During the controversy over the Joint Parliamentary Committee in Parliament, Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee stated on February 21, 2011, “Parliament cannot be mortgaged to the conceding of a demand”, warning that if “hatred for the parliamentary institution was generated, it will lead to the rise of extra-constitutional authority as in the neighbouring country in 1958 when martial law was declared”. It is indeed surprising that 63 years after Independence, and in spite of the Indian Army’s proven apolitical record, a senior and experienced political leader should fear a military coup. No responsible leader in the West would express such a fear, even though the UK had a Cromwell and France a Napoleon.
Supremacy of the civil over the military is an imperative for a functioning democracy. Even in colonial India, the Viceroy, representing civil authority, was supreme. The Curzon-Kitchener dispute did not question this. It was related to organisational matters and functioning procedures. Till Independence, the Commander-in-Chief in India also held political authority in his additional capacity as War Member and senior member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Thus, in a way, he was both the Defence Minister and the deputy Prime Minister. The Defence Secretary was his subordinate. Till 1920 this appointment was held by a major general, but thereafter a civil servant started holding this office. Before Independence, the role of the Defence Secretary was limited to issuing government letters, as worked out by military officers with military finance, answering questions in the Central Legislative Assembly, interacting with other ministries and provincial governments, and looking after Defence lands. He hardly had any say in decisions pertaining to military matters. After Independence, a radical change took place. The Defence Minister now controlled the Defence Services and the Defence Secretary, as his staff officer, became a key functionary. The civil service lobby tried to get a higher protocol status for the Defence Secretary than the Service Chiefs on the analogy of other ministries in which departmental heads are subordinated to their concerned secretary. Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, torpedoed this and the Service Chiefs retained their higher status vis-à-vis the Defence Secretary. This continues to be so but the latter has acquired a higher functional status. Service Chiefs have to put up papers to the Defence Minister through the Defence Secretary. In 1962, when the appointment of Cabinet Secretary was introduced, a higher protocol status was accorded to him than the Service Chiefs. As secretary-general in the 1940, Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai did not have this high status. When General Manekshaw was promoted Field Marshal, a unique ceremonial rank, his protocol status was kept lower than the Cabinet Secretary. No wonder the funeral of the military leader, under whom we achieved the greatest victory of Indian arms of the last millennium, was a tame affair. The Government of India was represented by a minister of state at his funeral. The funeral of the Duke of Wellington was not only attended by the head of state and head of government of his country, but of several European countries. The colonial pattern of administration, in which the generalist civil servant exercises authority over the specialist professional, obtains in ministries of Government of India like health, home, transport, agriculture and so on. This pattern was now introduced in the Defence Ministry. The Railway Ministry has been an exception. The Railway Board, comprising specialists, interacts directly with the minister. This is like the service councils in Defence ministries of democracies in the West. In our higher Defence Organisation, the civilian bureaucrat has a complete stranglehold. The supremacy of the civil has come to mean the supremacy of the civil servant.
As per our Constitution, the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces is the President, like the US President is the Commander-in-Chief of American Defence Forces. In 1955, our Commanders-in-Chief were designated Chiefs of Staff. This has been a misnomer as they continue to function as before. They are separate entities from the ministry. They cannot take any governmental decisions nor do they have direct functional access to the minister. The committee system introduced after Independence at the instance of Lord Ismay, the great expert on higher Defence organisation, provided for participation of Defence officers in decision-making. This has been gradually scuttled. The Defence Services have been increasingly isolated from the process of decision-making in military matters. In 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru, on his way to Sri Lanka, told the press that he had ordered the Army to throw out the Chinese from the Himalayas. The Army Chief was reduced to asking a joint secretary in the Defence Ministry to give him that order in writing. The latter promptly obliged. The rest is history. This incident shows that the Army Chief had not been consulted before that grave decision was taken. After the 1962 war, I was sent on battlefield tour from the Staff College to formulate our training doctrine on mountain warfare. I came to the conclusion that our debacle in the Himalayas was largely due to our faulty higher Defence Organisation.
The reports of several parliamentary committees urging organisational reforms were ignored. On March 25, 1955, addressing Parliament about designating the Service Chiefs as Chiefs of Staff, Nehru stated that Service Headquarters will be integrated with the ministry of defence and gradually the council system will be introduced.The civil bureaucracy has been much too entrenched in seats of power to allow this to happen. After the Kargil war, the Kargil Review Committee set up a working group on Defence under former union Minister of state for Defence Arun Singh. He requested me for a draft on our higher Defence Organisation. I was then governor of Assam. I made out a draft recommending introduction of the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff and integration of Services Headquarters with the Defence Ministry. My draft and recommendations were incorporated by him in his report. The Group of Ministers approved these recommendations but the entrenched bureaucracy derailed them. A headless Integrated Defence Staff without a Chief of Defence Staff was set up, defeating its very purpose. A meaningless cosmetic integration of Services Headquarters with the MoD has been carried out. The civilian bureaucracy has been playing on the fears of the political leadership of the man on horseback, and with the latter’s lack of knowledge and interest in matters military, has managed to have its way. Our national interests and Defence functioning continue to suffer. The Defence Services receive step-motherly treatment. India is the only country in the world without a Chief of Defence Staff or equivalent and with a MoD working on a “we and they” syndrome, rather than an “us” outlook. This gravely undermines our Defence preparedness and our ability to face the current very serious national security challenges.
Veteran Lt Gen SK Sinha, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as Governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir