Politicization of Armed Forces – A Perspective


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

“Old soldiers never die; Never die, never die; Old soldiers never die; They simply fade away” was the soldier’s folklore song of bygone era. “Apolitical” nature of armed forces flows out of the British soldier’s folklore song.

At the same time, Clausewitz most famous aphorism is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Naturally, it represents the contrarian view of inextricable inter wining of politics and armed forces for eternity.

Veterans are not a monolithic group. Many fault lines divide them. Majority of Armed Forces veterans simply fade away as ordinary citizens in society. Some among them air their views in writings about national security issues, particularly with regard to state of modernization of armed forces, their status, pay, perks and other welfare issues.

There are few others who vociferously champion the cause of armed forces on the visual media.  Also, there are others who participate in debates as panelists on partisan political lines on visual media channels. Of course, those residing in Delhi and its neighboring areas comprising of various groups also participate in protests at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

Having “toed the line of political masters of the day whilst in uniform like caged parrots”, quite a few among them roar as “tigers” in front of the visual media or during “Jantar Mantar” protest rallies merely for the sake of photo opportunities – more sound and fury; less substance.

Ask such veterans as to how many among them “voiced their concerns” whilst in uniform and resigned from service in protest for non-acceptance of their professional views. By exception only, one may find someone raising their hands.

What is the difference between political party leadership groups going to the President to present their contrarian views with the latest armed forces veteran’s initiative of writing letter to the President, that includes tainted seniors like Gen Kapoor of Adahrsh Housing Society scam, as one of the signatories.

Viewed in such a wide variety of veterans with divergent views, the claims of miniscule veterans group to the President to refrain politicians from “politicization of armed forces” represents one view, but not necessarily the majority view.

Ipso facto, the “Old folklore Song” theme “They simply fade away” is no longer followed by the armed forces veterans due to divergent views and partisan leanings.

Nonetheless, if armed forces professionals want to be truly apolitical, they can use individual channels to convey their views to the President instead of voicing their concerns as a high-level group and more importantly circulating the letter in the media even before its receipt was acknowledged by the Presidents Secretariat. By doing so as a group, they have “willy nilly” stirred up a ‘political’ controversy going against the “apolitical nature’ of armed forces.

Surely, such moves of writing letters to the President on sensitive political issues in the midst of a highly no-holds barred electoral battle has only produced more noise than any worthwhile end result.  By doing so, they have only further denigrated and compromised the stature of present serving Chiefs:  “Spineless Wonders” for their command down the line.

Let me briefly review in outline the politicization of Indian Armed Forces over the past 70 years. Perforce, the need is for a nuanced view devoid of partisan affiliations for wider civilian audience.

Politicization of armed forces is not a recent phenomenon but dates back to post August 1947 days. Politicization started with supersession’s at the Chief’s level during Nehru’s regime to include:  Gen K S Thimayya superseding Gen Sant Singh and Kulwant Singh; and most disturbing elevation of Lt Gen B M Kaul, Army Service Corps Officer of Kashmiri lineage, to command the Corps in Tawan-Tsela Sectors during late 1959-1962 period that ended in the Himalayan Debacle 1962.

Furthermore, politicization of armed forces continued during the Indira Ghandy regime to include: Gen T P Riana superseding Gen P S Bhagat, the first Indian officer to win a Victoria Cross by giving a short extension to Gen Bewoor; and, Gen A S Vaidya superseding Gen S K Sinha (for his opposition to Operation Blue Star) and Gen N C Rawlley.

Next, recent examples of supersession’s are recounted to include: Gen Bipin Rawat superseded 2 Gens: Praveen Bakshi & PM Hariz – Dec 2016;  and  Gen Suhag’s elevation before the election results in 2014.   In the Navy, Admiral Robin Dhowan superseded Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha recently. In 2000, the Naval chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, was dismissed for defying the Government’s appointment of a three star Admiral over his choice.

Less known was the politicization of the armed forces during the Bansi Lal and Mulayam Singh Yadav as Defense Ministers, which was grudgingly accepted as the norm that consolidated the trend.

No need also to flog endlessly the Seniority vs. operational professional criteria. In democracy, the choice of selection of Chiefs is the exclusive right of the political leadership of the day. The decision must favor demonstrated operational performance over seniority, which is determined by numbers at the time of graduating as commissioned officers based on order of merit as a cadet.

Let me highlight that the responsibility for the creeping politicization in the armed forces lies squarely at the door steps of the three services what with “Old Boys Net–Beret and Belt-caste and creed” deciding promotions. Naturally, those left out of promotions despite operational merit and awards take recourse to political and bureaucratic interventions. Ultimately they constitute bulk of the “disgruntled veterans lot”.  Also those who fail to get plum appointments as post retirements rehabilitation in top jobs constitute the ‘sulking lot’ instead of gracefully fading away.

In retrospect, all the three Service Chiefs since 1947 cannot be, therefore, absolved of their share of responsibility for the current state of politicization, particularly of Veterans due to parochial affiliations and considerations.  General’s hobnobbing with the political leadership of the day or political leaders placing their favorites in position of power is quite natural and normal.

In the past, no one asked — and no reason was given — for extension or supersession at all levels. Today, there are three levels of redressal of grievances – internal at the Chief’s level, Armed Forces Tribunal and the Courts.

Most critical it is to accept that armed forces are the “Coercive Apparatus” of the State. In the context of Hybrid Warfare today, antiquated-cum-classical thinking of “maintaining apolitical stance” relevant to “Conventional Hot War scenarios” does not and cannot hold good. Accept and admit all alike that when employed in counter insurgency and even counter terrorism roles, politicization of armed forces is but natural.

Following Police Action in September 1948 in Hyderabad, army was employed to quell the armed Dallams of the Communist movement – political and military environment. Followed the unending involvement since 1955 in counter insurgency role starting with Naga Insurgency: socio-politico-economic-military extraordinarily complex and dynamic environment. Today, armed forces are overstretched in almost all “Hot Crisis” situations, particularly in hybrid warfare in J & K.

Deeply engaged in such politico-military environments, politicization of armed forces personnel has taken place at all levels. After all, the senior hierarchy has been repeatedly bending to the whims and fancies of the political leadership of the day: IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka which ab initio was doomed to fail, since it was against military professional wisdom after USAs Vietnam debacle – “Big Armies and Big Money” cannot quell insurgency in alien lands.

Add to it another significant issue, that is, the day armed forces accepted to function under “Unified Commands” by local Chief Ministers, they surrendered to political leadership diktats and consequent politicization.

Why did the senior hierarchy surrender their status by accepting condescending subordinate roles that ultimately resulted in lowering their status below their civilian counterparts? The answer is simple. Go back to the Clausewitz’s aphorism “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Its consequence or fallout is politicization, which is unavoidable.

Furthermore, how many veterans can lay claims to “thumping the table” during army commander’s conferences and fearlessly projecting their views on national security issues and armed forces personnel affairs? How many can also claim that they tendered resignations against cumulative build up of politicization of armed forces on political partisan lines?

If today, the armed forces modernization has been shelved into background since Bofors Scam breakout, all those Veterans, particularly those in the highest ranks, are squarely responsible by remaining mute on such vital issues whilst in Uniform.

Also, had the Veterans jointly represented to the President and going public on the political heirachy’s absolute neglect of procuring state-of-the-art weapons and equipment, one would have credited them with yeoman service to their serving brothers-in-arms.

Not, but not the least is the issue of “free hand to armed forces” operating in Line of Control in eye ball to eye ball confrontation on the borders or in counter insurgency/terrorism scenarios. Recently, Lt Gen Hooda, former Northern Army Commander and present Advisor to the Congress Party on National Security Affairs, is on record highlighting that “he had full freedom to employ his forces”. If it is true, why did he not allow his Rashtriya Rifles units to respond with full freedom against the terrorist-inspired stone pelters?

Talk to any tactical level functionaries of bygone past upto late 1990’s, they would invoke the adage that “fight with one hand tied to the back”. Against the stone pelters, the adage can be refined as “fight with both hands tied to the back”.

Holistically viewed, such statements of a miniscule group of 150-veterans need not be viewed as representing the full body of veterans. Admit such groups of veterans that their letters can only demoralize the serving soldiers in ‘hot crisis spots’ whose morale is directly linked to confidence in their higher commanders and their sacrifices would get recognized by the larger part of the society.

After all, doubting the effectiveness of ‘surgical strikes’ across the borders and asking them to provide proof/evidence is surely detrimental to the morale of the front line soldiers who continue to brave their lives in the service of the nation. Some veteran’s adopted ‘muted’ mode instead of rallying behind their serving brothers when opposition political parties doubted integrity of forces over their versions.

Veterans may like to appreciate that that political leaders in pursuit of power have utter disregard to ethical norms. Jockeying for power by self-centric actors, political leadership is taking the society to self destructive anarchy and chaos. In pursuit of their self-centric obsession, they hardly care for either truly pressing issues of human survival and national security. What they are best or adept at is at instigating and provoking people to abandon other party’s affiliations and favor them in the current “battle of the ballot box”. Subsequently, abandon them for the following 5-years.

If the ruling regime responds politically to recognize braves courage and valor, it is certainly a political leadership function that cannot be denigrated in public as ‘politicization”.

In sum, veterans are today divided on partisan political lines affiliated to various party groups that can be seen at “Jantar Mantar” agitations which prove cumulative politicization on partisan lines.

My sincere appeal to the distinguished body of veterans is simple: Stop getting involved in avoidable political controversies if one is truly apolitical. In particular, those veterans who have joined the bandwagons of political parties and pouring vicious diatribe, must realize that such actions does not augur well to their own stature.

Also, their involvement in such political controversies would automatically result in getting branded as partisan political groups whose fallout ultimately lowers the image and prestige of armed forces as truly apolitical – last bastion of mutilated or messy democracy.