Aspirations to Greatness: Learning Lessons from History
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 08 Sep , 2023

On the gaining of Independence and the Partition that followed soon after, India and Pakistan adopted two very divergent roads in pursuit of their respective destinies. Today, our aspirations are on becoming the third largest economy and achieving great power status in the coming decade. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been transformed from the idealistic vision of the Muslim Ummah’s land of the pureto a nation virtually on the brink of extinction. Reasons for its unravelling are not difficult to discern. Apart from the adverse impact of climate change and the humungous population growth, its decline can largely be attributed to an extremely corrupt and self-serving political establishment, riven by infighting, that has been aided and abetted in full measure by all the four pillars of democracy as well.

An idealistic and undoubtedly patriotic military, fed up with politicians and their petty rivalries and corrupt ways and having to constantly clean up their messes, decided to take matters in its own hands. It intervened in the late 1950’s, only to subsequently succumb to the lure of absolute and unaccountable power, and the benefits that came with it. Once the military had tasted blood, there was no turning back and soon enough came to be aptly described by that old truism,most states have armies, but in Pakistan, the Army has a state. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote in his column for the Washington Post, “That’s proven to be the case not just in the periodic coups that Pakistani generals engineered over decades, but in the vast array of economic interests maintained by the military and the overweening influence exercised by the top brass at virtually every turn of Pakistan’s fitful struggle for civilian-led democracy.

Lessons remained unlearned even after parochialism, socio-economic and ethno-linguistic confrontations led to another partition, no less bloody or brutal, the formation of Bangladesh. In order to ensure his own survival and primacy, General Ziaul Haq then went a step further, and into the existing mix of problems injected the cancer of religious extremism and intolerance. As was to be expected, his Islamisation policy had a transformational impact on the Pakistan Military. It went from being a secular professional force to one that saw itself as standard bearers of Islam.

As Col Hansi notes in his paper, Fault Lines in Pakistan and Implications for India, “For the first time, the Army began to recruit officers and soldiers from various religious seminaries, a majority being from the Sunni madrassas. Islamic literature and philosophy were also introduced in the curricula of various training courses conducted in Regimental Centres, Schools of Instruction and Staff College, Quetta. The book Quranic Concepts of War, whose foreword was written by Gen Ziaul Haq, was accepted as the Pakistan’s military doctrine.

As a result the fault lines between the moderates and religious fundamentalists that had opened up within the country impacted the military as well, resulting in a number of attacks on its infrastructure in which serving personnel were complicit. There was also a general deterioration in the military’s cohesion and professionalism as the selection criteria for higher ranks focused more on an officer’s ideological convictions and loyalty, than on his professional acumen or performance. Once the institutional integrity of the military was compromised, given its all-embracing hold on the polity, the decline of the state that we see today was inevitable. As F S Aijazuddin has so eloquently written in his column in The Dawn, “Gen Ziaul Haq’s tenure reminded us that there were two nations- one with its capital in Rawalpindi and the other located in Islamabad. Today we are again two nations…

Ironically, it was in an attempt to keep the military insulated from politics that General Mohammed Ayub Khan, in addition to his duties as Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, was appointed the defence minister in 1954. In October 1956, Iskandar Ali Mirza was elected President as per the newly promulgated constitution. He was a former military officer, in fact the first to graduate from RMC Sandhurst. After six years he joined the Civil Service and on Independence was appointed Pakistan’s first Defence Secretary. He subsequently joined politics and was the first Bengali Governor of erstwhile East Pakistan.

The first Pakistani to be appointed C-in-C was General Iftar Khan, selected from among four senior-most officers who had been shortlisted by the government. He, was however killed in an air crash on his way to assume the appointment and was replaced not by one of the others shortlisted but by General Ayub Khan, who was much lower in seniority. Iskandar Mirza, in his capacity as Defence Secretary had played a crucial role in Gen Ayub’s appointment as C-in-C.

While the post of the President was supposedly purely ceremonial, President Mirza viewed it very differently and played a more proactive role, forcing several Prime Ministers to resign. However, the incumbent Prime Minister, Feroz Khan, was extremely popular and also from his own party, but did not take kindly to interference. It was quite evident that if he won the coming elections, as was likely, the President’s days in office were numbered. Thus, in October 1958, in a surprise move the President decided to forestall his own possible removal by dismissing the Prime Minister and his government and abrogating the constitution. He declared martial law, and given his close ties with General Ayub Khan, appointed him as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. However, in another bizarre twist to the tale, following the Supreme Court’s approval of the Coup under the ‘doctrine of necessity, Gen Ayub Khan took matters into his own hands and appointed himself President and sent Iskandar Mirza into exile to the United Kingdom, where he lived till his death.

In our context, following Independence Nehru took measures to do away with the appointment of the Commander-in-Chief, cocoon the military from the public in its cantonments, and to isolate it from political interference by placing the civilian bureaucracy in between. This ensured the military developed a healthy respect for our Constitution, the rule of law and, what is arguably, a fairly skewed concept of civilian control. However, the military’s functioning began to be adversely affected with the appointment of Krishna Menon as Defence Minister in 1957 at a time Chinese ambitions in the region were becoming clear.

In the Official History of the 1962 Conflict with China, the Chief Editor, Dr. S N Prasad, suggests Pandit Nehru and Mr. Krishna Menon saw the military as a “close- knit professional body, deliberately isolated from the citizen. Its predominant motive force remained espirit de corps and not identification with the people. Someday it may even act like the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire. The Indian Army trained and fought like the British Army, unimaginative, elephantine, rule-bound and road bound…. Perhaps he wanted to model it after the People’s Liberation Army of China, more egalitarian, flexible, closer to the people………Such basic changes required a committed, or at least a pliant, band of army officers in key positions. So mediocre Thapar was selected instead of the doughty Thorat as Army Chief, and Bijji Kaul was made CGS……. For establishing indigenous weapons manufacture, money had to be found by cutting arms imports. The armed forces would be short of equipment and stores for several years till the new arms factories started producing. The officer cadre was a house divided within itself, till the new breed fully took over. A period of transition was inevitable, during which the fighting machine would not be fully efficient and would be vulnerable………Therein seems to lie the basic cause of the debacle of 1962. India failed to avoid a war during the transition period. Lulled by faulty political assessment and wrong intelligence forecasts, the country got caught in a war when it was least prepared.”

Ironically, in a manner of speaking we were fortunate , the debacle halted this skewed attempt at reforming the military along ideological lines. Undoubtedly our resounding victory in 1971, can in no small measure be attributed to the manner in which Yeshwantrao Chavan, Defence Minister following Krishna Menon’s resignation, let the military leadership get along with reorganising itself without interference on his part, while at the same time providing them all necessary assistance required for modernisation.

Indeed, the similarity today to those dark and troubled times is indeed uncanny. Mr. Modi has gone far beyond what Nehru and Krishna Menon attempted. He is not just attempting a wholesale ideological transformation, but is endeavouring to change the very culture within the forces that had made them amongst the top militaries of the world. This change is being led by the Prime Minister’s Office, by those who have no experience in matters military. In their hurry to get things done, no attempt has been made to test out concepts prior to their implementation, nor has the benefit of sound military advice been taken. With selection procedures having been suitably modified, it is no surprise that the vast majority of our top military hierarchy is compromised and compliant, in fact competing with each other to undertake more and more bizarre initiatives that they feel may catch their master’s eye.

All of this is happening at a time when our external security environment is most unpredictable. President Xi, not unlike Chairman Mao, finds himself facing serious headwinds and may well take the route adopted by Mao of teaching us a lesson, to get back in popular favour, just as Mao did. One is still optimistic that in the event of a conflict, the military will still give a good account of itself. The adverse impact of the initiatives that have been pushed through, are still in the nascent stage and have yet to catch hold. But there is little doubt that the runway is running out fast.

The internal situation is no less fragile. In the impending general elections, existing levels of polarisation are only likely to rise further as the ruling party makes one last attempt to push through initiatives that it hopes will further its chances at the hustings. Despite our being well aware of the pitfalls, religious intolerance and extremism is rearing its ugly head once again. We see this already happening in Manipur and elsewhere, in which the both Central and State Government allegedly appear to be complicit. We seem to be on the path that Pakistan took towards self-destruction. Can we truly afford to let our adherence to policies of inclusivity and religious tolerance that have got us so far, be torn asunder by forces bent on using sectarian divisions for political gains? Do our politicians actually believe that by comprising our institutions and sowing hate our trajectory will be different than that of Pakistan? Surely there is a lesson here for us somewhere?

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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

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran and was formerly with the ORF, and now is member of The Peninsula Foundation, a Chennai based Think-Tank.

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