June 12, 2022

Dilution of Professional Character of the Military

B Arjun

IT has been almost six months since the tragic death of India’s first chief of  defence staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash along with 13 others including his wife, his staff, protection party, and the aircrew. And the government is yet to appoint General Rawat’s successor for reasons best known to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

To add to the confusion and more manipulation in the appointment of top ranking military officer, the government recently released new guidelines broadening the scope of eligible officers for the post of the CDS.

According to the new criteria, both serving and retired lieutenant general, air marshal and vice admiral under the age of 62 years will be eligible for the post of CDS. This essentially opens the doors for the second-highest active rank officers to possibly supersede their seniors – army, air force, or navy chiefs. The age criteria basically makes all retired service chiefs ineligible for the post. On the other hand vice chiefs who retire at the age of 60 could be considered.

This widens the pool from which a CDS can be picked up by the government. This also opens the floodgates for greater politicisation and polarisation of the higher defence leadership of the armed forces. 

It is being speculated that the government is delaying the appointment of new CDS because it is unable to find a suitable general who would blindly follow its agenda.

All this is being done by the government that claims to have initiated fundamental transformation of the Indian military to change the strong single-service orientation of the Indian armed forces in terms of operations, planning, training, and education and is keen to implement the proposal for setting up joint operational commands.  

The minister for external affairs is busy educating the Indian public that the prospects of conflict and confrontation between America-Russia and America-China are growing. Ironically, the PMO seems to be oblivious of the paradigm shift in the international security situation and continues to remain in a state of policy paralysis on the issue of appointment of new CDS.

The delay is all the more intriguing because three years back Modi had announced the creation of CDS with much fanfare in his independence day speech. The media hailed him as a decisive leader committed to structural defence reforms needed to effectively tackle the twin security challenge posed by China and Pakistan. Although there is no tangible reduction in the threat to national security, for some reason the urgent need for a CDS seems to have disappeared in the PMO.

The dilly dallying on the appointment of CDS again reflects a pattern in Modi’s approach to governance and how near-term thinking afflicts policymaking under his watch. 

The country is witness to the ill effects of Modi’s impetuosity in implementing the GST and the 2016 demonetisation. Similarly, the abrogation of Article 370 was an equally ill-conceived policy that failed to bring peace and prosperity to Kashmir. Communal incidents and attacks against Kashmiri pandits are on the rise.    


The government is unnecessarily tinkering with the civil-military matrix.

There was a time when the civilians were worried about the adverse impact of the CDS on coup-proofing mechanisms, perfected since independence in the civil-military domain. Now the situation is that many in the military are worried about closer political interactions. It is felt that proximity to politicians is a challenge to the military’s apolitical character and tests the integrity of its current and future leaders. 

These discussions gained momentum in retired military circles in the wake of certain decisions of the former CDS which were considered to be inimical to military ethos and were purely driven by the orders from the PMO. 

One of the decisions that the former CDS was criticised for was his visit to the Goraknath temple in Gorakhpur, skipping the wreath laying ceremony for the navy day. According to Harish Khare, a veteran journalist, General Rawat’s  appearance with the saffron-clad mahant-cum-CM was a gentle rejection of the much valued and hallowed institutional line that marked the separation of the armed forces from the world of scheming politicians.” 

The perception that the former CDS was close to the ruling dispensation was reinforced by the demand by a section of the BJP for renaming Akbar Road in New Delhi after General Rawat.

The dilution of professional character of the military and this fundamental shift in the civil-military relations in the country is worrying. The larger question that requires debate and introspection, according to Lt Gen Prakash Menon, a veteran, is “where should the loyalty of the military lie? The Constitution dictates that it lies with the President of India, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. It certainly cannot lie with the party in power, which is the structural format of authoritarian governments. The issue is further complicated if the constitutional structure is deformed and the President ipso facto is not an independent agency and judgements deemed to have been made in his name are conflated with those of the government in power. This, at times, creates tensions between legal and moral choices.”

The armed forces cannot afford to emulate the police. They have to retain their distinct personality with the polity as a force meant to tackle external challenge. The military leadership should always be in a position to say no” to the government’s proposal that it is convinced is not good for the military's operational integrity and unit cohesion.  

Take for example the government’s current move to introduce the Tour of Duty” (TOD) or the Agnipath" scheme for the recruitment of soldiers in the Indian army on short three-year tenures. The sense one gets from talking to a few retired military personnel is that the army’s operational efficiency will be severely damaged by this move of the government. 

The government wants to reduce pensions bills without bothering about the impact of sudden downsizing of the army and to top it all it wants the army leadership to accept it without questioning. 

The lobby clamouring for reduction in the government expenditure on military pensions is supported by the land-sharks who are equally keen to garner military land. A downsized military will require lesser land for accommodating and training its men. This would then be used as a justification to privatise the defence land. Similarly those eyeing the defence revenue budget are also lobbying for a downsized army that is dependent more on contractors as service providers to the armed forces. 

An authoritarian, neoliberal government offers a strong challenge to the leadership of a professional military. The policy driven by the twin agenda of privatisation and polarisation is bound to prove antithetical to military ethos rooted in pluralism and community living. And this certainly doesn’t augur well for the health of civil-military relations in the country.