That meddlesome Punjabi army: Book review of Steven I Wilkinson's book, "Army and Nation" - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 14 April 2015

That meddlesome Punjabi army: Book review of Steven I Wilkinson's book, "Army and Nation"

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th April 15

Title:  Army and Nation: the Military and Indian Democracy since Independence
Author:  Steven I Wilkinson
Publisher:  Permanent Black (Ranikhet, India)
Length:  295 pages
Price:  Rs 795

Entire library shelves already groan under the weight of civil-military relations textbooks that try to explain a fascinating paradox: the contrast between the Indian and Pakistani armies. Despite their similar origins and organization ethos, how did the former remain scrupulously apolitical, while the latter evolved into a byword for military meddling in politics?

Given the brainpower already applied to this question, one might imagine the last word had already been said. But Steven I Wilkinson --- who is Nilekani Professor of Indian and South Asian Studies at Yale University --- breaks fresh ground in zooming in on a structural fault line that he says largely explains the Pakistan Army’s penchant for political intervention. Mr Wilkinson focuses on the ethnic imbalance within that army, where Punjabis form a large majority. A well-recognised tenet of civil-military relations holds that a military recruited predominantly from a narrow segment of the populace tends to become politicized. It becomes a guardian of certain specific interests, unlike a “national” army that is recruited equitably from across a country’s ethnicities, religions and geographies.

The well-known Punjabi domination of the Pakistan Army has been previously acknowledged as a cause of political interventionism. Yet, no earlier scholar has gone into the detail that Wilkinson presents. Marshalling a trove of official data beginning from the late 19th century, he illustrates how British military administrators systematically “Punjab-ised” the Indian Army. After the 1857 uprising, British recruiters drew mainly from areas that had not revolted against the British, particularly Punjab, but also the North West Frontier Province, Jammu, Garhwal and the Gurkha areas.

This deliberate Punjabi dominance was perpetuated through the post-1857 decades, through the army’s massive expansion during two World Wars and, incredibly, even in post-independence India and Pakistan, in particular during the expansion of the Indian Army after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Wilkinson tellingly illustrates how the Indian and Pakistani military establishments, long after independence, continued to blindly follow British “martial race” policies. While Pakistan’s Punjabi machismo sits well with such notions, it is hard to understand why India continued this myth, especially given the Congress Party’s stated commitment to broad-basing recruitment across all states.

In proving his thesis, Wilkinson overcomes government opaqueness by drawing on official government statements in parliament, and reports such as those of parliament’s standing committee on defence. This provides an object lesson to Indian researchers and academics.

An especially interesting section describes how Pakistan’s army was short-sightedly allowed by Pakistani politicians and generals to become even more Punjabi. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 (in large part because of the “Punjabi” army’s brutal crackdown on Bengalis) peeled away the handful of Bengali units, making Punjabi domination even more overwhelming. Thus was created the narrow-based force that Baluchistan, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Northern Areas still regard with suspicion.

As Wilkinson weaves his narrative, supported by official numbers and statistics, it is like watching a train crash in slow motion in the rear view mirror. Pakistan’s disintegration and the secession of Bangladesh seem almost fore-ordained, given the deep-rooted, internalised contempt amongst Pakistani Punjabis for Bengali soldiery. This even as East Bengal simmered (as it had since British times) at having to generate the economic resources to pay for a military that generated employments, cantonments and facilities only in West Pakistan.

Wilkinson also focuses on how the Congress Party, and Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, systematically “coup-proofed” the Indian Army, which Indian freedom-fighters had warily regarded as a bastion of colonial thought. The author quotes from a memo that Nehru shot off to generals who were obstructing the Congress’ plans for Independence Day celebrations in August 1947, in which he reminded them that “If any person is unable to (implement government) policy, he has no place in the Indian Army.”

Already, in September 1946, Nehru had removed the military commander-in-chief from the cabinet. This was sequentially followed by downgrading military ranks in the “official order of precedence”; substantial reductions in military pay and perks, including 40 per cent salary cuts for officers; discouraging military officers from giving public speeches; downgrading the position of commander-in-chief to chief of army staff, and preventing top commanders from staying too long as generals, after which (the author says) they were shipped off to far-away countries as envoys. The first army chief, General Cariappa, retired at 53 and was sent as ambassador to Australia. In a move laden with symbolism, Nehru himself shifted into the erstwhile commander-in-chief’s residence, today the iconic Teen Murti Bhavan.

Sadly, this riveting, well-written book, which will undoubtedly be a reference work for future scholars, is marred by numerous glaring inaccuracies. The author is apparently unaware that officers are selected through competitive examinations and interviews, and that the number of Punjabis at any time is purely coincidental, not a reflection of policy. Nor does he factor in, while studying the number of Punjabi army chiefs, that the top job usually goes to whoever is senior-most when a chief retires. He claims General Thapar (a Punjabi) was appointed chief by then defence minister Krishna Menon “so as to block General Thimayya’s pick for the job”. In fact, the outgoing army chief never gets to pick his successor, and Thapar was anyway the senior-most after Thimayya.

In recounting the names of army chiefs “side-lined” as envoys after retirement, the author does not explain why so many chiefs were not sent abroad, but retired quietly in India. In writing on the politics of senior army appointments, Wilkinson has apparently relied heavily on Neville Maxwell’s writing, not the most accurate and impartial of sources. It is hoped that subsequent editions of this book are cleansed of these errors. 


  1. # according to the author, an academic working in america, the picture on the cover is that of soldiers from a cavalry regiment. the 'redcoats' in the picture are men from a ceremonial unit, the president's body guard who are not even responsible for mounting any guard in the rashtrapati bhavan, this being done by a company of the current lal quila garrison infantry battalion, or even security, handled by the delhi police. and the PBG are certainly not cavalry, or armoured corps, or paratroopers, but show troops. in pakistan, burma, nigeria, thailand, indonesia, egypt the army officers are drawn from a much higher socio-economic decile than in india, besides these countries are dominated by a single ethnic group, with a common culture. we are a functioning anarchy, good at parades, seminars, jaw-jaw; mostly incompetent in systems, operations. like our railways, postal services, police stations, the upper echelons merely enjoy the loaves and fishes of office, excel in rent-seeking, while the trains, post offices, police constabulary run on inertia. besides as every embassy in chanakya puri knows, our elites are easily flattered about their intellectual abilities, sophisticated taste in wine, single-malt whisky, going abroad, friends in high places in anglo-sphere, are easily embarrassed, disown anybody who does not speak good angrezi. we have one of the highest rates of fragging, officers being shot in the back. a military coup in india would collapse in its own contradictions, just as not one of our elite academic institutions appear to even enter international rankings, even though their alumni are visible at the best universities in north america, britain, even europe. in a country of more than a billion the top 100,000 have to be outstanding by all standards. the army officers are far lower down, lack credibility, ability, a culture of dependable systems, reliable competence, in many ways akin to the babucracy, living on pre-independence procedures, ideas, even doctrines. nothing unusual, 200 sections of the westminster legislated government of india, act 1935 have been cut and pasted into independent india's constitution, ennacted, 1950. the ops of war manual, advance, still reads as if it were for a column led by red faced blimps advancing into hostile waziristan. and we continue to have world war 2 posts like the brigade major, BM, an appointment that is today only found in the household guards, blues & royals household cavalry in the british army, besides the indian army.

  2. Even till today Indian Army, let alone Pakistani Army, is pretty much a Punjabi dominated army. It's Punjabi dominated because the recruiting officers also happen to be Punjabis. The non Hindi speaking population of India who are almost 2/3rd of the population are grossly under represented. Indian Army was drawn from people or communities who were loyal to the British like the Muslim Punjabis, Sikhs, Rajputs from Rajputana aka Rajasthan or foreigners like Pathans and Gorkhas. This same structure has remained unchanged even after more the 68 years since British left India.
    What is the need for 7 Gorkha Regiments in modern independent India?
    50,000 crores of our defense budget (which is more than combined budget of navy and air force) only goes towards payment of pension. How much of that money goes to Nepal, a country ruled by pro Chinese maoists?
    Isn't it time to address these glaring imbalances in post independence Indian Army?

    1. Its been genetically proven that Pashtuns have 20 percent dravidian, and the Indian Punjabis are 40 percent dravidian, Gurkhas also have some south indian

    2. All Pakistani Pashtuns have Dravidian blood proven by studies.

  3. After the 1857 uprising, British recruiters drew mainly from areas that had not revolted against the British, particularly Punjab, but also the North West Frontier Province, Jammu, Garhwal and the Gurkha areas.

    Ha Ha Ha ... how would they revolt against the British when those areas were not under them ??
    Garhwalis were recruited as part of Gorkhas.
    and what happens to Chandra Singh Negi of Peshawar fame ?? Did the British disband that unit ??

    Must be a joking !! Or as usual presenting cooked facts like others.

  4. The martial races theory is not a myth Mr Shukla.It was propounded by FM Lord Roberts c-in-c Indian Army.His experience of over forty one years in India led him to conclude that the hardier races of the north possessed the necessary physical and moral qualities to take on the Russian threat.If it had been a mere case of rewarding loyalty during the mutiny of 1857 the soldiers of the Madras army,who did not mutiny, would have been retained instead of being reduced at the expense of more martial northern races.These differing soldierly qualities remain largely unaltered.Hence the relevance of the martial race concept in today's army.

  5. @Sher
    If martial races theory had been true then why did these very same races numbering in millions not fight off British colonial occupation of their lands instead of joining their army for few coins, a bar of soap and some food?
    Also why Pakistani Army which consists of almost all martial races, lost all battles against Indian Army which is by and large a mix of both martial and non martial races?

    1. Well Pakistan did take Azad Kashmir and also, the average Pakistani is naturally gun like whereas your whole army of Jatts and Sikhs are only 2% of India's population.

  6. Dear Anonymous,
    They did in fact take on the British.As attested to in the Anglo-Gurkha war of 1814 and the two Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 and 1849.The British developed a healthy respect for their fighting qualities in these wars and consequently recruited them in their army.
    No one doubts the fighting qualities of the Pakistani soldier.Like his Indian counterpart when he is well equipped,trained and led he performs well in battle.

  7. Wonderful! Now lets go ahead and introduce RESERVATION in the Indian Army, just like Para Military and Police forces.

    Strong representation from all parts of the country, all religions, all ethnic groups, and all sub-regions will ensure much higher level of integrity, efficiency, and professionalism ;-)

    It will ensure that the meddlesome, fraternal, political punjabees get the boot and other submissive, docile, conservative, conformal people get an invitation to the Great Indian Army...

  8. Everytime somebody says that Pashtuns are not related to South Asians, it shows how retarded they are, more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than Afghanistan, they have 20 percent Dravidian blood.


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