It is to the great credit of Indian civilian and military leaders and to our burgeoning democracy that the concept of civilian control of the military has been maintained in independent India. Unfortunately, its exact contours still remain unclear, leading to unavoidable incidents of civil-military confrontation.

The Armed Forces argue that while they accept political control, “bureaucratic interference" is unacceptable. That much of the civilian bureaucracy—particularly the Indian Administrative Service—is seen as conniving and scheming, concerned only with furthering its parochial interests, further inflames the Armed Forces’ sense of injustice. As seen in the continuing imbroglio on the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, it has resulted in a confrontation between the bureaucracy and the military brass.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Therefore, the argument that civilian control of military is restricted to politicians displays a blithe ignorance of basic tenets of public policy as well as the provisions of the Indian Constitution which provides an explicit constitutional basis to bureaucratic services—India’s parliamentary form of government is enmeshed intractably with the support of the civil bureaucracy.

In a similar vein, the bureaucratic role in national defence planning cannot be overemphasized. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies argues that the antagonistic attitude of the Armed Forces towards civilian bureaucracies reflects a failure to appreciate that civil professionals provide “deep expertise, institutional memory, continuity across administrations, and seasoned perspectives on policies and programs" to the defence department. National security requires action on multiple levels: military, diplomacy, internal security, economy and civic action. Therefore, it is plainly wrong to claim that national security can be restricted only to the military—rather, it requires support from bureaucrats working under multiple ministries.

What is required is a fundamental review of the civil-military relationship based on the following premise: It must be recognized that the area of activity encompassing defence planning, defence preparedness, defence administration and defence management—in short, the discourse on national security—is distinct from the technical aspects of military operations and military training. The bureaucracy has no role to play in the latter while the military commanders, as distinct from military advisers, have no statutory powers in the former.

The Arun Singh committee had recognized the need for closer cooperation between civil and military bureaucracies. In his proposal, the defence secretary would function as the “principal defence adviser" to the defence minister, while the chief of defence staff would function as the “principal military adviser", and both would enjoy an equivalent status in terms of their working relationship.

For service chiefs to be integrated in the institutionalized government set-up (as advocated by the Arun Singh committee), their role must be redefined as military advisers with no operational command of the Armed Forces. While the nomenclature of the erstwhile commanders-in-chief of the three defence services was changed to the respective service chiefs of staff in 1955, they continued to function as operational commanders of their services. In the US, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (JCS) is the principal military adviser to the government. However, neither he nor other members of JCS exercise any military command over the forces. Rather than political machinations of bureaucrats, as alleged in many quarters, it is this failure to separate the advisory and executive functions of the chiefs of staff—whether by design or providence—which has denied the military brass?a?rightful place as professional military advisers to the Indian government.

Indubitably, there have been instances where the administrative actions of the bureaucracy have adversely affected the operational readiness of the services. A strong political leadership, besides a definite charter of duties, is needed to prevent civil-military conflict.

Rather than banking on the good fortune of possessing sagacious political and military leaders, the emphasis, as rightly highlighted in the Constitution, has to be on establishing institutionalized systems and processes for operational and administrative control of the Armed Forces by civil leadership. It is high time the Indian state displayed the political will to undertake structural reform of its higher defence set-up. This, besides fulfilling the dreams of our Constitution makers, will also provide the military leadership and bureaucracy their rightful place in formulating an integrated and coordinated national security strategy.

Sushant K. Singh and Rohit Pradhan are associated with Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs and national security. Comments are welcome at