In 1905, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon resigned as the British viceroy of India. The reason—his feud with Lord Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army, over civilian control of the Armed Forces. Kitchener was a war hero and held emotional sway over British voters. London, obviously, asked Curzon to go.
A similar scene is now being re-enacted in a democratic India. The three defence services, in unison, have refused to accept the orders of the Union cabinet on the Sixth Central Pay Commission award. The three service chiefs cited “the larger interest of the services” in an open communication to the rank and file.
The defence services have two main grouses against the current pay award: reduction in status of military officers and lower pay than their civilian counterparts. While the pay commission and the government have gone by existent parities, the services refer to the extant Warrant of Precedence. The issue of salaries of lieutenant colonels is being projected as the main bone of contention by the services. Yet, this ignores the fact that while a lieutenant colonel used to lead a battalion of nearly 1,000 soldiers three decades ago, today, he only leads a sub-unit of 150. We have come to this pass due to a lack of appetite—both among civilians and among the Armed Forces—for fundamental military reforms that would make the profile of the Armed Forces consistent with the rest of the economy. At the heart of this unfortunate controversy lies the fact that the government has gone about dealing with the issues of military pay and procurement independently, without considering them within the overall context of root-branch reform of the Armed Forces.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The arguments of the Armed Forces are often couched in emotional terms—unstable family life, staying at far-off places and risk to life. While these are valid, the pay commission has already considered these aspects. It has allocated an additional component called military service pay to the members of the Armed Forces. Tax-free liberal compensatory allowances for postings at Siachen and other difficult locations stand doubled after the pay commission report. In contrast, paramilitary forces and civilian officials working in corresponding areas do not enjoy these benefits.
It is understandable that the Armed Forces should think they deserve more. However, instead of using the institutional mechanism for redressal, they have indulged in a game of political brinkmanship, raising demands publicly through the media.Ex-servicemen, who have no locus standi in the matter, have unconscionably taken up the cudgels as a public front for the defence services.
After announcing a ministerial committee headed by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee to address their demands, the Union government asked the service chiefs to notify the new pay. In direct defiance of government, the defence services delayed the notification. And far from nipping the tendency in the bud several months ago, defence minister A.K. Antony let the situation drift to this extent. This precedent cannot be a good sign for civil-military relations at a time when India has an acute need to rethink and modernize its Armed Forces.
India is an exception among the countries that gained independence from colonial rule in the last century. It has not experienced a spell of military rule due to the vision of its founding fathers, who devised an effective model for civilian control of the military. The Armed Forces, as envisaged in the Constitution, are a technical arm carrying out the policies of the government, responsible to the Union cabinet through the defence minister and its bureaucratic staff. In any modern democracy, the military commanders—those who actually have operational control of troops—are outside the governmental system, while there are some uniformed members in the government in the role of specialist military advisers. Parliament, through the Union cabinet and the defence ministry, has the last word on military policy. That our parliamentarians generally do not take too deep an interest in defence policy should not come in the way of appreciating the value of ensuring that civilian control of the Armed Forces remains robust and unchallenged.
The recent acts of the service chiefs threaten this prudent constitutional balance. While the government must make every effort to address the genuine grievances of the Armed Forces, they must also accept that the Union government has the final authority on this matter. The Union government must rein in the service chiefs and ensure the sanctity of the established civil-military relationship. Indeed, Mukherjee’s group of ministers would do even better to seize this opportunity to set the ball rolling on the comprehensive reform of India’s defence services. Respected voices in the strategic establishment have been calling for a blue ribbon commission that would conduct a comprehensive review of Indian defence policy. The unfortunate incidents of recent weeks are an urgent reminder of the need to heed that call.
Sushant K. Singh and Nitin Pai are associated with Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org