Journal Articles

Soldiers, Statesmen and Strategy

Srinath Raghavan


June 30, 2010

POLITICAL control of the military is seldom considered problematic in the Indian context. The country is routinely lauded for being one of the few post-colonial states where the military has not intervened in political issues. As a recent assessment puts it, ‘India is among only a handful of nations in which civilian administrations wield so much power over the military.’ Another important study claims that, ‘The Indian military, despite growth in its geostrategic importance, increased technological and organizational sophistication and use in internal security operations, stands firmly subordinate to civilian leaders of all parties and ideologies.’

Such appraisals, however, tend to overlook the one area where civil-military relations are usually fraught – the potential or actual use of force. Strategy is the creative element in the exercise of power. It is the search for an optimum relationship between available military means and desired political ends. Strategy, then, is the key domain of civil-military interaction. It is the area where theoretical notions of civilian supremacy and military subordination can be tested most closely in practice. It is surprising, therefore, that most discussions of civil-military relations in India blissfully bypass the terrain of strategy.

This essay suggests that the conventional wisdom on civil-military relations in India needs substantial qualification. Whilst the military has not intruded in the formal machinery of politics, it is an important and influential player in certain areas of policy. It has managed to do so by an expansive definition of what constitutes its domain of ‘operational expertise’ and by insisting that the politicians stay clear of its operational turf. Its ability to do so has been supported by a skewed narrative of civil-military interaction in past conflicts – one that remains influential well beyond military circles. In order to understand this neglected dimension of civil-military relations we need to range back in time.

In establishing the norm of civilian supremacy in the republic, Jawaharlal Nehru played a key role. Even before he took control of the levers of state power, Nehru realized the importance of keeping the military subordinate to the political authority. Nehru’s views were shaped by his understanding of the pernicious effects of militarism in Europe and Japan. From the outset, therefore, he took special care in ensuring proper relations between the civilians and the military. At the eve of independence, the army commander-in-chief had issued orders to keep the public away from the flag hoisting ceremony. Rescinding this order, Nehru wrote to General Rob Lockhart: ‘In any policy that is to be pursued in the army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy he has no place in the Indian Army.’

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