Muzzling the military; sealed lips tell no tales - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 11 January 2010

Muzzling the military; sealed lips tell no tales

(From left to right) General Deepak Kapoor, Admiral Sureesh Mehta and Air Chief Marshall Fali Major, paying their respects at the Amar Jawan memorial in New Delhi.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Jan 2010

Newsprint and public energy have been expended this fortnight, both in India and Pakistan, in debating whether India’s army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, was belligerent and impolitic in telling his officers that China and Pakistan might band together for the next war against India.

The controversy still simmers as low-intensity media sniping. But it is important to note that this was about neither warmongering nor diplomacy. At a fundamental level, the dustup stems from longstanding tensions within the Indian state over muzzling the military.

For those not in the picture, the controversy began with a Times of India news report, which had General Kapoor warning his officers in an “internal seminar” of the danger of a “two-front war”. The report failed to mention that a two-front threat had been the basis of India’s defence planning for decades. Security establishments in India, China and Pakistan know this well; but not the Pakistani press, which went wall-to-wall the next day with reports about Indian bellicosity.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office shot off a nasty comment about General Kapoor’s “hegemonic and jingoistic mindset”; and his opposite number, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani --- clearly susceptible to Pakistani media pressure --- began the New Year by threatening India with nuclear retaliation.

Next, the Indian Express entered the fray, reporting in a front-page story that the army chief’s verbal indiscretions were repeatedly embarrassing the government. Then, in the same newspaper, came an opinion editorial by K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategists, castigating General Kapoor for lack of sensitivity; suggesting that all senior military officers be put through diplomacy school; and recommending that pronouncements by military chiefs on strategic matters be accompanied by the caveat that those were only personal views. The cherry on this cake was the insulting reminder that this was not Pakistan, where the army chief formulated strategy.

Such articles could be dismissed as nonsensical were they not accurate portrayals of the government’s approach towards the military. The genesis of this vitiated relationship lies in the political and bureaucratic insecurity of the post-independence period, when democracies across Asia, Africa and South America were falling like skittles before interventionist militaries. Today, even with India’s military acknowledged worldwide as laudably apolitical, that destructive relationship continues.

In contrast to India, other mature democracies impose far looser censorship over their militaries, without unleashing a monster. Samuel Huntington’s widely acclaimed theory of “objective control” of the military --- a model of civil-military relations that is implemented almost universally --- grants the services autonomy in their professional realm. A military that has ownership of its professional bailiwick, the “objective control” thesis postulates, has little incentive for involvement in the political sphere. Civilian control is not abandoned, but asserted mainly on broader political issues.

In contrast, “subjective control” rests on neutralising the military through restrictive civilian controls, extending civilian oversight into spheres within the military domain. Subjective control is predicated on “civilianising the military”, while objective control aims at “militarising the military”, encouraging professionalism and responsibility within its realm. That includes negotiating within the public domain.

When the British army chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt, felt that his forces were strained from sustained deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said so publicly, forcing his government into remedial measures. US generals talk publicly about their need for certain kinds of equipment or resources; America views that as democratic bargaining for budgetary resources.

But the Indian generals of today, intimidated and silenced by MoD diktats, would never dream of publicly standing up for their organisation. A succession of generals has silently acquiesced in sending lakhs of soldiers to face bullets in J&K without quality bulletproof jackets and helmets. No general has spoken out against the MoD’s repeated failure to buy modern defence equipment, while returning thousands of crores of unspent rupees from the defence budget. Clearly, silencing the military by invoking propriety keeps many skeletons confined to the cupboard.

But, even within such a dispirited community, a rubicon is crossed when the MoD looks away while an army chief is humiliated, including within Pakistan. No government statement has clarified that General Kapoor was discussing a possible two-front war to an army audience, in a closed-door planning session, in a high-security building next to his headquarters in Delhi. Nor was there support from Defence Minister Antony, who assured reporters that India was not a war-mongering nation. By not mentioning the chief, Antony effectively indicted him.

Close to the end of his tenure, General Kapoor is under a cloud after failing to act decisively in a succession of scandals: from dubious procurements during his command in Udhampur, to the recent land scam allegedly involving his close affiliate. While investigating those unsparingly, the MoD owes support to a respected institution --- the Chief of Army Staff --- when it is under gratuitous media attack.

Tailpiece: A legitimate accusation against the army chief could be that his threat assessment is outdated. Today’s threat, for which the military must plan, is of a three-front war. Besides the two unnamed countries, an internal front could be required against Pakistan-sponsored militants in Kashmir and a coordinated Naxal offensive.


  1. Brilliant Article Ajai ji.
    Finally someone in India has the balls to call a spade a spade. It is so refreshing to see that there are a few journalists like you that have the depth of intellect and insight into the matters pertaining to defence. This report should be sent to the MoD and all the stupid arm-chair strategic analysts in various media houses that spew bullshit without even understanding the nuances of the situation.
    Great writeup, keep it coming.

  2. We need a plain talking general in the IA, much like Gen. Sundarji or one of the old school Manekshaw types. However it is encouraging that the past couple of Navy and AF ciefs have been pretty vocal about genuine operational needs.

    However any such guy must also be prepared to face the fate of Adm. Vishnu Bhagwat, that is, unless miraculously, the Govt develops the spine to rein in the IAS.

    For the moment, what we need is possibly a coordinated attempt by the 3 chiefs to play up, drum up issues and threat perceptions periodically in the public sphere and force the govt to act the way it should normally do but doesnt. There is no way the bureaucrats can move simultaneously move against 3 chiefs at the same time. We have seen that before.

    Strength in unity as they say......

  3. The army chief was only stating the obvious if our politicians and intellectuals are so scared of offending the chinese then there is no point in bragging about india being a superpower

  4. well i am A ok with the General talking about a two front war but the media i think gives out too much info that could betray our strategic surprice. the media needs to back off inmost cases and let the IAF, IN and IA come up with covert war tactics in the eventuality of a two front war.

  5. Well done Ajai, you have really hit the nail on the head!! It is time the Babu’s and the dhotiwala’s are told in some plainspeak what it means to keep the army ‘muzzled’. The Indian army, nay the armed forces, amongst the most professional and apolitical in the world are being treated as second rate citizens

    Why is that in the wake of any calamity everyone wants to call the armed forces to provide fair, fast and just succor and relief – be it floods, rail accidents, natural disasters, Tsunami, communal riots, child stuck in a borewell!

    Due his excellent training, tradition, culture and ethos – the soldier delivers, regardless of his own comfort, well being and safety – as for him the country comes first always and everytime.

    Fortunately, the soldier is delivering despite all odds – not well equipped, not well geared/outfitted, does not get his due and despite all this he still belittled by the Babu’s and the dhotiwala’s – how long will he keep quiet – don’t push him to the brink!!!

  6. Ajai Shukla’s article has opened the proverbial “Pandora’s Box”. It is time the Politico – Bureaucrat nexus is exposed. The Indian armed forces have been accepting nonsense from the so called ‘well wishers’ and ‘do gooders’ The whole system reeks of bringing down the army hierarchy a peg or two. While corruption within the police, bureaucracy and political set up is rampant and unfortunately accepted, however when it happens in the armed forces it is highlighted and blown out of proportion.

    Hey, remember it is the same family which has a member each in the bureaucracy, the armed forces and may be in the police force and possibly in politics – when all others are making money, the Brother in the Olive Green also has a rethink about his Motto and legacy and wants to a quick buck – like all others in the system!!

    The immense shortages in the equipment, the shortages in the junior ranks of the officer cadre are being overlooked by the powers that be. Are we going the same way as we did in 1962? You cannot prepare for a war in 1-2 years, we have to be in a perpetual state of operational readiness, it has to be a 24x7x365 state of preparedness. Our decision makers are not prepared to listen to the genuine demands of the men in uniform. The FM is happy that there is almost 20—25% under spending (saving) in the annual defence budget, diverting the funds to so called “development” and “welfare” schemes. The delays in the on going major equipment acquisition programmes are an indicator of the malaise that is setting in.

    In case of a conflict with China (not an unfathomable likelihood) who will be sacrificed - again the young and brave fool hardy soldier!!

  7. Yeh, “bewaqoof fauji” kab tak chup rahega – aap iska muh kab tak band rakhenge? Yeh jab garega to barsega – to tab yeh tsunami nahin sambhali jaegi!! Ab bahut hogaya hai faujion ki bhi suno. Aap Faujion ke Bezurg ke izzat nahin karenge to ek din yeh fauji aap ki rakhawali aur izzart nahin karega. Jago re Jago aur apne aap to sudharo

  8. Ajai ji,

    Hoping that BS publishes your views on its main page.


  9. As far as Indian Media goes, one question always nags me, as to who are these Media houses loyal to?
    Most times, they seem more loyal to Pakistan and China than their host nation and its people who put up with such tamasha and actually pay for it.

  10. Good Indian Media's / forums are brave enough to say truth about china's arrogance .

  11. Ajai Sir while I agree with the broad thrust of your article which appears to be that in a mature democracy like ours, the miltary must be allowed to speak its mind; I am not ready to accept your arguments in the particular case of Gen Deepak Kapoor. He has hardly covered himself with glory with the Siliguri and Udhampur corruption cases.Whenever he has opened his mouth, he has managed to put his foot into it..I hope you remember one of his first media appearances at USI when even the Pakistani Miltary attache took him to task and all our COAS could manage was a pathetic, muddled grin!!
    The sad fact remains Gen Kapoor cant talk and every time he opens his mouth, he makes a hash of it. So lets not try to cover for him by equating the COAS' office with Gen Kapoor's prestige. The media, the Govt. and the public at large supports the COAS and the Army when it acquits itself like a soldier and not a tongue tied, deer in the headlights individual.

  12. Thank you for the article.
    The truth is here and like the interaction between the various services has improved over the years ( long way to go still) for good ( unlike the early days after independence where our fearing politicians failed to establish good interaction between services and maintaining them as separate forces placing control, which also seems to have lead to the situation we faced in the indo-china war), there is a urgent need for the government to wake up and rise above selfishness , and handle these matters with sensitivity and understanding, with the MOD and the External Affairs living up to the time.


  13. The Indian press is such a malefic influence!

    A more untravelled, unenlightened, pompous, disingenuous bunch I have not seen.

    To be a presswallah you should have at least studied some philosophy, government and should have travelled a bit. Too bad our colleges emphasize engineering and medicine so much, and nothing else.

    Not talking about you Ajai, but in general...

  14. Not to mention the basic fact that by making such a spectacle out of the armed forces, they ensure that only the most pliable get promoted to the post of the COAS et al, and as such these worthies rarely if ever speak our mind. To be honest, our country is fairly hypocritical about the services and defense per se. While the gravest of sins eg the death of the TN inspector in public view recently is only worth attention as long as it can be milked for TRP, the plight of war widows to the Bana Singhs goes unsung. In short India expects everything cheap and democracy in this country has become democrazy. The political class is full of avarice and sheer cussedness, while the babus covet power wherever available and shirk from sharing it. The end result is a situation where a terrorist sponsoring nation can spew invectives on the Indian Army, while those who use and abuse the freedom granted by the Army pontificate on it and make it shut up. I am particularly ashamed of K Subramanyams behaviour, clearly the man needs to introspect and tone down his hubris. He needs to realize which country he belongs to and when to keep his mouth shut instead of condescending to a respected institution.

  15. Thank You, very much for this article, sir.

    It is absolutely shameful for the politicians how they have treated the Military as a door mat. I think its high time that both the military and the general public spoke up against it. The military is respectful of the shameless politicians because they think its in the favor of the country. And the disgraceful, shameless politicians take advantage of that just like they do with everything else.

    " A succession of generals has silently acquiesced in sending lakhs of soldiers to face bullets in J&K without quality bulletproof jackets and helmets. No general has spoken out against the MoD’s repeated failure to buy modern defence equipment, while returning thousands of crores of unspent rupees from the defence budget."

    I think these were the very telling sentences in your article. I don't know how many more soldiers we are going to lose because of lack of body armor.

    I think the so called strategists should be ashamed of themselves for criticizing the army chief. He had done nothing wrong.

    I can't believe that we are so concerned with the stupid reports of Pakistani media. They can blow themselves up everytime our chief's say anything for all I care. NOBODY outside Pakistan watches Paki telivision or their news. All their Tamasha is done only for the entertainment of the local population. They can threaten us all they want, they know quite well that we will raze every inch of their country if they ever used nukes.

    So, The bloody "strategists" should think twice before saying something this stupid themselves, before advising military chiefs to do so.

    Once again, thank you for the great article.

  16. "96 hr" only needed to weaken China, made me shake my head. Chinese have the capacity to fight a long war, unlike India.

  17. The citizenry of any country is controlled by its media, its banks, and its military. Does anyone here know who owns what parts of the media or banks in India?


  18. Has any Army Chief been ever faced disciplinary action? The outgoing chief is flirting with being the first! When the others go down, they will take him down as well. Give it a year and watch Singh bring about changes that will straighten these chaps. Long awaited changes!!!

  19. Even with all this, why dont the services agree for a CDS. Atleast a secretary rank offices will lend them some voice in policy matters.

  20. SPOT-ON AJAI when it comes to the "Tailpiece"

  21. At least someone has the balls to take on China.

  22. The media dances to the tune of vested interests. The Madhu Koda scam is a 1000 times bigger than the purported Sukhna land scam, yet nobody is talking about it! Why? There could be three reasons:-

    (a) It is easy to bait the Army, the rules in force do not permit the Army to respond publicly to an accusation/adverse comment.

    (b) The Army cannot attack and destroy media houses and television stations to get even as political parties frequently do.

    (c) And most important the Army does not have the money to buy the loyalties of media houses, even if it was so inclined.

    So there is no need to get unduly upset about these so called media experts. Most of them have shallow knowledge and can be bought for a price!!

    Amitava Sarker

  23. what is so wrong about the COAS discussing about a 2 front war, after all defending the borders is his responsibility. why r the politicians getting so upset(including the PM)? he is discussing something which is the armed forces' bread & butter! he is not discussing inflation or the foreign policy of the country!!

  24. IK said....
    The last 2 yrs or so have seen many an article against the Services & quite a few in the public, IAS, Politics & media have a gleeful smile on suuch occasions. The reasons for each one are different but the last 3 of the 4 owe a large responsibility to the nation.Such responses do not augur well as these only end up in weakening an institution which has steadfastly since independence guarded the nation not only against external aggression but also thwarted designs of insurgents within the country from causing upheaval which later could have turned into an area seperting from the country.
    What down sizing of the Services or of the Chiefs, as some respected journalists have propogated & quite a few in the Administration & polity too feel likewise, is being clamoured about
    when in times of real need, these very institutions & people are looked upto for protection & help. Whatever be the reasons for the goofups, which have been dime a dozen & continue unabated even now,the Services have always delivered. Thus the attitude if it is continuing will be akin to the ostrich rather than strengthening the very organ of the nation which has been the main stay. This will be at the peril of national security.
    The blog has rightly taken up cudgles for the Services & the debate should be heeded to in right earnest. Do not pick on individuals but look at the organisation as a whole. Under the present COAS & his colleagues only,some of whom have retired, the Services have competed with the best in the world so where is the problem?

  25. In time, when the nation looks back to this period of military weakening of India, General Kapoor will be castigated for saying too little too late.
    Lowering of the commissioned officer's status will not lie on this pusillanimous political leadership or the present self serving bureaucracy(does it ever?), but, on the COAS for not having the balls to do what is right and embrace the consequences. That is what a nation expects from its military leaders.
    To be fair, the previous CNS made a muted attempt - "its the izzat not the money..". Now, the Indian military's 'money hungry mercenaries' have become the worldwide laughing stock.

    In hindsight that muted attempt seems to have done more damage!
    It is not entirely inaccurate that the COAS has failed the Officer Corps. As indeed the Officer Corps has failed their commands.
    So, lampooning the press, politicos, and self styled strategists is at best misplaced, at worst, cathartic.

    If he can't be fair to his men what the hell is he doing up there? We don't need China or Pakistan or the LeT/Naxals. One or two lip-sealed Chiefs like this and we won't be far from becoming politicized like the the Pakis.


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