Military dictatorships have been a common phenomenon in the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa, and in the 1950s and 1960s, a dictatorship in India was not an impossibility. In fact, while covering the 1967 general elections, The Times correspondent, Neville Maxwell, prophesied that these might well be the last elections ever in the country. And he was not the only one who believed that sooner or later, India would fall under military rule.
The question why the Indian Army never attempted to seize power has sometimes been attributed to the fact that it is disciplined, highly professional, and steeped in proud 250-year-old traditions inherited from the British. But this theory doesn’t work, because the Pakistani army was born out of the same traditions and that didn’t seem to stop it from assuming power.
Indeed, one could argue that it was precisely because the Pakistan army was such a highly professional force that there came a time when it felt it could no longer stand by and watch the country slide into chaos, and felt it was its duty to step in.
The Indian Army was born out of the same tradition as Pakistan’s. In British India, the army enjoyed a prominent position in Indian life, and even played a role in policy matters. The commander-in-chief, was also the de facto defence minister, and was the second most powerful person in the hierarchy after the viceroy himself. But after Independence things began to change.
Prime minister Nehru believed that the new India needed to rethink the role of the army, and initiated a policy that would firmly subordinate it to the civilian authority. One of the first things that happened after Independence, for example, was that Teen Murti House, traditionally the grand residence of the army chief, was assigned instead to the prime minister: A small matter by itself, perhaps, but a clear indicator of the way the wind was blowing.
Next came a series of budget cuts (resulting, among other things, in hefty cuts in army officers’ generous Raj-era salaries). And when India’s first army chief, field marshal Cariappa, publicly criticised the government’s economic performance, he was immediately rapped on the knuckles, and told not to meddle in matters that did not concern him.
By the 1970s, the Indian armed forces had finally been rendered ‘coup-proof’ by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that had been put in place. And that might be considered to be one of the major achievements of the Nehru era: Ensuring the durability of Indian democracy. It’s an achievement that is not sufficiently recognised; an achievement underscored by the fact that all our South Asian neighbours—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka—have experienced military coups, actual or attempted.
This ‘coup-proofing’ was implemented, through a package of carefully thought-out measures, ranging from diversifying the ethnic composition of the armed forces to setting up rugged command and control structures, re-casting the order of precedence between civil and military authorities, paying close attention to promotions, disallowing army officers from making public statements, creating a counter-balancing paramilitary force, and topping off this entire effort with little touches like ensuring that retired chiefs of staff are usually sent off as ambassadors to faraway countries.
The end result of all this is that when, in 2012, newspapers breathlessly reported that there had been a coup attempt, with army units being surreptitiously moved towards Delhi in the wake of the general V. K. Singh affair, people like you and I, merely shrugged, said, “What nonsense,” and turned to the sports page.
We perhaps don’t realise what a luxury that kind of certainty is.