The Myth of Politicised Army

The former army chief General Vijay Kumar Singh’s reaction to the calculated leaking to the press of an internal army report investigating the activities of the secretive Technical Support Division (TSD) during his tenure has created needless confusion about the military losing its apolitical sheen. This is patent nonsense propagated by those who know little about the workings of the armed forces, get easily alarmed, or have political oxes to gore. In counterinsurgency operations anywhere in the world, alongside the hard job of close-quartering and eliminating armed malcontents and ferreting out their cells, the fighting forces also run programmes to marginalise the insurgents, “win the hearts and minds” of the local people caught in the crossfire who, if not pacified and weaned away from the anti-national cause, would endlessly fuel it. The vast region in which Mao’s fish-like guerrillas swim has to be emptied of water by all means.

Such “hearts and minds” campaigns to promote what Singh has called “stability” and another ex-army chief Shankar Roychowdhury called “sadbhavana”, are “aid to civil” schemes and par for the course. The Army has always engaged in schemes in J&K and the North-east overtly to encourage youth to take to sports, for instance, and, covertly, to keep tabs on local politicians. There’s nothing remotely untoward, illegal, or underhanded about these measures designed to firm up the return of order and allow elected governments and civil administration to begin functioning and mainstream politics to take root. Indeed, based on historical evidence, an army not enabled to prosecute such actions will ensure the country fails in its counterinsurgency effort.

But combine a politically fraught milieu in the country and a military-wise ignorant Indian media receptive to any sinister spin given even innocuous events by motivated political players, and voila!, a storm in a teacup started by newspaper stories interpreting normal army formation movements as attempts at coup d’etat and covert programmes to keep the rebels on the backfoot in border states as attempts to destabilise elected regimes. Such revelations are, of course, politically embarrassing to the likes of Ghulam Hassan Mir, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and other Kashmiri politicians touched by TSD programmes. It upsets their delicate balancing act between not appearing as India’s toadies and not caring to be associated with the secessionist groups. However, the view emanating from the Manmohan Singh Government that General Singh’s disclosure spells trouble is a bit rich, considering the report was, in the first place, leaked by someone within it with the express approval of those at the highest levels of the Congress party, in the hope of derailing General Singh’s political plans.

Dark stories swirling around of political ambitions of armymen are not new. In the late fifties, they were the stock-in-trade of Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. Following on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s apprehension that General Ayub Khan’s imposition of martial law in Pakistan in 1958 might give his Indian counterpart ideas, the deviously paranoid Krishna Menon floated rumours of the upright General K.S. Thimayya pulling a similar stunt here. In the 1970s, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was hugely augmented because, it was said, Indira Gandhi desired an armed force under her control as a foil to the Army, which was laughable, considering the non-existent fighting qualities of CRPF.

But there is more to this brouhaha than TSD as an army chief’s private “dirty tricks” department. As a concept, TSD fits into the original Roman notion of the “praetorian guard” responsible for the safety of the commanding general. Then again, a loyal cohors praetoria is, in effect, constituted by every new armed service chief when he installs his favourites as principal staff officers at the headquarters in New Delhi to advise and protect him against the machinations of Ministry of Defence (mod) bureaucrats eager to snatch decision turf and sister services to grab military roles and a larger share of the defence budget.

It is possible TSD was predated by several covert operations units that were amalgamated under the V.K. Singh dispensation, with electronic eavesdropping on politicians in insurgency-affected areas being one of its legitimate missions. It is the fear of what the Army may have thus learned about their carryings-on which, perhaps, has led the Srinagar regime to get steamed up.

If TSD was aware of the behind-the-scenes stuff in Kashmir, the mod as the higher authority that the Army reports to was in the know too-reason why Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde is noisily demanding a CBI inquiry, not A.K. Antony. The Government’s ruse of leaking the report appears to have backfired: It cannot anymore use TSD-derived information about the National Conference government to keep Messrs Farooq and Omar Abdullah & Company in line. TSD was expediently disbanded but, one can be sure, other similar units will pick up the slack.

[Published in ‘India Today’ dated Oct 14, 2013 at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/general-vk-singh-former-army-chief-j-k-politicians-bribe-omar-abdullah/1/313075.html%5D

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, civil-military relations, guerilla warfare, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Army, Indian para-military forces, Indian Politics, Internal Security, South Asia, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Myth of Politicised Army

  1. Shaurya says:

    I want to bring in a different issue. The Keran operation, Gen. Shankar Roy Choudhary is asking, is this like Gibraltar? like a phased operation of some kind? My personal view has been Pakistan has not taken the “initiative” for conventional action after 1965 and the gang of 4, who planned the Kargil operation in an overtly nuclearized umbrella, had to eat crow and did not have the guts to escalate. Pakistan understood that India was willing to conduct full scale conventional operations with Op. Parakram.

    So, my question is, are there any legs to the good general’s question. I just do not think, Pakistan has any strength to take the initiative for any serious action.

  2. Rajarshi Roy says:

    Dear Mr. Karnad,

    While the purpose of forming TSD and other such covert units to keep a tab on seccessionists and assorted politicians is pretty much a standard practice, I fail to understand how such units can act as Praetorian Guards. Yes, the Chief’s PSOs can do that job, but setting up intelligence units have a different role and purpose altogether, with little or no oversight (and I am not talking just about civilian oversight). A Northern Army Commander can pretty easily say that he has spent x crores on intelligence operations (and hence, not needed to be accounted), with little oversight from Army HQs (forget the MoD!). I am sure you are aware of this.

    To me, the apprehension about a politicized military has little to do with setting up of such units for winning “hearts or minds” (never mind, that the army is doing that in the valley for past 2 decades) or each COAS appointing his favourites as PSOs. It has much to do with the trends highlighted in one of your recent blog posts and Srinath Raghavan’s recent article in The Hindu – the recent occurrence of head of Tamilnadu Ex-Servicemen Association, openly urging retired faujis to side with BJP, Gen. Singh’s sharing of dias with Modi. You may say that retired ESM’s are no longer bounded by service rules but let’s remember that the serving personnel are just one removed from the retired fraternity, considering the nature of the armed forces. What do we want next – different infantry regiments professing loyalties to Congress or BJP depending on their COs political loyalties.

    Let’s understand that Gen. V.K. Singh is no Timmy. While I agree that as a serving Chief, he aired a legitimate grievance with respect to his DOB, his post retirement antics of attending unveiling of politicians’ statues and rallies in the name of endorsing OROP, is beneath contempt, as far as I am concerned. While the “nationalist” minded (both faujis and civilians) on defence blogs are already making a case for Gen. Singh as the Raksha Mantri in any future dispensation headed by Modi, I see it no different from the case of pliant generals coveting post retirement ambassadorships and governorships.

    Regards,
    Rajarshi

    • Several points: (1) As I made clear, the reference to TSD as praetorian guard is in the context of this unit being publicly touted as Gen. VK Singh’s own “dirty tricks” dept. during his tenure as COAS. (2) The Rewari rally of ESM was for OROP and an ex-COAS joining it is not news. What was news was Narendra Modi’s reception at that rally, which the non-BJP inclined ESM may object to, (3) The larger Question is, perhaps, troubling to some: How politically active should the ESM community be in a politically fraught milieu of the kind obtaining presently where ex-Servicemen could constitute a significant bloc-vote and affect electoral results in many Lok Sabha constituencies? The point that, like other citizen groups, ESM too should mobilize politically and exercise their franchise surely cannot be questioned. In which case, by extension, there’s no good reason why ESM should not become politically active and campaign for candidates and parties of their choice? If BJP attracts ESM, Congress and other parties are free to marshal ESM for their cause, and succeed by increasing their attraction-quotient — promising policies and measures ESM are drawn to. In that case, ESM would be another constituency that parties will need to cultivate. Why is that bad?

  3. Shaurya says:

    As long as ESM stick to ESM issues only and politicians do not entertain their voice for in service issues, it will be fine. One cannot legislate these things. The fear stems from a lack of trust between and within all entities.

  4. RV says:

    The events stated in this article appear to be the consequences of deliberate attempts made by the UPA regime to undermine the Indian armed forces, at the behest of their overseas handlers/masters. This appears to be somewhat akin to the purges in the Soviet Army by Stalin, orchestrated/instigated by the Nazi’s with intent to decimate the Soviet officer corps prior to Operation Barbarossa, in which people like Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky were summarily executed on trumped up charges of being Nazi agents. It my be noted that SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich of the RSHA, better known as the “Butcher of Prague”, was one of the leading planners in this affair.

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