Military & Aerospace

Civil Power and the Army
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Issue Vol. 2.1 Jan-Mar 1987 | Date : 20 Sep , 2015

In India, in 1959 a controversy arose be­tween Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister and the Army Chief, General Thimayya. The point of dispute was the supersession of Major General Giani by Major General Kaul for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General. Thimayya had recommended Giani’s promotion but this had been overruled. Thimayya’s rela­tions with Krishna Menon had soured for various reasons and this was the last straw.

Thimayya resigned and this caused a great stir pandit Nehru persuaded Thimayya to withdraw his resignation and the crisis was defused. Later, Nehru criticised Thimayya in Parliament for having tendered his resigna­tion. After this criticism Thimayya did not consider it necessary to .resign in protest. He appeared to have lost his old fire and his image was badly tarnished by the whole af­fair. Had he not withdrawn his resignation, the course of events that followed may have been very different. Kaul may not have become the Corps Commander in NEFA and possibly the trauma of the national’ humiliation of 1962 could have been averted.

It is to be noted that in all these con­troversies between statesmen’ and soldiers, no attempt was made by the latter to question the supremacy of Civil Power even though dif­ferences in viewpoint arose. In some cases these differences were tackled in an ap­propriate manner and in others not so. Kit­chener was right in pressing for the restruc­turing of the higher defence organisation. Fisher was wrong in remaining silent at the meeting of the British War Cabinet. Robertson was right in asserting his right to express his professional views at the meeting of the Supreme War Council. MacArthur was wrong in publicly airing his views on the Korean War and Thimayya was wrong in withdrawing his resignatioo without getting the issue at stake appropriately resolved.

Civil-Military Relations

The bedrock of sound civil-military relations in a modern State must be the supremacy of Civil Power over the Army, duly accepted and respected by the latter at all times. The soldier must be subordinate to Civil Power but should never be subservient to it. The statesman in authority must have all the resources of the state, both civil and military, at his call to discharge his onerous responsibilities.

The soldier must be scrupulously loyal to him but this does not mean blind’ obedience as romanticised by Tennyson: “There is not to reason why, but to do and die.” Such an attitude may be very commendable on the battlefield but it can hardly be the basis of civil-military rela­tions’ at the national level. At that level the soldier is an essential part of the deci­sion – making process for the formulation of defence policy.

He must freely and frankly render his professional advice even if it is not palatable to his political masters. Nearly two centuries ago Napoleon wrote, “Every General-in-Chief who executes a plan which he finds bad is guilty. He should rep­resent and insist that the plan be changed.

If he is unable to get this done, he must resign rather than be the instrument for the ruination of his troops.” That advice is equally valid today for Generals functioning at the national level. They cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that their loyalty to the nation and the Constitution transcends their loyalty to any individual who may, for the time being, occupy the seat of power. In the event of a serious conflict between his two loyal ties, it is incumbent upon the General to resign so that the issue gets placed before the nation and is resolved in a democratic manner.

I can say, in all humility, that when I faced such a situation I chose to quit the Army and sacrifice my personal interests. In so doing I believe I have been able to serve the wider interests of the nation and the Army. My stand was duly vindicated a few years later to the benefit of the Army as a whole. . However, when a con­flict of loyalties arises and the General decides to resign he must not, while in serv­ice, publicly express views or act in a man­ner which may even remotely smack .of dis­loyalty to the Government.

Civil Administration and the Army

There is another sphere of civil-multiply relations that also needs to be examined. The use of the Army for civil duties within the country is a well established practice. In the past, when not employed for military operations, the Army often carried out police functions. With the police getting organised as a separate force, the position has greatly changed in this regard. However, great military commanders have ‘often been called upon to carry out police duties. Napoleon had to use a “whiff of grape” in the streets’ of Paris and MacArthur had to deal with bonus marchers in Washington.

The primary role of the Army is to defend the country against external aggression. Its secondary role is to assist the civil ad­ministration when called upon to do so. Some people tend to consider Civil Power and the civil administration as synonymous but in reality they are two separate entities. Whereas the Army is subordinate to Civil Power, it is not subordinate to the civil ad­ministration.

The latter, like the military, is an instrument at the disposal of Civil Power. An important consideration in our case is that our Constitution provides for law and order as a State subject and not, as the responsibility of the Centre. The Army being a force of the Centre cannot be made subor­dinate to the State Administration. It must also be remembered that when called upon to assist the civil administration, the Army is not required to replace the latter. The day the Army replaces the civil administration, we will have martial law and martial law is something not envisaged in our Constitution.

The Army may be required to assist the civil administration in a host of ways. Assistance may be required during natural calamities like floods, earthquakes, brought and so on. Army assistance may also be called for during strikes by worker to maintain es­sential services for the sell being of the community. Another area in which Army assis­tance may have to be given is in any major development work or a task of national impor­tance such as the Asian Games.

The most com­mon type of assistance to the civil ad­ministration by the Army is combating violence during internal disorders. With in­creasing violence in our society this type of military assistance has unfortunately become very frequent. Over 90 per cent of the cases in which the Army .has been called out to as­sist the civil administration falls in this category.

The Government recently stated in Parlia­ment that in the past four years the Army was called out to aid the civil administration on no less than 369 occasions, mostly to restore law and order. It is an unfortunate fact that during the last four years the Army has been employed on these duties many times more than during two centuries of British rule in this country. It is ‘a.lso a lamentable fact that in these four years many more Indian citizens have died as a result of Army and Police firing than during the two centuries of for­eign rule.

There are various reasons for this. Violence in our society has increased considerably and society has become afflicted with rampant corruption and debasement of values. These evils cast their shadow on the functioning of Government at all levels. All this has led to the erosion of the moral authority of the State. In the event, the State has to increasingly rely on force to maintain its authority.

The two instruments of force available .to the State are the Police and the Army. Due to increasing political interference in the functioning of the Police at all levels, the Police has become both politicised and demoralised. Often one sees a nexus between the politician, the criminal and the policeman. It is no wonder the Police is now not a very effective in­strument for maintaining order and that the administration has to seek Army assistance frequently to combat internal disorders.

The are four dangers inherent in the frequent use of the Army to carry out the tasks of the civil administration. First, modem wars are complex and modern weapons highly sophisticated.

This requires the Army to remain fully preoccupied with training for war and with maintaining expensive and com­plicated modern equipment. It can ill afford to spare much time from its primary task for the secondary role of assisting the civil ad­ministration. To keep the Army committed on secondary tasks for a prolonged period will inevitably be detrimental to its operational preparedness. In 1947 when the Indian Army was widely committed in maintaining order during the Partition riots, Pakistan invaded Kashmir with tribal lashkars in the first in­stance.

The Pakistani General Staff felt that with the Indian Army being so preoccupied in dealing with internal violence and with Kash­mir isolated from the rest of India due to poor communications, the capture of Srinagar would be a cake walk. Jinnah was all set to make his victorious entry into Srinagar.

The fact that the Indian Army successfully met the challenge despite heavy odds speaks volumes for its professionalism and devotion. However, prudence demands that we should not allow the combat effectiveness of the Army to be eroded on account of it being embroiled in internal security duties. The Army must al­ways be kept in a state of training and readiness to enable it to give a fitting reply to anyone who commits aggression against us.

Secondly, the frequent and prolonged use of the Army on these duties can prove a great strain on its discipline. The Army has been an island of discipline in a rising sea of indiscipline in our country. The soldier living in the seclusion of his barracks can remain better disciplined than the soldier constantly exposed to our in disciplined society while carrying out policing duties.

It may be recalled that due to such prolonged exposure during the Partition riots, cracks started appearing in the discipline of the Punjab Boundary Force. This force had to be wound up in September 1947. More recently, the unfortunate mutiny of the Sikh soldiers showed how discipline can break down if ef­fective steps are not taken to guard against this risk while employing troops on sensitive tasks in aid of the civil administration.

Thirdly, the deterrent effect of the Army becomes eroded if it is frequently employed in dealing with civil disturbances. Troops are then compelled to use more force thereby causing greater casualties then would other­wise have been necessary. It is pertinent that after World War II, Field Marshal Auchinleck decided that the Indian Army should not revert to its prewar khaki uniform. The Army continued to wear the olive green ill1iform which was introduced during the war for reasons of camouflage in. the jungles of Burma. Auchinleck took this decision be­cause he anticipated increasing violence in the country with troops being Palled out frequently to combat violent disorders.

He wanted the Army to look strikingly different from the Police, who wear khaki, so that its arrival at the scene of trouble has a deter­rent effect. Today the Indian Army continues to wear olive green except for troops ear­marked for Operational tasks in the desert. It is interesting that recently when troops were called out in aid of the civil ad­ministration in Ahmadabad they temporally switched over from khaki, which they normally wear because of their role in the desert, to olive green for carrying out internal security duties.

Lastly, if the civil administration is seen to collapse repeatedly in the face of internal violence and becomes incapable of functioning without using the Army as a crutch, its credibility and authority will be seriously eroded. This may give the wrong signals both to the people and to the sol­diers.

The former may begin to feel that Army rule is unavoidable and the latter may begin to think that instead of repeatedly helping the civil administration they might as well replace it. A civil administration relying solely on the Army to maintain its authority may, in the long run, find itself in the position of the young lady of Niger who could not resist the temptation of riding a tiger. As we all know, the young lady ended up in­side the stomach of the tiger.

Insurgency and Terrorism

While highlighting the drawbacks inherent in the frequent use of the Army for civil duties, it is not for a moment suggested that the Army should never be used for these duties. During grave crises the State may have no other option but to use the Army to restore order. However I for the reasons as elaborated above, every effort must be made to ensure that the employment of the Army on such tasks be an exception and not be allowed to become a routine affair.

When faced with insurgency or large scale terrorism the State must use the Army to deal with this extreme manifestation of violence. Counter-insurgency operations require special techniques: While so employed troops act in aid of the civil administration but these operations are different from the aid usually rendered to the civil authorities during in­ternal disorders. Troops have to learn the technique of dealing with guerilla warfare and at the same time endeavour to win the confidence of the people so that the insur­gents are isolated. Insurgents may be armed with modern weapons given to them generously by hostile powers and the Security Forces have to be prepared to fight conventional battles at the unit or sub-unit level while dealing with them.

The British evolved a good organisational pattern for the conduct of counter – insurgency operations in Malaya. A unified command of Security Forces was set up under a senior military officer, designated I as Director of Operations, who functioned directly under the Head of Government. The functioning of intelligence agencies was fully coordinated. The military and the civil officials dovetailed their work through joint committees at various levels thus ensuring fully integrated utilisation of the resources of the State in combating insurgency.

Terrorism is another form of serious violence that the State may be called upon to tackle. Isolated cases of terrorism are best dealt with by the police but when terrorism becomes widespread and terrorists start get­ting foreign assistance as also enjoying a measure of popular support, then it tends to verge on insurgency. It is difficult for the police to deal with such terrorism. This is the situation in Punjab today, unfortunately compounded by another development. Some ele­ments of the State the police have shown com­plicity with the terrorists and anti-national forces and have forfeited the confidence of a large section of the People.

An exodus of thousands of people has begun from the State. Recent reports of the involvement of some Punjab policemen in the terrorist attack on the State Police Chief at Jala11dhar have been a shocking but not a surprising revelation. Para military forces are being extensively used in Punjab to combat terrorism and hitherto, for political reasons, the Army has not been employed to deal with them or for sealing the border. If the para military forces are not able to overcome the problem there will be no option but to use the Army. Many people, including myself, feel that had the Army been used perhaps the situation would not have deteriorated to this extent. By taking firm action early trouble can be nipped in the bud; as they say, a stitch in time saves nine.


The Army must always remain subordinate to Civil Power and loyally carry out its direc­tions. However subordination should not be misconstrued as subservience. Senior Generals carry special responsibility in this regard. This is particularly important in our society in which the culture of sycophancy has become so pervasive. In case of a clash of loyalties between loyalty to the nation and the Con­stitution and loyalty to any transient in the seat of power, the higher loyalty is the former and it must take precedence. In such an eventuality, it is incumbent on the General to resign so that the nation I s atten­tion gets focused on the point at issue.

Civil Power should not be confused with civil administration. While the Army must remain subordinate to Civil Power there is no question of it being subordinate to the, civil administration as is the case with the police which is a part of it.

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The employment of the Army for police duties should be avoided as far as possible, but when faced with a grave crisis like large scale violence, insurgency or widespread terrorism, the State should not show indecision and hesitate” to employ the Army to deal with the situation.

The Army is the ultimate weapon available to the State to enforce the nation I swill. When diplomats fail to preserve peace, the soldier has to go to war to restore peace. And when the civil administration fails to preserve order, the soldier is called upon to restore order. As the nation’s final safeguard, the Army must not fail in either circumstance. To ensure that this never hap­pens, the Army must always remain in a high state of trim. This requires that the Army must be highly professional, completely dis­ciplined and, in a democratic setting, to­tally apolitical.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen SK Sinha

Lt Gen SK Sinha, Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir.

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3 thoughts on “Civil Power and the Army

  1. Beaurocracy abhors accountability, the r never hold themselves accountabel to mistakes, for this they have created departments where professionals work and they love 2 hang them in case of mistakes, defence forces are considered as department by beaurocrates and further they tightly control finances and its release and utilization where corruption takes place through pliable officers preferred and selected by beaurocrates and who r willing 2 b hanged for the chair. This viscious circle needs to be destroyed if we want 2 secure country.

  2. Civil Power control does not mean Bureaucratic control. It is mean Political control. Bureaucracy and Military must stand on equal footing. A Secretary to the Govt cannot be the boss of Military Chief. This particular situation came into being because the Politicians in the early stages of our country’s life did not understand what is a National Army. They only had seen the British army and they were afraid of it. Specially Nehru who was a manipulator and unsure of himself tried to put down the Army. The consequence was the humiliation of India by the Chinese. Unfortunately the situation has not changed during the last 70 years.

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