The suicide of retired Subedar Ram Kishan Grewal and its aftermath are stark reminders of the crisis in our civil-military relations. For decades, we have prided ourselves on the fact that India was the rare post-colonial state that ensured democratic control of the military. After all, hadn’t we exorcised the spectre of military coups that haunted so many countries? Any suggestion—even in academic settings—that this might not be the only way to measure the health of civil-military relations or that there were some disturbing trends was apt to be dismissed as alarmist. Unfortunately, the rot has gone so deep that it can no longer be ignored or denied. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that almost everyone concerned seems recklessly prepared to destroy the institutional fabric of civil-military relations in pursuit of narrower ends.
That the leaders of the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party would seek to capitalise on the death of the former soldier is perhaps unsurprising. Isn’t this politics as usual? Didn’t Rahul Gandhi visit the University of Hyderabad in the wake of Rohit Vemula’s suicide? The short answer is: No. When it comes to the military, politics cannot be as usual. Once we begin to sway the strongest coercive institution in the State for partisan political ends, we can never be sure that it will not end up coercing the political system as a whole. Principles apart, there is the breathtaking cynicism in the Congress’ fervour over an issue on which it tarried for years.
The defence minister is understandably upset over the politicisation of the One-Rank One-Pension (OROP) award. But it is worth recalling that the BJP politicised the issue in the first place. OROP was a key theme of the party’s campaign ahead of the 2014 general elections. One of the first meetings addressed by Narendra Modi after his anointment as the party’s prime ministerial candidate was to a huge gathering of ex-servicemen where he pledged support for OROP. Worse, the BJP gave a ticket to a former army chief, General VK Singh, who had taken the government of the day to Supreme Court and subsequently rewarded him with a ministerial berth. It is sad but not surprising that Singh should have observed that Subedar Grewal was a Congressman.
For all the hymns and hosannas to the armed forces from the ruling party, the government’s handling of problems pertaining to them has been tardy — to put it mildly. The award of OROP was a year-and-a-half in the coming and the delay injected doubts about the sincerity of the government. Even as some ex-servicemen groups continued to contest the fine print of the OROP decision, the government found itself at loggerheads with the armed forces over the implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission.
This was eminently avoidable. No sooner had the commission submitted its report in December 2015, than the chiefs of staff had written to the defence minister pointing out several problems. The suggestions made in the services’ memorandum to the commission had been brushed aside. Over the following months, the chiefs reportedly wrote to the minister several times and even raised the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Still, the formal notification did not address the main demands of the armed forces. Although a full-blown crisis has been averted for now, the issues under contention remain in play. Reports about a recent ministry of defence order on rank equivalence between military and civilian personnel have added to the impression that the government is not walking its talk.
All this has deepened the military’s distrust of the bureaucracy. To be sure, this is an old problem. Fifty years ago, the study team on defence matters set up by the first administrative reforms commission noted the military’s concern that civilian control amounted to “civil service control”. Still, the degree of distrust prevailing now is extraordinary. The level of discontent can be gauged from the fact that the chiefs felt compelled to issue a statement to the effect that they were satisfied with assurances extended by the defence minister on the Seventh Pay Commission.
That said, the narrative of grievance that has now gripped the military is also skewed and selective. Surprising though it may sound, our military has a wider domain of practical independence than in most other mature democracies. The bureaucracy only controls a limited sliver of military matters. Besides, the military has managed to have its way on a range of issues from demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to the grant of permanent commission to women officers. More worryingly, the military’s institutional identity does not seem strong enough to stanch the corrosive forces of resentment and envy. No all-volunteer professional military should have recourse to the argument that it is performing an extraordinary but under-appreciated role for the country. Nor can it bristle against criticism in the public sphere. Ex-servicemen groups also have to share the blame for raising such sentiments to the point of clamour — not to mention their ignominious role in bringing partisan politics into military lives.
It is about the time the political leadership stepped into the breach. At the combined commanders’ conference last December, Modi had declared that “reforms in senior defence management” was “an area of priority” for him. The government has a range of sensible proposals to choose from and make a start. There is no room for complacency or procrastination.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal