India’s civil-military dissonance: Road To Perdition? (Comment: Special to IANS)

India’s Republic Day on Tuesday (January 26) will be celebrated with traditional pageantry and the citizen gets a panoramic view of the country’s military capability. Intelligence inputs warn that it will be yet another test for the national security apparatus. However, it provides an opportune occasion to objectively review how India has dealt with its complex security challenges. Regrettably in India’s National Security ‘Hall of Shame’ we can now add, ‘Pathankot 2016’ after ‘Kandahar 1999’, ‘Parakram 2002’ and ‘Mumbai 2008.’

Given that India is a nuclear weapon state, which fields one of the world’s largest armed forces and spends upwards of $40 billion annually on defence, one cringes at accounts of our seemingly inept handling of yet another terrorist attack. Equally disheartening is the fact that, eight years after 26/11, we lack the ability to deter the architects of this attack, and the will to punish its perpetrators.

It is a matter of sheer good fortune that the cross-border terrorists who managed to enter the Pathankot air base failed to target aircraft, helicopters and missiles as well as the huge bomb-dump and fuel-storage facilities. We overlook the fact that some of our air bases, adjuncts to the nuclear deterrent, may also house nuclear warhead components. So, while cautioning the world about the dangers of Pakistani warheads falling into jihadist hands, we need to ensure that a similar fate does not befall our own.

The calibre of a nation’s leadership is tested by a crisis. Whether it is floods, an aircraft hijacking or a terror strike, India’s response to any crisis has followed a depressingly familiar sequence. Regardless of intelligence inputs, the onset of a crisis finds multiple agencies pulling in different directions, lacking unitary leadership, coordination and, above all, a cohesive strategy. Ad-hoc and sequential damage-control measures eventually bring the situation under control, with loss of life and national self-esteem. After a free-wheeling blame-game, the state apparatus relapses into its comatose state – till the next disaster.

From the media discourse, it appears that this template was faithfully followed in the Pathankot episode. While the military has due processes for learning from its mistakes and dealing with incompetence, one is not sure about the rest of our security system.

Whether or not India-Pakistan peace talks are resumed, the Pakistani ‘deep state’ has many more ‘Pathankots’ in store for India. For Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), cross-border terrorism is an inexpensive method of keeping India off-balance. The strategy of plausible deniability and threat of nuclear ‘first-use’ assures them of impunity from retribution. Such situations call for all components of India’s national security, military, intelligence, bureaucracy, central and state police forces to work in the closest synergy and coordination. Regrettably, civil-military relations have, of late, been deeply vitiated and the resultant dissonance could have adverse consequences for the nation’s security.

What is worse; civil-military recriminations, so far, confined within the walls of South Block, seem to be proliferating. Post-Pathankot, the constabulary has jumped into the fray and, if an intemperately-worded newspaper article (Indian Express, January 13) by a serving Indian Police Service (IPS) officer is an indicator, civil-military relations may be entering a downward spiral. This outburst should compel the political leadership to undertake a re-appraisal of the prevailing civil-military equation which contains many anomalies; one of them being the role of the police forces.

Worldwide, an unmistakable distinction is maintained between the appearance and functions of the military and civilian police, the latter being charged with the maintenance of law and order, crime prevention/investigation and traffic regulation et al. India’s unique security compulsions have seen the Indian Police Service (IPS) not only retaining the colonial legacy of sporting army rank badges and star plates but also garnering unusual influence in national security matters over the years.

Many of our Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) have blurred the distinction between police and military; terming themselves ‘para-militaries’, with constables wearing military style combat fatigues and being addressed as ‘jawans’. There are only three, duly constituted, para-military forces in India: the Coast Guard, Assam Rifles and the Special Frontier Force; all headed by armed forces officers. The five CAPFs, namely BSF, CRPF, ITBP, CISF and SSB – cumulatively over a million strong – are headed by IPS officers.

The deployment of CAPFs in border-guarding as well as counter-insurgency roles calls for military (read infantry) skills; for which neither the police constables nor officers receive adequate training. This lack of training and motivation as well as a leadership deficit has manifested itself in: (a) these forces repeatedly suffering heavy casualties (confined only to constables) in Maoist ambushes; and (b) recurring instances of infiltration taking place across borders guarded by CAPFs.

In the case of the anti-terrorist National Security Guard (NSG), its combat capability comes from the army; yet, by government mandate, it is headed by a police officer. The fact that this elite force has seen 28 directors general in 31 years makes one wonder if round holes are being filled by square pegs.

A second anomaly in the civil-military matrix pertains to the fact that the Government of India Rules of Business have designated the civilian secretary heading the defence ministry as the functionary responsible “for the defence of India and for the armed forces”. Since no military officer, including the three chiefs, finds mention in the Business Rules, the Service HQs are subaltern to a 100 percent civilian ministry. Every major decision – whether it pertains to finance, acquisition, manpower or organization – requires a ministry nod which can take decades.

A false and dangerous belief prevails on Raisina Hill that civil-military relations constitute a zero-sum game in which ‘civilian control’ is best retained by boosting the bureaucracy and police at the expense of the military. Post-independence, the civil-military balance has been steadily skewed by pushing the military officer well below his civilian counterparts with the same years of service. This has caused deep resentment in the military, and the resultant hierarchical distortion could lead to a civil-military logjam – the last thing the nation needs at this juncture.

It is high time the Indian politician shed his traditional indifference to national security issues and took tangible measures to ensure a stable and equitable civil-military paradigm – one which ensures a say for the military in matters impinging on the nation’s safety and security. Until that happens, the Republic Day parade will remain a vainglorious display of hardware and pageantry – and the nation’s security in parlous straits.

(24.01.2016 – Admiral Prakash is a former Indain Navy chief and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. The views expressed are perssonal. He can be contacted at arunp2810@yahoo.com)

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