Army and democracy

The practice of a military adventurer taking over the reins of government by overthrowing an elected leader is almost as old as the concept of democracy. In Roman and Greek history, we find examples of military commanders who thought they were more able than the ‘civilians’ to run the government. This ‘trend’ was on the rise in the twentieth century as well, especially among post-colonial nations. There are many reasons that can compel military leaders to take ‘action’ against the elected government, chief among them is economic instability. Even in the ‘Great Depression’ era United States, there were two feeble attempts at overthrowing the civilian government headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

According to congressional testimony given by one of America’s most decorated Marines, General Smedley Butler, he was approached by some people claiming to represent top American Industrialists, such as the DuPont family and JP Morgan. The Industrialists were allegedly afraid of a ‘communist’ overtake of the country and were willing to bankroll an effort to assume power in the country. Smedley Butler was supposed to march on the White House, demanding his installation as a Deputy President. This plan never came to fruition because the ‘middlemen’ were playing both sides (Smedley Butler and the Industrialists).

Another factor that played a role in making a coup was the ethnic mismatch within the armies. Professor Steven I Wilkinson, in his excellent book ‘Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence’ elaborately explained this point. Donald Horowitz wrote that, “Where the ethnic imbalance between a group’s representation in the army and its representation in the population, government, or the economy was very high, the chances of violence and civil war increased sharply.” A recent study of all African states after independence, found that there were much higher numbers of coup attempts in those countries where there was a “mismatch” between the proportion of the ethnic group in the army and that in control of politics.

Among nationalist Indians, All India Congress and to a certain extent, All India Muslim League were major parties formulating policies for a post-British future of India. Both parties had differing views on what role military ought to play in a future republic. Allama Iqbal, in his infamous address to the Annual session of Muslim League in 1930, advocated the formation of an autonomous North-West Frontier unit of Muslim majority within the Indian boundary. To emphasize this point, he used the following words: “The North-West Indian Muslims will prove the best defenders of India against a foreign invasion, be that invasion one of ideas or of bayonets. The Punjab with 56 percent Muslim population supplies 54 percent of the total combatant troops in the Indian Army, and if the 19,000 Gurkhas recruited from the independent State of Nepal are excluded, the Punjab contingent amounts to 62 percent of the whole Indian Army. This percentage does not take into account nearly 6,000 combatants supplied to the Indian Army by the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. From this you can easily calculate the possibilities of North-West Indian Muslims in regard to the defence of India against foreign aggression.” The venerable Allama was promising the safety of India from external aggression and ‘ideological aggression’ (by which he probably meant communism) through the creation of a Muslim majority province, with boundaries similar to modern-day Pakistan.

On the Congress side, B.R. Ambedkar, a towering political figure representing Dalits, wrote a book called ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’ in 1941. On pages 93-94, he argued, “It is the money contributed by the Provinces of Hindustan which enables the Government of India to carry out its activities in the Pakistani provinces.” He predicted that if Pakistan left, India would benefit from redirecting the revenue that supported military expenditure in the Punjab and NWFP to a variety of civilian purposes. Congress was a party that had been conscious of the “problem of the military” for at least three decades, and had developed ideas on both the scope of the problem and some likely solutions. In a series of studies in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as in many parliamentary debates, nationalists pointed to the deep regional and caste imbalances that existed and the use of the army as a coercive force against Indians, and suggested ways to reduce the threat these posed to democracy.

One of the first things Nehru did, when taking office in September 1946, was to set to work addressing the reform of the army in his letter to General Auchinleck and the Defence Secretary. Nehru’s other letters to officers prior to independence in 1947 and the steps that he took in the first years of independence demonstrate that in fact he and his party were far from indifferent to the armed forces. Nehru used three different coup-proofing mechanisms that were not tried in Pakistan. Separate religious electorates and job reservations for Muslims and several other minorities were dismantled in most provinces from 1947 to 1948. In 1949 the Constituent Assembly voted to abolish religious and caste reservations at the national level as well, with exceptions only for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and even these were expected to remain in force for only a short time. Even after Partition, officers from Punjab far outnumbered officers from other provinces. To minimize the effect of a ‘Punjabi majority’ only one Chief of Army till 1977 was selected from Punjab.

The pay and perks of the military were also reduced, substantially; Indian commissioned officers recruited after 1934 suffered a 40 percent cut to their salaries. Shortly after independence Nehru moved into Flagstaff House, the Commander in Chief’s mansion and the largest government residence in Delhi after the Vice-regal Palace, to use as his own official residence. Another important step was to rein in the military intelligence services. Prior to 1947 the military had its own very active Military Intelligence department (MI) that monitored internal as well as external threats. The military’s domestic intelligence functions— though not initially their monitoring of external threats—were transferred over to the Home Ministry’s own Intelligence Bureau. As a cumulative effect of all these changes, India has remained without a coup since partition while Pakistan has suffered one military dictator after another.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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