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Two nations, two armies

Two nations, two armies

The sociologist Charles Tilly famously compared modern states to organised crime, arguing that they are essentially protection rackets. In return for revenue and support, states protect citizens from external actors, and also provide internal stability and security through the provision of public goods including law enforcement. However, as Tilly pointed out, wars and antagonistic external relationships are usually instigated and sustained by states themselves, and that the mechanisms that underpin domestic security could easily be turned against a populace, either through direct coercion (using, for example, the police) or by withholding vital services and, indeed, liberties. Hundreds of years of contestation between rulers and the ruled, the gradual emergence of democracy, and the transformation of subjects into citizens, may now constrain the arbitrary exercise of power by the state, particularly in the advanced industrial democracies, but Tilly’s main point remains valid: all states are founded on violence, and it is their capacity to exercise it that gives them power. Ultimately, states protect citizens from themselves.

It is not coincidental that the vast majority of coups and military dictatorships that emerged in the second half of the 20th century (and those that continue to exist today) occurred in former colonies. As the wealth of literature on this area demonstrates, many post-colonial states were saddled with a legacy of poorly institutionalised civilian politics coming up against the power of well-developed militaries. Colonial regimes, driven as they were by the imperatives of maintaining order and engaging in accumulation, invested a tremendous amount of effort into creating effective and efficient bureaucracies and militaries that could function without being hampered by indigenous, democratic oversight. This contrasted with the anaemic growth of representative politics; as and when it did materialise in the colonised world, ‘democracy’ was usually little more than window-dressing, designed to perpetuate colonial control while deepening extant divisions in society and cementing the power of local, elite collaborators. As such, when independence was finally achieved, many anti-colonial nationalist movements struggling to assert control over their new nations found themselves having to deal with militaries that possessed the means to displace them in the ‘national interest’. That these militaries themselves defined what the ‘national interest’ was, and also bestowed the responsibility for upholding it upon themselves, only served to support Tilly’s point about states, violence, and protection.

History is not always destiny, however, with this being amply demonstrated in Steven Wilkinson’s Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence. Professor Wilkinson teaches political science at Yale, and has long been one of the most astute observers and analysts of contemporary Indian politics. In this book, he turns his attention to a classic question that has been of considerable interest to those studying South Asia: given their similar institutional and colonial legacies, why was India able to democratise even as Pakistan slid further and further into military authoritarianism? After all, given the generally dismal record many former colonies have had in this regard, India’s democratic trajectory was far from guaranteed. This was perhaps especially true given that the Raj in India possessed a formidable military whose professionalism, expertise, and organisational coherence could have allowed it to assert itself as a dominant political player in a context where post-colonial India’s ethnic and religious tensions could have potentially bred the type of instability that usually precedes authoritarian interventions. Indeed, this is arguably exactly what happened in Pakistan, when ethnic conflict between the eastern and western wings, coupled with incompetence and factional infighting amongst the political elite, facilitated the military’s eventual, and perhaps inevitable, entry into politics just a decade after Independence.

For Wilkinson, the answer to the question of why the military did not intervene in politics or, rather, how it was reigned in, has three different components. The first peg of the argument deals with the varying inheritances of Pakistan and India. Here, Army and Nation treads relatively familiar ground as it echoes arguments made by Ayesha Jalal and others about how the economic strategic situation Pakistan inherited in 1947 prompted the prioritisation of military and defence needs above all others. From the very outset, Pakistan had to deal with the fact that it had to secure and defend its potentially dangerous and volatile borders with India and Afghanistan. What this entailed in practice was the channelling of resources into the development of the armed forces, with up to 70 per cent of the budget going to defence in the years following Partition, as well as the cultivation of alliances with the United States and others in order to gain weapons and economic assistance. This latter factor was crucial given that Pakistan’s economic base — lacking industry and revenue generating potential — was insufficient to effectively cater to the new country’s military priorities. In a context where the military was already relatively well-developed (in comparison with civilian political entities), the emphasis on defence only served to further enhance its capacities.

India, on the other hand, suffered from few of these problems. In addition to having an economy that was on a much healthier footing, India did not suffer from the same security concerns as its western neighbour. This, in turn, helped in facilitating a policy of non-alignment that allowed India to maintain a relatively independent foreign policy that, crucially, kept it away from the decision-making process when it came to external affairs.

For Wilkinson, however, the difference between the economic and strategic constraints faced by newly independent Pakistan and India provides only part of the explanation for why the military grew to be so much more powerful in the former. Of greater importance is the way in which recruitment into the military from the so-called ‘martial races’ skewed political outcomes in the two countries. Under the British Raj, strategic imperatives and colonial anthropology fused to create the idea of the ‘martial races’; it was believed that the inhabitants of Punjab and what was then known as the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) were natural warriors whose martial prowess justified their disproportionate recruitment into the Indian army. As a result, by the 1940s, almost half the total members of the Indian army were drawn from Punjab, and over 60 pc were drawn from the demographically narrow pool of ‘martial races’. At Partition, however, this equation changed with tremendous repercussions for both India and Pakistan; the division of the subcontinent meant that Pakistan inherited nearly all the areas that had traditionally supplied recruits to the Indian army, meaning that it now possessed an army overwhelmingly dominated by Punjabis, while India moved to a situation where the share of Punjab in the armed forces was reduced by almost half.

The demographic composition of the two armies had important consequences; the ethnic homogeneity of the Pakistani army meant that it would essentially come to be seen as being representative of a hegemonic Punjabi project within Pakistan, with this perception being exacerbated by the fact that Bengal and Sindh were two of the most marginal provinces in undivided India when it came to military recruitment. The problem was made worse by the fact that the uniformity of the military membership in Pakistan fostered and facilitated the organisational coherence that underpinned the planning and execution of successful coups.

As Wilkinson points out, however, ethnic heterogeneity alone is not a sufficient explanation for the Indian military’s political weakness. After all, while the share of the ‘martial races’ in the Indian army declined, it was still substantial and disproportionate after Partition, and remains so to this day. Indeed, three-fourths of India’s officers were drawn from a pool that represented only 10 pc of the population after independence, and half were from Punjab alone. Here Army and Nation delves into its second major argument concerning the institutionalisation of the Congress party. As has been pointed out by others who have considered this question, the Congress differed from the Muslim League in several important respects; it had a broader base of support in ethnic terms, it had a mass membership and considerable popular legitimacy, and it possessed the intellectual, professional, and organisational wherewithal to effectively undertake the task of governing India once it achieved independence. One immediate effect of this was that it prevented the emergence of the type of political crises that would come to typify the first decade of Pakistan’s existence and which would, in turn, justify the military’s intervention in politics.

When considering how the military was muzzled in India, however, Wilkinson’s analysis of the difference between the Congress and the Muslim League runs deeper. For one, as is shown through the examination of a plethora of colonial-era documents, the Congress leadership was aware of the potential dangers posed by a strong military, and consequently devoted considerable mental energy towards devising mechanisms through which to curtail its influence post-independence. This was in contrast with the Muslim League, which gave comparatively little thought to questions pertaining to actually governing Pakistan once it was created.

More significantly, the broad-based nature of the Congress’s support and membership, coupled with the party’s internal competitive dynamics, allowed it to effectively deal with the kinds of ethnic, linguistic, and religious problems that could have derailed India’s politics early on. Rather than attempting to enforce a single dominant Hindu or Hindi identity on India, the Congress chose instead to embrace diversity, reorganising the country’s provinces along linguistic lines, extending institutional recognition to the country’s ‘backwards classes’ and lower castes, and de-emphasising communal identity and politics on the basis of religion. This created what political scientists often refer to as ‘cross-cutting cleavages’; language, ethnicity, and caste intersected with religion to produce a plethora of fluid political configurations that militated against the creation of majorities constructed along a single axis of identity. In contrast with Pakistan, where Punjabi hegemony and the marginalisation of other groups in economic, linguistic, and cultural terms crystallised sources of ethnic tension and instability (made worse by the Punjabi domination of the army), the Congress’s strategy for dealing with the diverse groups in India gave that party greater legitimacy, and went a long way towards reducing the kind of instability that might have engendered a coup.

The third part of Wikinson’s argument — and also the most original contribution made by Army and Nation to the debate on civil-military relations in South Asia — details the specific ‘coup-proofing’ strategies deployed by the Congress in the first decades of independence to reduce the potential political power of the military. Given their recognition of the threat posed by the military, Nehru and other Congress leaders were quick to impose reforms that were fundamental to securing Indian democracy against the threat of military intervention, and Wilkinson goes into considerable detail when describing the symbolic and material changes that were made to achieve this goal. For example, measures were taken to ensure that, from the outset, military budgets would be overseen and approved by a Ministry of Defence controlled by civilians. The civilian Intelligence Bureau subjected top officers in the armed forces to surveillance, and their terms of service were reduced to prevent the concentration of power.

Even though recruitment remained tilted towards the ‘martial races’ efforts were made to broaden ethnic representation within the military, particularly when it came to the promotion of officers. The protocol, perks, and privileges given to top military officials were reduced, and it was made clear that civilians took precedence when it came to exercising authority and engaging in decision-making. Even when the decision was taken to dramatically expand the military’s capabilities following India’s defeat against China in 1962, the increase in the strength of the military was accompanied by the creation of massive paramilitary forces. This was done to ensure that tasks that might require domestic military intervention, such as counter-insurgency, could be performed by forces under civilian control so as to prevent the military from being drawn into internal political conflicts. Again, the contrast with Pakistan is stark, with the armed forces in the latter enjoying levels of prestige and status far greater than those of their civilian counterparts, while also benefitting from economic advantages that far outstrip those afforded to men in uniform across the border.

The final part of Army and Nation deals with contemporary challenges faced by the Indian military. For one, there has always been concern about the impact of India’s ‘coup-proofing’ on the capabilities of its military and while it is difficult to reach any definitive conclusions about this, it seems clear that India possesses a cumbersome defence bureaucracy that could potentially hamper operational effectiveness. A potentially larger problem emerges out of Indian politics itself, with the decline of the Congress and the resurgence of ethnic, caste, and religious politics imposing pressures on the military, both in terms of expanding its base of recruitment further (thereby affecting its cohesion), and by creating the potential for civilian political conflict to spill over into the military itself. While Wilkinson agrees that such fears may be premature and overblown, he does note that they remain a very real possibility going forward.

It is difficult to find fault with the analysis presented in Army and Nation. Not only does the book present a very comprehensive, well-argued explanation for the political divergence between India and Pakistan, its exhaustive use of colonial and post-Independence sources and statistics on military recruitment, spending, and organisation also make it one of the best books that can be read on the past, present, and future of the Indian armed forces. While the book is primarily an academic work, it is written in an accessible style that does not prevent it from making a valuable contribution to the broader literature on civil-military relations.

The reviewer is an assistant professor of Political Science at Lums.

Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence
By Steven I. Wilkinson
Harvard University Press, US
ISBN 978-0674728806

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