Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Give military autonomy



Ashok K Mehta

Hijacked by the media, considerable high drama has surrounded the Sukna land case involving senior Generals of the Indian Army. The turnaround by Chief of Army Staff Gen Deepak Kapoor in ordering disciplinary proceedings against his Military Secretary, Lt Gen Avadhesh Prakash, who had originally been served a show cause notice under the rubric of administrative action, has also attracted some attention. The last minute switch in Gen Kapoor’s decision was prompted by an advisory issued by Defence Minister AK Antony. Both these events reflect strains in civil-military relations and the progressive diminution of the office of the COAS.

Further illustrating the malaise are three recent professional comments by Gen Kapoor on limited war under nuclear overhang; two-front war doctrine; and integration of armies in Nepal. These valid observations were curiously not supported by the Government. Mr Antony should have been more forthright in defending his and the country’s COAS and not let the flak fly at him from abroad. After all, the first two comments relate to accepted Government policy and should have been upheld.

In 2001, after the terrorist attack on Parliament House, at the traditional Army Day Press briefing the then COAS, Gen Padmanabhan, in response to a question about a nuclear first strike by Pakistan, replied that India’s response will be such that Pakistan will cease to exist. The furore created in Pakistan forced National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra to ask Defence Minister George Fernandes to issue a clarification. But before his did so, he had the grace to consult Gen Padmanabhan. Generals will speak like Generals and not diplomats, thank god. And the advisory from some strategic experts that Service Chiefs preface their remarks with ‘these are my personal views’ is simply baloney. Armed Forces Chiefs voice the feelings of their service, the military and Government policy. They do not speak in their personal capacity.

Returning to the widely-trodden Sukna land, Gen Kapoor, guided by his legal department, opted to follow the administrative action route which gives him many options, including termination of services. The Sukna case has raised a media storm for three months now. Gen Kapoor issued a show cause notice to Lt Gen Prakash three weeks ago. So why on earth did Mr Antony — whose Ministry has been shadowing the case — wait till after the show cause had been given and the reply received? To issue an advisory suddenly shows how out of sync he is with what he ought to be doing to protect the image of the Army and the high office of the COAS. Through his unwise interference in the case, he has diminished the COAS.

Now Lt Gen Prakash has been placed under the Army Act’s Section 123 which subjects him to this law for three years even after he retired last Sunday. There will be a hearing of charges followed by a summary of evidence. Depending on the findings and outcome, disciplinary action could follow. Lt Gen Prakash could appeal to the newly-constituted Army Tribunal and so the Sukna saga will now be long, protracted and hopfully leak-proof.

In 2000, the Ministry of Defence ordered the posting of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh as Vice-Chief of Naval Staff. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, citing the Naval Act which authorises the Chief of Naval Staff to select his own staff, wrote back to the Ministry stating that the orders given were in contravention of the Navy Act and were, therefore, ‘unimplementable’. He held his ground and became the first Service Chief in the history of the armed forces to be dismissed by the President by invoking the ‘pleasure principle’. With 60 days left for retirement, Gen Kapoor followed the ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ dictum.

There is no instance of legitimate military dissent in India. The fault has to be shared by Government’s failure in exercising political control, including higher political direction, and the military hierarchy for cowing down, even when compliance was out of order. The only COAS to have put in his papers because of political interference by Defence Minister V Krishna Menon in the professional domain was Gen KS Thimayya. Unfortunately, he withdrew his resignation; otherwise, the history of civil -military relations would have been different.

In 1992, COAS Gen SF Rodrigues let down his office by first giving a controversial interview to this newspaper in which he said “governance is very much the business of the Army” and called two foreign countries “bandicoots”. He later accepted a dressing down in Parliament by Defence Minister Sharad Pawar. Instead of resigning, Gen Rodrigues continued as a lame duck Chief and, surprisingly, the Government which had served the admonition, 15 years later appointed him Governor of Punjab.

Lt Gen SK Sinha, who had served in Army Headquarters in every rank, authored the Fourth Pay Commission and knew every bureaucratic trick of the trade, was superseded as COAS as the Government thought he would be a difficult customer. Gen Sinha resigned. The Government notification for part of the Fifth Pay Commission award was signed by Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar even as COAS Gen Ved Malik had put his objections in writing. The same drama was witnessed last year when the three Service Chiefs collectively refused to accept the piecemeal award of the Sixth Pay Commission, insisting the anomalies be addressed first. One newspaper editor called it “unprecedented military dissent” but conveniently omitted the word ‘legitimate’.

Britain's Chief of General Staff, Gen Richard Dannat went public about poor pay and acute shortages of helicopters for his soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, a deficiency endorsed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He was so outspoken that the Government denied him the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and instead gave the incumbent CDS an unprecedented second term. Service Chiefs must speak out and speak up without hankering for post-retirement jobs such as Governor of Goa or Ambassador to Burkina Faso.

The media revolution, nuclear weaponisation in the sub-continent and think-tank proliferation call for political control that ensures a robust working relationship btween the civil and the military for effective use of military power. The services must regain their professional autonomy and certainly respect by the Government, altering the internal civil-military power balance through genuine integration and without fear that a CDS — when appointed — will spring a coup. Addressing the problem of corruption in the armed forces calls for a ‘trialogue’ between Government, civil society and the military. Aberrations are fraught with the risk of becoming a habit.

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