Book review

Why there has never been a military dictatorship in India

Stephen Wilkinson looks at this question in his new book, ‘Army and Nation’.

A true story: In 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, visiting the office of General Thimayya, the Chief of Army Staff, saw a steel cabinet behind his desk, and asked the General what it contained.

The General replied that the top drawer contained the nation’s defence plans. And the second drawer contained the confidential files of the nation’s top generals.

And what about the third drawer, enquired Nehru.

Ah, said the General with a straight face, the third drawer contains my secret plans for a military coup against you.

Nehru laughed, but there was apparently a tinge of nervousness to his laughter.

Military dictatorships have been a common phenomenon in the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa, and in the 1950s and 1960s, a dictatorship in India was not an impossibility. In fact, while covering the 1967 general elections, The Times correspondent, Neville Maxwell, prophesied that these might well be the last elections ever in the country. And he was not the only one who believed that sooner or later, India would fall under military rule.

But that eventuality, of course, never happened.

Why not?

The question why the Indian army never attempted to seize power has sometimes been attributed to the fact that it is a disciplined, highly professional army, steeped in proud 250-year old traditions inherited from the British. But this theory doesn’t work, because the Pakistani army was born out of the same traditions and that didn’t seem to stop it from assuming power.

Indeed, one could argue that it was precisely because the Pakistan army was such a highly professional force that there came a time when it felt it could no longer stand by and watch the country slide into chaos, and felt it was its duty to step in.

So clearly this is a question one needs to look at more closely. Which is what political scientist Steven Wilkinson has done with his excellent new book, Army and Nation.

In order to understand what didn’t happen in India, it is perhaps useful to first look at what did happen in Pakistan. The military dictatorship in Pakistan has had an interesting pre-history. It begins in undivided India, where the largest single component of the army was drawn from the undivided Punjab. Hence at the time of Partition, of all the institutions that Pakistan inherited, the most substantive was its army.

Moreover, while in India the Congress Party was a highly evolved, durable organisation, in Pakistan the Muslim League was not much more than “Jinnah and his Private Secretary”. Hence, there was a dangerous structural imbalance in Pakistan, especially after Jinnah’s death in 1948.

Mashallah ho gaya

The Military dictatorship in Pakistan did not come out of the blue. In the early 1950s, for example, there were riots in Lahore that raged on because the civilian authorities were unable to control them. Finally the army was called out, and it swiftly and firmly put down the trouble.

Then the commanding officer made an unusual request: he asked for another couple of days before withdrawing his troops to the barracks. In those few, quick days, the army proceeded to clean up the city, paint public buildings, repair roads, pull down unauthorised structures and plant trees. Then, having performed all these long neglected civic tasks, the army quietly withdrew, leaving Lahore looking as clean and well-ordered as an army cantonment.

This earned the army a great deal of respect among the public: it had managed to do for the city in a few days what the civilian authority had failed to do over the years. Hence, when in 1958, the Governor-General of Pakistan responded to a state of political chaos in the country by declaring martial law, and calling out the army, there was a section of the public that rejoiced at the news. In fact, a saying that went around at the time was, “Pakistan mein ab toh mashallah ho gaya”, playing on the term ‘martial law’, and translating, roughly, as “By the grace of God, things in Pakistan are well now.”

What followed over the next few years was a period of remarkable national development in Pakistan, under the presidency of General Ayub Khan – before the military government began to get corrupted by its own power (as always, inevitably, happens in such a system).

Ring-fencing the Indian army

The Indian Army was born out of the same tradition as Pakistan’s. In British India, the army enjoyed a prominent position in Indian life, and even played a role in policy matters. The Commander-in-Chief, was also the de facto Defence Minister, and was the second most powerful person in the hierarchy after the Viceroy himself. But after Independence things began to change.

Prime Minister Nehru believed that the new India needed to re-think the role of the army, and initiated a policy that would firmly subordinate it to the civilian authority. One of the first things that happened after Independence, for example, was that Teen Murti House, traditionally the grand residence of the army chief, was assigned instead to the Prime Minister: a small matter by itself, perhaps, but a clear indicator of the way the wind was blowing.

Next came a series of budget cuts (resulting, among other things, in hefty cuts in army officers’ generous Raj-era salaries). And when India’s first army chief, Field Marshal Cariappa, publicly criticised the government’s economic performance, he was immediately rapped on the knuckles, and told not to meddle in matters that did not concern him.

Over the years a systematic programme was pursued to ring-fence the armed forces, and their influence in Indian society – a program that was given fresh urgency in 1958 by the military coup in next-door Pakistan (an occurrence that was worryingly praised by Field Marshal Cariappa, who had recently retired as Army chief). A highlight – or, rather, lowlight – of that ring-fencing programme was the appointment of Krishna Menon, a powerful, abrasive, leftist intellectual, as Defence Minister. It was an attempt to put the armed forces unambiguously in their place. Unfortunately, it also had the unintended side effect of leading to the stinging defeat of 1962, but that is a different story.

An unrecognised achievement

By the 1970s, the Indian armed forces had finally been rendered ‘coup-proof’ by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that had been put in place. And that might be considered to be one of the major achievements of the Nehru era: ensuring the durability of Indian democracy. It’s an achievement that is not sufficiently recognized; an achievement underscored by the fact that all our South Asian neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka– have experienced military coups, actual or attempted.

Wilkinson explains how this ‘coup proofing’ was implemented, through a package of carefully thought-out measures, ranging from diversifying the ethnic composition of the armed forces to setting up rugged command and control structures, re-casting the order of precedence between civil and military authorities, paying close attention to promotions, disallowing army officers from making public statements, creating a counter-balancing para-military force, and topping off this entire effort with little touches like ensuring that retired chiefs of staff are usually sent off as ambassadors to faraway countries.

The end result of all this is that when, in 2012, newspapers breathlessly reported that there had been a coup attempt, with army units being surreptitiously moved towards Delhi in the wake of the General V.K. Singh affair, people like you and I, merely shrugged, said, “What nonsense,” and turned to the sports page.

We perhaps don’t realise what a luxury that kind of certainty that is.

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