The transparent Indian Army

Why the Indian Army should not be exempt from the Right to Information Act

This blog is a strong advocate of ensuring that budgetary allocations match the multifarious challenges that India’s armed forces are required to face. It has been The Acorn’s case that India can achieve far higher growth rates and improve its human development indicators by embracing free-market economics than by simply cutting down defence expenditure, as some liberal critics would argue. India’s military capabilities — from C4ISR, weapons platforms down to equipment carried by individual soldiers — do not yet match up to its geopolitical ambitions or even basic future needs. While blueprints and doctrines have been discussed and adopted by the Army, Navy and Air Force, a more fundamental long-term strategic review of India’s defence in the twenty-first century has been long overdue. Procurement scandals and political over-reactions in response have helped make such a review a political minefield that no government dares venture into.

There is no reason why the armed forces should be exempt from the same levels of transparency that are expected of any other arm of government. Secrecy of military information is not sufficient a reason to wholly exempt them. If anything, giving citizens the right to information compels the armed forces to compartmentalise the secret from the routine and then better secure the sensitive portion. India’s newly legislated Right to Information (via Law and Other Things) takes into consideration the need to ensure the nation’s military secrets are adequately protected. It is incumbent on the armed forces to now make available to the citizens everything that they are entitled to know. The Indian Express reports that Gen J J Singh, India’s chief of army staff, has directed the army not to release information requested under the act until the government decides on the requests for exemption sought by the armed forces. (update: since withdrawn, via Ravi Mutyala) This may be a reasonable step to take in the interim — for the Government of India could well decide to accede to their request. But should the government reject the exemption requests, which it should, then the armed forces would do well to fully comply with the law. This would have an exemplary impact — no government department will be able to hide behind the excuse of national security if the armed forces themselves have put their files in the open.

More importantly, given the need for transformational investments in India’s defence capabilities over the next several years, it stands to reason that the armed forces must demonstrate a much higher degree of transparency and openness than now, and in comparison to other government bodies. If there is an urgent need for the depoliticisation of defence planning, procurement and expenditure, that need cannot be satisfied if the armed forces remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy. How the army selects, promotes, pays, rewards and punishes its personnel is not necessarily ‘sensitive’. The first step to transform India’s armed forces is perhaps preparing them to operate in a world where there is a surplus of information.

Update: The Indian Express argues that the armed forces must be exempt from the provisions of the act, on account of national security, and because they ‘do a very difficult job’. DNA on the other hand, jumps to the other extreme arguing that the armed forces should not be above the law. Both miss the point: it’s not about putting battleplans in the open, and it’s not about the army trying to be above the law. It’s about many of the same things that occur in government departments across the country — procurement, personnel, adminstration etc. Not everything in the armed forces is a national secret.

11 thoughts on “The transparent Indian Army”

  1. While I agree with the overall openness of all armed forces, not just the Army, there is a real risk that defense forces will be trashed around by the same people who think the MOD budget is already too big (and that India does not even face any major threat) and by the terror front groups that claim to be human rights groups. Hope all people who rightly call for more transparency will be around to stand by the defense forces when pushed into a corner by these groups which will happen even more now.

  2. Indian Army is already stressed up and far too much stretched because of a variety of reasons, including ongoing insurgencies and performing duties not meant for it. This Act will give it another thing to worry about when it can do without it, and drive more people (potential officers) away from it. This may not be the appropriate time to have the Army under its perview. Even one piece of information about any name, location, rank is one information too much for the Jihadis. It is hoped that MoD gives the Armed forces’ grievances a fair consideration.

  3. Nitin,

    I am not an expert on this subject, so what follows is mostly guess work.

    Contrary to popular belief corruption does exist in Defense. (One of the other name for MES (Military Engineering Service) is Money Earning Service),
    so making procurement etc. public makes sense, however from what I have heard (thought not sure how this works)it is possible to second guess about military strategy from procurement, movement of personnel etc, so I think public information and secret information should be compartmentalized to enusre transparency doesnt allow leakage of critical information.
    What is more I am wary of Indian bureaucracy and their unfailing ability to screw things up.

    I think it will certainly be a favour on your readers if you could discuss about how this seperation of public and non – public domain can be accomplisehd for military.


  4. I agree with Nitin that we should be ready for a world where information can be sought by anyone who is adept at using google. I don’t think there is any compromise in putting up information like this. Look at how the Nepali press got to know of the Chinese trucks bringing weapons into Nepal.

  5. Whilst the Army should be exempt from giving out its operational plans and other maters of startegic interests including activities like procurement, there is no reason why issue like personal matters must be kept behind veils. The actual reason why the army is fighting for being exempt from the RTI is that the hog wash that goes on in personal matters will become public and the COAS and his minions will not be able to play around and help their friends and chamchas. It is well known in the army that the present COAS held a special board in order to ensure his staff officer gets approved to the generals rank, while he had not made it to the next rank eralier. That too only his and a few other such well connected officers were considered. It is such activities that they are worried about becoming public. Such issues were the reason why the MS Branch issued that infamous oredr..remember it is the MS Branch which deals with pwrsonal matters.

  6. Defence forces are trained to hide info from enemy and they obfuscate out of habit. For more than fifty years they have been trearted as holy cow and their reaction to the RTI is not surprising. Instead of demanding a banket immunity from RTI they should have sought exemption of only sensitive operational information; that would have been fully justified. But hiding behind “NATIONAL SECURITY ARGUEMENT” IS SO COMFORTABLE.

  7. The Armed Forces is a pandora’s box of corruption and have been able to survive behind the smokescreen of integrity is the iron wall behind which information lies buried which has the potential to bury 90% of the senior leadership. Allowing them to be exempt from the Right to Information will make the proactive media seek information on the sly and that will cause more harm to the fibre of the services than anything else.

    There is anarchy in there , mini Iraq right here in the middle of India , where people quietly suffer cos noone comes to know. The biggest blunder of the century will be to exempt those from information exposure who have been hiding things since they joined the forces.

  8. I have served 26 years in Army and had been in four major operations including Op Rakshak, Op Blue Star and Op Trident. Today I am in civil life for past seven years after taking VRS. This army that people call mini Iraq is ridiculous. I come from lower middle class family. Had none in Army as my god father. This army looked after my career, my operational abilities, my qualifications, my spirit and my health. I regret leaving Army. Thosand lives I am prepared to serve in Indian Army. We have brigade commanders – for whom the nation’s one inch land was worth his own life thousand times over. Stop this nonsensical propaganda against this fine organisation.

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