apolitical army

The military must be politically aware while remaining an apolitical army.

Gp Capt TP Srivastava has dwelt on some very fundamental aspects in his article, which needs detailed consideration. However, I am not sure if the author is referring to the politicisation of the Indian military as the title suggests, or to the fact that the military is becoming a ‘politically alive entity,’ as stated in his concluding remarks. The former is a dangerous trend and must find solutions, should there be indications of the same. The latter is but a part of the larger national discourse and indicates positive awareness seeping in on security issues amongst the rank and file of the military.

Understanding ‘Politicisation of the Military’

Let us first understand the meaning of the phrase, ‘politicisation of the military’. In broad terms, it means the military having an allegiance to a political party, which is unacceptable in a democracy. Militaries such as the People’s Liberation Army of China are an organ of the party and not of the state. Their loyalty to the party overrides their loyalty to the country.

In democracies, the allegiance of the military is to the nation and not to any political party. The military will hence operate under the directions of the ruling political dispensation, whichever that dispensation may be. This was clarified to Mrs Gandhi by the Army Chief, Gen. TP Raina, during the Emergency days. When the PM asked for support, he stated that the Army could not be used for interests of political parties. The Army, he said, could carry out the orders of only a legally constituted government.

When the Congress lost the elections, General Raina called on Indira Gandhi to talk about the election results. Sanjay Gandhi walked in and suggested re-imposition of Emergency with the cooperation of the Army. General Raina ignored his remarks and told Indira Gandhi that history would honour her for respecting people’s verdict. The Army remained apolitical due to the clear stand taken by General Raina. It was at a time when India’s bureaucracy buckled and became a ‘committed service’.

An Apolitical Army Continued With Gen Malhotra

The Congress Party lost power and Shri Morarji Desai of the Janata Party was sworn in as PM. He served as PM from March 1977 to July 1979. After him, Shri Charan Singh took over for a brief period till January 1980. The government was unstable, but the then Army Chief, Gen OP Malhotra never interfered with the political establishment. He served the elected government with full loyalty. This was at a time when in other South Asian countries, the Army was either hanging or shooting their PMs!

Gen. Malhotra went on to become the Governor of strife-torn Punjab, as Governor’s rule was in force. It was Gen. Malhotra who called for elections in Punjab. However, the Election Commission did not agree as a few candidates were shot by terrorists. This prompted the General to resign. However, this makes clear that it was an Army General calling for elections, while the panel insisted on deference.

The above incidents amply highlight the fact that the Indian Armed Forces, as a set up continue to remain apolitical. But being politically aware is a different matter altogether. The Indian soldier has the democratic right to vote. That vote must go to the party the soldier deems best for defending interests of India and the Armed Forces. This in no ways is indicative ‘politicisation’ of the Armed Forces.

‘My Army Won’t Be Voting For You’

An example of an apolitical army from British military history is instructive. This pertains to 1945, at the time of the general elections for the British Parliament. For the soldiers’ vote, Churchill spoke optimistically about his election prospects to General Bill Slim, home on leave from Burma. Slim responded with characteristic bluntness: ‘Well, Prime Minister, I know one thing. My Army won’t be voting for you’.

No one could accuse Slim of politicising the British Army. It was a mere reiteration of the democratic rights of the fraternity which felt a compromise of their interests. The soldiers too have a right to have a government which will look into their interests, as any other segment of society. This holds true for the Armed Forces of India too.

Concerns for the Military

Gp Capt Srivastava has drawn attention to a few basic issues which need addressing. These relate to the following –

  • The grant of OROP
  • Equipping of the force
  • Discussions on national security issues and to what the ‘Izzat of the Military’


OROP has been an emotive issue for the military. The political and bureaucratic dispensation has perhaps not yet comprehended a basic facet of the military, and that is that the military expects the government to live up to its word. This is part of the ethos of the military, where what is stated by the senior officers in command, is executed. The rank and file, expect this to be carried out by the civilian leadership too, but consistently find themselves shortchanged.

Whether it is in terms of status, where the military feels a consistent down-gradation since independence, or the grant of OROP, promised by Indira Gandhi after slashing the soldiers’ pensions and increasing the same for the civilians, promising to the soldiers that she would give them one rank one pension; it never materialised. It only came about during the tenure of the present government, nearly forty-five years after the promise was made! Most military personnel consider this a breach of faith—and faith is something on which the military runs.

Non-Functional Financial Upgradation

But even with a complete grant of OROP, we could trust the bureaucrats to twist the same and hold back on some issues which would have cost the government but a pittance. Such pettiness remains the hallmark of India’s bureaucracy and the political establishment would do well to do something about it. The biggest fraud to the nation, however, was the bureaucrats granting to themselves Non-Functional Financial Upgradation a decade back. Rightly, this must be stopped. But, on the contrary, it has been given to the IPS, and other services, including the Central Armed Police Forces. And in line with the pettiness mentioned above, it continues to be denied to India’s military.

‘Izzat’ of the Armed Forces

There has been a consistent undermining of the ‘izzat’ of the forces since independence. This has been a deliberate ploy by the bureaucrats, who were the ones who made the rules and passed them through an unsuspecting political class. It is inconceivable but true, that the military today is under the burden of accountability but with little authority and financial powers, whilst the bureaucrats and those in defence finance have full powers but have near-zero accountability. This accounts for the poor state of equipping of the forces and for the shoddy functioning of India’s defence public sector, to include the research establishments, ordnance factories and the defence public sector undertakings.

And to make matters worse, the statements that emanate from some politicians, when they question the Service Chiefs and cast aspersions on them, belittles the Forces and strengthens our enemies. The Courts too have started adjudicating on military matters, their ruling on AFSPA showing little understanding of the Act and its importance to the conduct of military operations in a very hostile environment.

A Politically Aware but Apolitical Army

Every country in the world, and here I am speaking of the democracies, gives legal protection to its soldiers, but now, with the courts ruling to register an FIR in every case of terrorist killing, means that service personnel can be hauled up many years later and asked to explain his conduct. The upshot most likely will be that sooner rather than later, troops will refuse to operate in an expected manner, and will take the easier path of avoiding operations. What this will do to national security is anybody’s guess!

The military hence must be politically aware, as the author has suggested. This, however, does not make the military ‘political’. Rather, it will strengthen the fabric of the nation and will make the powers that be more sensitive to India’s soldiery and to national security requirements.

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

Maj. Gen. Dhruv C Katoch is Director, India Foundation, Editor SALUTE Magazine and Secretary-General of Indian War Veterans Association (IWVA).

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