fighting force in the present political environment. Troops fighting terrorists on the one hand will also have to fend off state government harassment. Former IG, BSF, Bhola Nath’s tweet neatly sums up the situation: “My country, you throw ink, egg or shoe at any leader, you will get arrested on the spot immediately. But if you throw stones on forces, army… Army men may be arrested! Do we see such act of stone throwing on Forces in any other countries?” How much these mindless pinpricks will affect the fighting edge of the armed forces while the civil administration hunts for black sheep among troops, is an open question.


The spontaneous flood of sympathy for the army in the social, print and electronic media was welcome, but does not appear to have shaken the apathy of the political class. Their callousness was evident when a National Conference member shouted “Pakistan zindabad” during the assembly session, even as the bodies of dead soldiers were being prepared for funeral. For the political class, it was business as usual.


The military fraternity, which is usually only seen and not heard, has become vocal about the Shopian incident because it adds to their angst about the government’s failure to live up to its promises on issues affecting national security and the military’s professional capability. The low priority defence forces enjoy in the national scheme of things became evident when the Prime Minister and Defence Minister did not attend the Army Chief’s Army Day reception to the President for the first time ever.


Let alone the “One Rank One Pension” issue that left some residual bitterness and Pay Commission woes of the armed forces, many other proposals for making up the deficiencies in the armed forces’ command and control set-up and fire power continue to be caught in bureaucratic red tape and the compulsions of Make in India. Ashley Tellis, senior fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has eloquently summed up the current state of affairs: “The structures that are dysfunctional, that have stopped the military from making smart choices, are still there… It’s not the way to run a military of a major power. It has to be among the worst procurement processes of any major power.”


Our potential adversaries - China and Pakistan - have evolved two extreme models of civil-relations, which recognize the armed forces’ role in shaping the nation’s destiny. President Xi Jinping in his quest for consolidation of power has made “civil military integration” (CMI) his priority. It is a subject he refers to frequently in his speeches as the Belt and Road Initiative and “the Chinese dream.” The State Council’s information office on China’s military strategy in May 2015 envisages the creation of “an all element, multi-domain and cost- efficient pattern of CMI.” China is systematically implementing the plan to optimise its military and civil capabilities in tandem to create a smooth organisational structure that would holistically strengthen the country’s national security. 


The Pakistan army has always been involved in civil administration. Even now when an elected government is in power, the army continues to call the shots on how the civil administration behaves. The services chiefs brief the parliament on security matters and decisions are taken through “consensus.”


As a democracy, India can take a cue from the US and UK where civil military relations are founded on the bedrock of what Samuel Huntington calls “objective civilian control.” Our leaders would do well to follow the US Secretary of defence James Mattis’ advice: “The key  to healthy civil-military relations is trust on both the civilian and military sides of the negotiation: the civilian must trust the military to provide its best and most objective advice but then carry out any policy that civilian decision makers ultimately choose. The military must trust the civilians to give a fair hearing of military advice and not reject it out of hand, especially for transparently political reasons. Civilians must understand that dissent is not the same as disobedience.” 


Unless the government shows greater interest and changes its patchy response to military issues, it may blunt the cutting edge of the armed forces. That would be a monumental tragedy for the country.


Courtesy Col R Hariharan

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