The use of military veterans to portray nationalism for achieving political objectives has dangerous ramifications for civil-military relations in a liberal democratic society like India and must be avoided at any cost
The use of military symbols to project nationalism by the present government has dangerous ramifications. In trying to portray Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid (the case is still sub judice) and some other students as anti-national, the government, aided by a section of the TV news networks, unfortunately used Lance Naik Hanumanthappa’s heroic death due to avalanche in Siachen glacier. The obvious aim was to steer the discourse in a binary framework: national versus anti-national or simply, us versus them. Ex servicemen have been commandeered to be the torchbearers of patriotism and nationalism by inviting them to meetings at the JNU. Prima facie, there seems to be nothing wrong with inviting veterans to the JNU. What is wrong is the brand of competitive nationalism that is being imposed and exploiting our soldiers to do the dirty job. The social media has been actively used for trolls and counter trolls. In an event held in JNU by ABVP on February 24, senior veterans were invited to speak to the university administration. Reportedly, they asked for a memorial to be built in the campus and also volunteered to donate a tank. The latest to join the fray is a 2 minute video titled ‘Freedom of Action?’ directed by Vivek Joshi.
The title is quite provocative and asks probing question from the audience. Two soldiers are on guard with their guns trained at the enemy across the border when they hear some anti-national slogans coming from own side. At this, one of them turns around and aims his gun in the direction of sloganeering (although, no one is visible). The other soldier laconically tells his comrade that killing them is useless, as he would be killing only the men and not the ideology. To which, the second one replies that a man who has broken his relationship with his mother has broken all his relationships. And then, goes on to take aim. The message is very clear. Army can be the symbol of extreme form of nationalism and it will be used to eliminate whoever is deemed anti-national. Getting the veterans involved in student politics that is within the ambit of state is nothing short of absurdity. This rings an ominous warning and brings us to the complex debate of civil-military relations.
The Indian armed forces are modeled on the British system. The civilian control and oversight over the military is taken for granted in such a set-up. The military in a liberal democratic society must remain strictly apolitical for it to remain professional. Towards this, the officer corps plays an important role, for they are the decision makers of an arm of the state which is capable of utmost violence. Huntington, a highly acknowledged American political scientist terms this as the ‘objective civilian control’ which is the most desirable for effective civil-military balance of power. This maximises military professionalism, and hence security of the state. The military’s and as a corollary, the officers’ role in politics is non-existent. The civilian control is the independent variable to the dependent variable of military effectiveness. This is in stark to contrast to ‘subjective control’ where the civilian assertion has dangerous portends of deprofessionalising the military which might ultimately result in a coup.
One doesn’t need to go far in the subcontinent. Pakistan is a standing example where intrusive interference by Jinnah involved military in politics immediately after independence. Within a decade, the military overthrew the civilian government. There has been no looking back since then. Bangladesh too has had an uneasy relationship with the military wherein the founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated in a bloody military coup within a few years of its independence. Myanmar has been ruled by its military for the better part of its existence. The complex of civil-military relations becomes a dangerous cocktail when mixed with religion. A benign flirting with religion at the beginning, subsequently leads to massive inroads into the vitals of military effectiveness and competence.
From its inception, military has been associated with masculinity, valour, and defending the territorial integrity at any cost. The trouble starts when these values get mixed with symbols of religious identity masquerading as nationalism in a politically charged atmosphere with passions running high. A large standing army can be a beast— it can be extremely powerful and strong enough in thwarting an external aggression. By the same token, it is also used to quell internal strife and insurgencies by remaining purely apolitical and non-partisan. At the same time, it should be subservient enough to the civil authority and not become a frankenstein monster. Till now, by all available evidence, only a minuscule section of retired personnel have visibly showed signs of aligning with the ideology of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra. In contrast, the police in uniform has demonstrated its partisanship by looking the other way when violence broke out in the Delhi High Court premises. It must be borne in mind by the political masters in charge that the military has an almost paternal relationship with its veteran community. The politicians are only playing with fire by involving the veterans to realise before long that the serving officer corps too is afflicted with this. To achieve their ends, the stormtroopers in the form of foot soldiers of ABVP are being released as trial balloons. Once this genie of ‘military in politics’ is out of the bottle, it will be dangerous to control.
Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar
Featured Image : Military unit in training by Elizabeth Anderson, licensed by creativecommons.org