The Role of the Army in Modern Day India: A Debate, Discussion or Whatever


Senior Member
Feb 23, 2009
Move over TV stars, a resurgent India needs more soldiers!

By Jawed Naqvi
Monday, 19 Apr, 2010

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand at attention in front of colleagues killed in
Maoist rebel attacks, after the bodies arrived at a military airport in New Delhi,
Wednesday, April 7, 2010. - Photo by AP.

The military's role in governance in India and Pakistan offers an interesting comparison. To an outsider at least the recent shift in Pakistan from a presidential system of governance towards parliamentary democracy will continue to look vulnerable to old habits. There are no legal coups, and mere constitutional changes don't inoculate a country against forced takeovers of governance by unconstitutional means. Even so the parliamentary move is the clearest signal in decades to assert people's power in Pakistan.

And what if an overtly democratic system such as India's begins to lean more and more on the military's involvement to fix a political problem? Most Pakistani friends visiting Delhi gape with disbelief when a three-star general's car stops at a traffic light with ordinary office-goers. Senior army officers travel in simple vehicles without fanfare. This is a good sign for democracy. But some of the sheen of civilian supremacy over India's military is getting slowly eroded, not because of the military's hidden agenda, but because the politicians and their hangers-on are beginning to favour authoritarian choices.

Everyone wants the army to fix problems that used to be the lot of the good old fashioned civilian administration. As the tussle deepens between the haves and the have-nots in a polarised polity, a prickly and growing middle class looks less prepared to hold on to its morsel of prosperity without the use of force, which ultimately means military intervention. The slightest sign of turbulence, be it a terrorist attack in Mumbai or an industrial strike somewhere, invites calls for the army to take charge.

Not too long ago, a group of big industrialists petitioned the government for permission to use special military protection including air cover for their units. The government baulked at the idea, but the plan may not have been shelved. Last week newspapers reported that a worried administration in Delhi had invited the army to step in to salvage from disarray the Commonwealth Games due to be held in the Indian capital later this year. The proposed role of the military has less to do with security and more with issues such as drug and doping tests etc.

When the military was asked recently to consider its involvement in tackling a Maoist rebellion in Chhattisgarh, the response came as a relief for basic propriety. The army chief reportedly turned down the proposal saying his troops were not trained to fight domestic battles. The government on the other hand remains adamant and it is keeping its options open to use air power purportedly against the rebels.

The prickly middle class was up in arms against Maoist rebels even before they ambushed and killed 76 paramilitary troopers earlier this month. In tandem with the government, most newspapers have reflected middle class concerns. They too have accused the rebels of holding up India's development and therefore its promised superpowerdom. This thinking was piloted by the prime minister and the home minister who first described the Maoists as the most serious internal security threat. The presumption in the claim is that the rest of the country, where Maoists have not yet cast their supposedly evil eye, is coming out of grinding poverty at break-neck speed.

However, in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, once flaunted as the cynosure of neo-liberal romance with rural India, thousands of indebted farmers have killed themselves, their steadily increasing toll largely going unnoticed because the headlines are riveted to corrupt practices in running cricket tournaments. The dead farmers were not Maoists or even remotely leftwing rabble-rousers. We can't begin to imagine the horror had the pacifists opted for the proverbial suicide belt. They were motivated enough to kill themselves but did not seem to have the heart to harm others.

Wonder what Gandhi would have thought of their peaceful methods of protest. Or was it escape? Did they have a choice? As India wades deeper and deeper into the economic mire that has driven the poor to destitution and traditional communities from their homes, we can see the accompanying need for greater reliance on military force to pursue the agenda. Polarisation of opinions is sharp. Most TV channels and newspapers are assiduously pursuing the government's agenda. Civil society leaders and rights activists have generally taken the different view.

A people's tribunal headed by a former Supreme Court judge met in Delhi last week to hear directly from residents of the affected forests and other tribal districts about what really was afoot. Not surprisingly, the three-day hearing was largely ignored by the media. Its findings were at variance with the government's assertions that all resistance against state-backed plunder of natural resources was led by Maoists. The jury heard the testimonies of witnesses from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa as well as some expert witnesses on land acquisition, mining and human rights violations that came in the wake of Operation Green Hunt. The sobriquet indicates a military campaign specifically against the Maoists, but as the jury found, it really targets all resistance, including mostly the peaceful ones. The jury's immediate observations ran roughly like this:

"Tribal communities represent a substantial and important proportion of Indian population and heritage. Not even ten countries in the world have more people than we have tribals in India. Not only are they crucial components of the country's human biodiversity, which is greater than in the rest of the world put together, but they are also an important source of social, political and economic wisdom that would be currently relevant and can give India an edge. In addition, they understand the language of nature better than anyone else, and have been the most successful custodian of our environment, including forests. There is also a great deal to learn from them in areas as diverse as art, culture, resource management, waste management, medicine and metallurgy. They have been also far more humane and committed to universally accepted values than our urban society.

"The development model which has been adopted and which is sharply embodied in the new economic policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, have led in recent years to a huge drive by the state to transfer resources, particularly land and forests which are critical for the livelihood and the survival of the tribal people, to corporations for exploitation of mineral resources, SEZs and other industries most of which have been enormously destructive to the environment. These industries have critically polluted water bodies, land, trees, plants, and have had a devastating impact on the health and livelihoods of the people.

"Peaceful resistance movements of tribal communities against their forced displacement and the corporate grab of their resources is being sought to be violently crushed by the use of police and security forces and State and corporate funded and armed militias. The state violence has been accentuated by Operation Green Hunt in which a huge number of paramilitary forces are being used mostly on the tribals. The militarisation of the State has reached a level where schools are occupied by security forces."

The jury recommended that Operation Green Hunt be stopped immediately and a dialogue with the local people started. It also urged the state to stop all acquisition of agricultural or forest land and the forced displacement of the tribal people. "The government should share the details of all MOUs, industrial and infrastructural projects proposed in these areas. There should be a freeze all MOUs and leases for non-agricultural use of such land, which the home minister has proposed."

The considered advice may fail to avert a full-blown military campaign as its advocates include powerful editors and newspaper proprietors. One typical editorial urged TV channels to not publicly discuss the tactics of the military campaign.

"In a war," said the editor of the Indian Express, "your tactics change every day, sometimes by the hour. You do not discuss or debate tactics in the media. You do not rule out the use of this instrument of state power or that"¦So please ask all your responsible people to stop debating tactical options, from air power to army in public. This country needs soldiers, not TV stars."


Ok, I want this to be an interesting discussion. No bashing of the author, huffing and puffing and general ranting against the opinion-maker will be allowed. Focus solely on Hermes' scroll, not on his golden wings.

What is your opinion of the role of the Army in modern day India? Is it changing at all? Has it changed? Or has it not? What should the role of the Army be to best adapt to a changing India? In light of the new security circumstances we are confronted with? In light of internal political dissent or otherwise? Elaborate.

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