The involvement of the army for routine civilian tasks is indicative of failure of state institutions and polity’s lack of understanding of civil-military relations
If the understanding of civil-military relations of the present government is an indicator of the maturity of the political establishment, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding. Three instances immediately come to light. First, the tasking of Indian army units to lay yoga mats for the World Yoga Day on June 21st last year when a gust of wind blew away the yoga mats. Second, 250 soldiers of the army were sent for Yoga training under Baba Ramdev in January. It is understood that a total of 1000 soldiers will be trained in yoga by the guru, who in turn will teach yoga in their units to combat stress. Third, the episode involving 120 soldiers of corps of army engineers to build pontoon bridges for the world culture festival held in Delhi from March 11-13 by Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living Foundation.
The first was covered up by the government under the excuse that it was an emergency situation and who better trained and equipped to lay the mats than the disciplined army soldiers. The second and third instances seems even more bizarre. For an event, which had been stridently objected to by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) as it was being conducted on the flood plains of Yamuna, the decision to deploy the army for a private enterprise is nothing short of morally and ethically reprehensible. Reportedly, the NGT gave its nod to the event after slapping a fine of Rs. 5 Crore on the organisers.
In a democratic set-up, civilian control of military is accepted as a matter of fact. Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis elaborates that a military must remain apolitical to maximise its professionalism. By definition, professionalism enhances military political abstinence because it gives soldiers the autonomy to focus on state’s external enemies that fosters apolitical attitudes and behaviour in the officer corps. Huntington terms this as the “objective civilian control.” Civilian control is the independent variable to the dependent variable of military effectiveness. In contrast, “subjective civilian control”, in which the state control politicises the military, thereby weakening its military effectiveness is highly undesirable. Samuel Finer, another scholar takes this argument to another level.
Finer enumerates that professionalisation provides militaries with internal cohesion, distinct ideologies, and a corporate identity as the servants of the permanent state rather than the government of the day. The professional military’s belief in this manifest destiny motivates it to intervene and save the nation whenever it deems that corrupt or incompetent civilian authorities are undermining the national interest—a set of beliefs that clearly attenuates the scope of control by temporary civilian politicians.
It’s just not pro-nationalist socialisation in the army that sets it apart from other organs of the state. An army is more professional than other organs of the state (at all corresponding levels). Aqil Shah, a Pakistani scholar in his book on Army and Democracy concludes that professional development did not depoliticise the Pakistani military. Instead, it aroused the military’s interest in civilian affairs. As the civilian institutions were deemed weak, lazy, incompetent and corrupt, it was natural for the army to save the state. The result is there for all of us—a country that is run by army rather than the other way around. At its extreme manifestation, military in politics can be highly repressive and toxic as numerous examples in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America demonstrate.
Could the Indian army Chief have said no? Going strictly by the rule book, the civilian government has the legitimacy to pass such orders which utilises the expertise of the army. To that extent, the army chief is bound by rules to obey his civilian bosses. But he certainly has the legitimacy of his office to bring it to the notice of his superiors that the army cannot not be used for such mundane tasks. The world yoga day was a government event. The world culture festival, on surface, had the explicit support of the government to a private trust. Even if the private trust uses the resources of the government, it needs to be done for a fee. It has not yet been clarified whether the army was paid for its services. The festival website shows a picture of Sri Sri Ravishankar with the PM and Advani. The President too was an invitee to this event which he eventually declined.
If these were not enough, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) recently invited the veterans to an event in JNU where homage was paid to the martyrs. It was ostensibly to infuse a sense of nationalist pride among the anti-national students of JNU and frame the discourse in binary terms.
Hence we have a double whammy situation here—the civilian bosses in the government use the army as a tool to ‘softly’ propagate its brand of Hindutva whilst the storm troopers in guise of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) cadres openly court the veterans in explicating their brand of nationalism. This government has started to walk on a slippery rope of legitimising all its actions in the name of national interest. One thing may lead to another. It was Yoga day and world cultural festival. Tomorrow, could it be something called World Islamic Congress, or a large event of the Catholic Church? Should the government say no to availing the services of the army? Where do we draw the line. It is now high time for the BJP-RSS combine to decide where and when to put a full stop and prevent further erosion of the institution of ultimate violence—the army.
Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar at Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar
Featured Image: Indian army trucks near Jammu, licensed from creativecommons.org