The last 7 years have been unusually tumultuous for civil-military relations in India. The period has been marred by unprecedented scandals affecting the image of the Armed Forces (Sukhna, Adarsh, dal ghotala etc.), agitations by former defence personnel over pension grievances and an avalanche of public writing and media discussion on matters pertaining to the Armed Forces. The signs of large scale disaffection in the ‘veteran’ uniformed community (also termed as ex-servicemen) were first evident in the run up to the award of the VI Central Pay Commission. The veterans, smarting from perceived ‘injustices’, in terms of pensions and other retirement benefits, took their battle to all fronts, including the Internet and streets of metro cities. Perhaps the most regretful event, that would be remembered for times to come, was the token ‘return of medals’ by a group of veterans on 22 August 2010. On that day, about 5000 ex-servicemen held a massive protest in New Delhi over the emotive ‘one-rank one-pension’ demand and submitted a memorandum to the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, President Pratibha Patil, in support of their demand. Yashpal Rathi, an ex-serviceman was quoted by Economics Times, tellingly saying “The government doesn’t care about us. They are only concerned about us when we are fighting the enemy on the battlefield. But now we are considered as junk. Our protest is futile unless our demands are discussed in the Parliament.” Recently, things have soured further following the controversy surrounding the date of birth of the Army Chief, General VK Singh, which was followed by another round of salvos over the alleged irregularities in the purchase of the all-weather Tatra trucks for the Indian Army, allegedly with help of a former senior Army officer, acting as a ‘middleman’. The allegation, coming as it was, from the highest ranking officer of the Army, once again invoked the ghosts of past defence scams such as Bofors, Kargil ‘coffin scam’, purchase of HDW submarines etc. The government was quick to reassure its faith in the Defence chiefs and institute a CBI enquiry on the complaint. So now, even as gossipy stories like Adarsh building scandal, Annadale ground at Shimla and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed against the selection of the next Army Chief keep news rooms occupied, the nation awaits the CBI’s verdict on the Tatra-Vectra BEML issue.
Perhaps the surest sign of how bad things have turned came from the episode of the ‘leak’, which made public, contents of a classified letter written by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) to the Prime Minister, concerning the Army’s preparedness. The leak is a mere symptom of the deep mistrust, schism and to some extent, mutual animosity that exists between the sections represented by the uniformed military hierarchy and civil services bureaucrats, who call the shots at the apex of the national defence and security decision making. While these ‘tactical’ developments continue to hog limelight and engage public attention, the larger question of Defence reforms continues to elude us. As a matter of fact, lasting Defence reforms have eluded us since the early nineties, when they were first seriously suggested, following the recommendations of the Arun Singh Committee on Defence expenditure. In 2000-2001, in the wake of the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict, the reforms that India needed to bring its apex defence and national security set up in tune with the times were spelled very clearly by the Kargil Review Committee, headed by the late K Subrahmanyan. The chief recommendations of the KRC, numbering more than ten, included subjects such as strengthening the National Security Council, re-organisation of Intelligence organisation, technology management, Border management, Counter Insurgency Operations, re-structuring of the Ministry of Defence, civil-military liaison, Defence budget modernisation, nuclear policy reforms and media relations. The follow up action on KRC recommendations was based on a separate study by a Group of Ministers (GoM), headed by Mr Arun Singh. Ten years down the line, most of the reforms areas suggested by the KRC have been acted upon, in varying degrees, however, the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post, to head the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), and also the main recommendation of creating a credible, functional integration of the Ministry of Defence, has still not been actualised. A new ‘Task Force on National Security’, which was set up in mid-2011, under the chairmanship of Mr Naresh Chandra, to “review existing processes, procedures and practices in the national security system and suggest measures for strengthening the national security apparatus including non-conventional areas having a bearing on the overall security situation”, is expected to submit its report in end April 2012. If any, an indication of the things to come was available through a Rediff news report by Sheela Bhatt (05 Apr, 2012), to the effect that “a recommendation made by the Army Chief to the Task Force, to appoint officers from the Defence forces at the level of Director in the Ministry of Defence is being ferociously challenged by the civilian bureaucrats at the Ministry”. The serious nature of this institutional challenge is reinforced by noted security analyst Rahul Bedi in a multipart article on Rediff (18 Apr, 2012), titled ‘The shocking truth about India’s armed forces’, where he says “as things exist, the defence ministry is just a book-keeper. It has no responsibility for operational preparedness. It takes no responsibility for equipment deficiencies. That is left entirely to the individual services, which is one of the big, big shortcomings”.
The history of defence reforms in India is chequered and generally reflective of our ‘reactive’ character as a people. Writing in the Pioneer, on 13 September 2011, Maj Gen (Retired) Ashok Mehta brought out that India’s earlier reviews were entirely defence focussed and in the aftermath mainly of blunders in war. The 1962 defence re-equipment plan came in the wake of the humiliating defeat by the Chinese. The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, also referred to as the Henderson Brooks report, which is an analysis (Operations Review) of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, still remains classified. Gen Mehta further informs that in 1971, DP Dhar led the Apex I committee to sharpen defence preparedness. But its recommendations were stymied by the oil crisis of 1973. Later, Apex II was headed by PN Haksar which was instrumental in the preparation of the first Five-Year Defence Plan. In the mid-1980s, Rajiv Gandhi had set up an informal interdisciplinary committee on defence and security. The fallout of India going nuclear was reportedly given in a handwritten report to him. In 1990, the Arun Singh Committee on Defence Expenditure went beyond cost-cutting and included higher defence management. After Mrs Indira Gandhi first mooted the appointment of a Chief of the Defence Staff in 1972, the Committee on Defence Expenditure strongly recommended its initiation and as a stop-gap arrangement, the creation of the post of a Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff for institutionalising ‘jointness’ and integration among the three Services and with Government. We have come a long way from there but the issue of CDS, integration of MOD and true ‘jointness’ of Services commands still hangs fire. Ankit Mukerjee, a former Major of the Indian Army and now a scholar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi has brought out the detailed history of recent defence reforms in India in his well argued occasional paper ‘Failing to Deliver – Post Crisis Defence Reforms in India 1998-2010′.
So what fate awaits the findings and recommendations of Naresh Chandra led ‘Task Force on National Security’? Will it finally calm the storm raised over civil-military relations, which originally erupted after the controversial dismissal of the then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, in 1998? Or will it go down in history as yet another half baked effort to streamline India’s higher defence management? Only time will tell. But it will be worthwhile to take note of some sane counsel, one by a former member of the civil service , TR Ramaswami, who recently argued in his article ’Defence sector needs to be streamlined and reformed to stay relevant in a changing India’ (Economic Times 05 Apr, 2012), that “democracies were created when the king ceded power to the people and, as in the US, the army won independence and created a democracy.US Congress and most parliaments follow Robert’s Rules of Order – written by Gen Henry Martyn Robert – a US general! In nations whose independent history is not even the length of a human life, democracies have survived only where the army is apolitical. Like ours. Let’s keep it that way”. Atul Bhardwaj, a former naval officer, in his blog, ’The Fog and Friction of Civil-Military War in India’ (Purple Berets), says “The way things stand today, India cannot afford to postpone thinking about the civil-military relations. Much more than frivolous issues like FDI in retail, financial reforms or strategic tie up to be a great power, it is the civil-military conundrum that should occupy the strategic debate in the country. Any neglect of the concerns that the armed forces are raising will only accentuate the feeling of alienation that many sections of the national military are harbouring. There is an urgent need of adroit management of the inevitable militarization of the polity and politicization of the military rather than being passive bystanders at the cusp of changing times”. Is anyone listening?