Military reviewing long-running traditions: Calls them “colonial practices” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 21 September 2022

Military reviewing long-running traditions: Calls them “colonial practices”

The RSS agenda of renaming units, places and monuments is pushing generals into making clear their political choices


By Ajai Shukla

21st Sept 2022


Many Indian men and women who join the armed forces are motivated less by patriotic fervour and more by the military lifestyle – one that is marked by tradition, pomp and splendour, with procedures, practices and drills that are very similar to armies, navies and air forces around the world.


India’s military, which was a British-led force till the time of independence, inherited the traditions and professional practices of the British armed services – with marked similarities such as navy captains “going down with the ship”; and infantry attacks on strong enemy positions being led by a junior officer – this band of brave-hearts called “the forlorn hope.” 


India’s army, however, is considering “doing away with British colonial legacy”, for which “it is essential to move away from the archaic and ineffective prac(tice).


In Army Headquarters (AHQ) on Wednesday, the Adjutant General (AG) Lieutenant General Bansi Ponnappa chaired a discussion on whether to do away, or retain, a range of “colonial” practices and traditions. These are listed out in a document that has been reviewed by Business Standard.


Under discussion on Wednesday were “customs and traditions”, army uniforms and accoutrements and regulations in general. This is unlikely to go down well with the military, in which soldiers, sailors and airmen take enormous pride in their uniforms.


Also being reviewed for change are the names of buildings, roads and establishments named after foreigners. This bears echoes of the renaming of roads in Delhi, such as Aurangzeb Road.


Senior generals say this drive to “Indian-ise” the Indian military has its roots in the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has asked the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to replace colonial symbols, practices and traditions with “Indian” ones.


This marks the end of an unwritten compact between India’s political class and its apolitical military: This agreement has always granted the military its own functional autonomy and the freedom to fight in the manner it deems fit. In exchange, the military excludes itself from the political realm, leaving the elected political leadership to compete for power and to govern and administer the country.


This political bargain is rooted in the concept of “objective control” of the military, theorised by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. That is based on the notion that allowing the military its own functional space dis-incentivises it from interfering in the political realm, creating a professional and apolitical military.


Huntington’s alternative, which is the practice of “subjective control”, assumes that a military is inherently inclined to be political and is best kept out of the political space by actively tying it down to alternative realms.


Also under examination on Wednesday were tried and tested leadership practices, such as the “grant of Honorary Commissions”. This creates the space for junior commissioned officers (JCOs), who have been promoted on merit from the junior most recruit’s rank, to be granted an honorary commission – the equivalent of officer rank. This has proven to be a powerful motivational tool for JCOs.


The coffin of a soldier or leader killed in the line of duty has been traditionally carried during her ceremonial funeral on a gun carriage. Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was carried on the weekend on a 123-year-old gun carriage. But the government now wants this “colonial practice” reviewed.


Also under review is the practice of affiliating Indian Army units with foreign (mainly British) units, based on hard battles fought together before independence. Also being reviewed are pre-independence “battle honours” that the British awarded to Indian battalions and regiments that subdued “Indian states and freedom”. This has been discussed in the past, with Indian officers reasoning that gallantry is gallantry in the execution of legitimate orders, irrespective of who was at the receiving end.


Also under scrutiny is India’s affiliation with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which pays for the upkeep of cemeteries where soldiers from various countries – including Indians – were laid to rest after being killed in battle. These include the Kohima Cemetery in Nagaland, which houses the remains of soldiers killed in what a panel of eminent historians has voted as the most consequential battle of World War II. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has always paid for keeping these cemeteries in perfect condition. India will have to decide whether it can do the same.


Also being reassessed are: “Officers’ mess procedures/ traditions and customs”. In 2020, the government invoked “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) to halt the supply of tax-free foreign liquor to officers through the Canteen Stores Department (CSD). Officers now fear the colonial bogey will be raised to further restrict liquor supply.


  1. # well let's hope they will do away with golf courses on state owned land, the vast acreage made available to the military for needs of training, constructed by military engineers, using soldiers toiling in 'working parties', maintained by enlisted men. and much like the untouchables, lowest castes toiling on building sites to put up magnificent temples found that once the shrine had been consecrated they were excluded from even approaching the edifices. likewise tennis courts, squash courts, and similar sports facilities open to civilians provided they are the spouse of the commissioned worthy or progeny. and enlisted men not playing polo; if they are good enough to ride in a gruelling and risky three day event then they could not be found wanting in polo. and officers desiring to play polo should be maintaining their own privately owned ponies, rather than scrounging on military chargers. for the gora sahibs polo ponies, ponies for pig sticking were always their own animals; winston churchill's 'my early days' [in bangaloor] will substantiate this. none of the glossy dark bays from the stables of the blues and royals will ever be found at hurlingham, ranelegh, roehampton - the household cavalry blacks are meant for ceremonial duties that require a calm, placid temperament.
    will they do away with higher, more generous scales of groceries for commissioned officers vis-a-vis enlisted ranks, and free groceries for commissioned ranks is a travesty unique to indiya. in the british military, french, US american, german, japanese, australian, all ranks pay for their tucker from the cookhouse except when on FTX and actual deployment. those who opt to mess out and not eat on post receive a basic allowance for subsistence; commissioned officers receive a lesser amount than enlisted personnel.
    rowing is an upper class sport across the world, associated with elite universities, expensive private schools, exclusive clubs, boat houses, regattas. yet in the indian military rowing is left to enlisted men, jawans. there is not a single officer in competitive rowing, neither NDA, nor IMA or naval academy has a presence in rowing championships. our officer corps prefer smack sparrow and poodle faking. similarly rock climbing is a serious upper class sport [oxford, cambridge, st stephen's delhi. there may be indian military officers in mountaineering but none in rock climbing [el capitan, yosemite]. so much for the much boasted about adventure sports in the fauj.

  2. # will they do away with caste based soldiering. to deny a place in the president's body guard to all other than sikh jats, hindu jats, rajputs is a denial of a citizen's constitutional rights, and the obligation of the state to abide by the constitution of india, 1950. similarly denying a sikh from enlisting in the sikh regiment if his parentage is that of the formerly untouchable castes of sikhs, or menial castes of sikhs, exception being unless he is to be employed for cleaning lavatories of the sikh battalion should have been corrected decades ago, especially as such practices are contrary to the sikh's own religious teachings, scriptures. likewise separate regiments for chhettri nepalese who supposedly will not eat along with gurkhas and hence are enlisted only in 9 GR. likewise the apartheid for rais, limbus so that they can remain apart from gurungs, thapas. there is no such state sanctioned caste prejudice in singapoor's gurkha contingent, nor in they british army's gurkha brigade, or its royal gurkha rifles battalions.
    to not have a gujarat regiment is a colonial hangover. will the changes include a gujarat rifles, or gujarat light infantry. pakistan did not have a sind regiment, bhutto of sind corrected that in 1980. today that regiment has 30 battalions and a tank battalion too, 40 horse [sind]. to deny patels, parikhs, desais, modis, shahs the right to enlist as jawans needs to be put to an end. guajrati rajputs [saurashtra] have the option to serve in the rajput regiment, former untouchables enlist in the mahar regiment. modhs, mehtas, shahs have been discriminated against, disparaged as not martial but commercial.
    and most important - will the regimental pandit, granthi be allowed commissioned ranks, place in the officers mess. in all armies, britain, US of A, australia, canada, france, germany members of the chaplains service are commissioned officers. the hindu pandit, sikh granthi in britain, US of A currently are captains, majors. pre 1947 sahibs had christian priests in the officers mess but hindu and sikh priests were at best only warrant officers, viceroy's commissioned officers.
    will we do away with the absurdity of gentlemen cadets. gentlemen cadets were distinguished as apart from officer cadets as the former paid for their training at RMA sandhurst, woolwich, IMA dehra dun. they had to buy their own kit, including the field service marching order, drill order, full dress, mess undress [blue patrols], and had their personal side arms from the better gunsmiths adhering to the service calibre to take service ball ammunition. swords were officer pattern from wilkinson's. officer cadets were provided all requirements of kit from the quartermaster's store, and they did not have to pay for the training. at USMA west point, sandhurst, saumur ecoles military, there are no gentlemen cadets, or lady cadets - all are officer cadets. and all cadets clean the cadet lavatories themselves, polish their leather, shine the brass themselves - there are no servitors. will our cadets learn how polish rings on the toe-cap, buff the badges, brass.

  3. Every military has to go through a reform based on current situation not some 200 year old colonial hangover. Our generation probably enjoyed the uniqueness provided by western standards of military life because life in India at the time was out of touch with rest of the world. Today, Indian youth is well informed, modern and patriotic. It cares little about our “colonial hangover” and more about Indian identity based on revitalization of our ancient history.


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