On 23 April 1961, Lt Gen. P.N. Thapar, then Chief of Army Staff designate, wrote two top secret letters apparently “on the directions of the Prime Minister”, to the outgoing chief, Gen. K.S. Thimayya, and Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen. S.P.P. Thorat. The letters made a series of allegations against both officers, ranging from possible financial impropriety to deliberate undermining of the political leadership. They also asked for a reply for the prime minister’s consideration, “before government decides what further action should be taken”.
While we do not know how the matter was resolved, these letters, only recently made available, indicate two issues of contemporary relevance. The first is the widely acknowledged civil-military discord that preceded that disastrous 1962 war with China. The second, less well known, is the deep division that existed among senior military officers at that time. Then Chief of General Staff Lt Gen. B.M. Kaul, due to his proximity with politicians, allegedly nurtured a band of loyal officers disparagingly called “Kaul’s boys”. This trend divided the officer class. Both these, as well as corruption—a dangerous cocktail for national security—are present in India today.
The dispute over the Sixth Pay Commission’s recommendations has left a bitter legacy between civilian principals in the defence ministry and the military. There are two vastly differing perspectives on this matter—civilian officials argue that the chiefs of staff demurred on a previously agreed deal on the Pay Commission; later, by making their disagreement public, they forced the government to give in to their fresh demands. This, the officials claim, created a dangerous precedence and undermined civilian control. The narrative commonly accepted within the military, on the other hand, portrayed the episode as one where devious bureaucrats conspired to ensure that the services got a raw deal; the chiefs rightly took a strong stance to prevent this. Regardless of the truth, which in such cases is usually somewhere in between, this spat has vitiated the working relationship between civilians and the military. There have been tentative attempts to repair some of the damage. But an honest debate on civil-military relations is long overdue.
The Sukhna land scam, followed by the Adarsh society scam, revealed two dangerous trends within the military—a divided officer class and allegations of corruption. To a large extent, this is due to the controversial legacy of Gen. Deepak Kapoor as Chief of Army Staff. Three issues have cast aspersions on his tenure: the unprecedented shifting of Lt Gen. H.S. Panag from Northern to Central Command under questionable circumstances; continued support for his military secretary, Lt Gen. Avdesh Prakash, despite the latter’s implication in an inquiry into the Sukhna scam; and involvement in the Adarsh society scam.
However, focusing only on Kapoor’s tenure would be unfair as these episodes are indicative of larger trends within the military. First, favouritism based on parochial grounds of regimental or cadre loyalty—what Admiral Arun Prakash has termed “tribalism”—is an increasingly common and worrisome phenomenon. This has been perpetuated by the actions of previous chiefs who have initiated policies favouring their parochial interests. Second, divisions within senior military officers have led to groupism or targeted vendettas against junior officers seen to be in the ‘other’ camp. Finally, the considerable devolution of financial powers to military commanders has led to increasingly common charges of corruption and misuse of public funds.
Actions of a few senior officers should not tarnish the image of the entire military—which still largely adheres to the ideals of honour, service and patriotism. There are steps that can be taken to uphold the image of the military. First, all officers above the one star rank in all three services, numbering around 2,000, should in a transparent and public manner declare their assets every two years to their respective vigilance directorates. Similar measures should be implemented by officials in all ministry of defence bureaucracies and in defence public sector units. Second, senior officers have to enact a code of conduct for themselves, just like the one they impose on soldiers serving in the field. This should focus on ethical, financial and professional issues. For instance, senior officers should resist accepting, at least for a period of two years, post-retirement jobs that are a potential conflict of interest. This includes government-appointed positions like governors, or executive positions in public and private sector units. Instead, they should accept positions related either to education or philanthropy, like welfare for ex-servicemen or war widows. Finally, policies and norms should be formulated to guard against parochial interests and ad-hoc, personality- driven policy making which divides the officer class.
It is not enough, as the three service chiefs have done, to issue bland statements from the National Defence Academy. Instead they must recall the academy’s prayer that they once recited daily: calling for the strength to “do the harder right than the easier wrong”. In hindsight, despite our non-existent and immature declassification policy, we are now aware about how civil-military tensions and a divided officer class contributed to the disaster of 1962. To prevent another disaster, it is time for the defence minister, his ministry and the services to engage in an honest, critical self-examination.
Anit Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org