Above: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with Army chief General Bipin Rawat (third from right) and other officers and jawans in Srinagar/Photo: UNI
The distrust between the civil and military was evident recently when an army officer’s father approached the Supreme Court for succour. Will the plummeting ties blunt the cutting edge of the armed forces?
~By Col R Hariharan
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 told the J&K 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 bonafide military duty in an area under AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Acts) 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 302, 307 and 336 of the Ranbir Penal Code. The Court also issued a notice seeking the response of the state and centre within two weeks. Incidentally, the Ranbir Penal Code or RPC is a criminal code applicable in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). IPC is not applicable under Article 370 of the Constitution.
In addition, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognisance of a complaint by three children of army officers alleging human rights violations of army personnel in recent incidents in the state. NHRC has sought a “factual report” from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) 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 a 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 at the same time. Driven by the sole desire to continue in power, Mehbooba has been adopting a soft approach to lynch mobs and Pakistan’s Fifth Columns targeting the 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 seriously, 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 also found the 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 it is.
“We should be proactive”
APN TV, India Legal’s sister concern, discussed the issue of the flagging morale of the army on its Mudda show. Here are some bytes:
“A change of policy has come about. Earlier, we talked about J&K, now we discuss Balochistan and PoK. In talks, we now hold the upper hand. Importantly, we have also started documenting infiltrations, ceasefire violations and terrorist attacks by Pakistan. Administratively, politically and diplomatically, the government has taken all necessary steps to counter Pakistan. As a result, both militancy and infiltration in Kashmir have come down. Combing operations in the Valley, too, are almost complete, save in three districts. The US is changing its policy towards Pakistan. Unlike in the past, the US envoy now flies to India first and then proceeds to Pakistan.”
—Anand Sahu, BJP spokesperson
“Statistics tell their own story. During the 44 months of NDA rule at the centre, there have been 204 major incidents of terrorism, while during the corresponding period of UPA rule, there were only 89. During the same period, the number of soldiers and civilians killed were 112 and 71 respectively during the UPA rule, and 278 and 135 during the NDA rule. There were 462 ceasefire violations
during UPA’s tenure, and 2,384 violations during NDA’s tenure.”
—Onkar Nath Singh, Congress spokesperson
“Afzal Guru was hanged on February 9 and JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat’s death anniversary falls on February 11. Every year, during this period, terrorists carry out strikes, kill soldiers and their families. Pakistan engages in ceasefire violations. The Army is forced to enter a state of alert. Taking these matters lying down badly hurts the morale of soldiers and the people.”
—Govind Pant Raju, senior journalist
“The LoC is an imaginary line. We should no longer regard it as such. We should cross the LoC and start hitting Pakistan where it hurts the most. We should stop being reactive and be proactive. Just as it is being doing to us in Kashmir, we should begin low-intensity conflicts and proxy wars in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. During the Kargil war, we had a policy called substantive retaliation. We must again bring it to the forefront.”
—Col (retd) Girish Mehendiratta
“The enemy inflicts substantial damage to us at little cost to itself. We, on the other hand, spend crores neutralising it. We need to increase the cost of warfare for them. Earlier, the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) had a Pakistan desk. We had thousands of informants and personnel working on it. Prime Minister IK Gujral dismantled it in one stroke. The informants were caught and many of them put to death. The incumbent government has started it again but you can’t really expect results in just four years.”
—Col (retd) Danvir Singh
“This year, the defence budget has been the lowest since 1992. Just five percent of Kashmir’s residents have a negative opinion about India and they are supporting terrorists. We must reach out to them and win them over.”
—Maj Gen (retd) Shashi Asthana
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 now have to fend off state government harassment. Former IG of BSF Bhola Nath’s tweet neatly summed up 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 the troops is an open question.
While the spontaneous flood of sympathy for the army in social, print and electronic media was welcome, it does not appear to have shaken the apathy of the political class. Their callousness was evident when a National Conference member shouted: “Pakistan zindabad” in the assembly, even as the bodies of 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 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, a senior fellow at the 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 recognise 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 one subject he refers to frequently in his speeches as the Bridge and Road Initiative and “the Chinese dream”. The white paper by the State Council Information Office on China’s military strategy in May 2015 envisaged the creation of “an all element, multi-domain and cost-efficient pattern of CMI”.
China is implementing the plan to optimise its military and civil capabilities in tandem to create a smooth organisational structure that would holistically strengthen its 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 the 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 provides 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 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.
—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute