Modelling the armed forces on the railways

Mountbatten, Ismay and their outdated legacy

My article in this month’s issue of Pragati, on reforming India’s national security policy, is titled “Start by burying Lord Ismay“.

But who was Lord Ismay and why does he need to be buried? Well, General Hastings Lionel Ismay was a British general and post retirement from the British Army, served as chief of staff to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India.

In a Rediff.com article, Lieutenant-General (retd) Eric A Vas wrote:

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that ‘although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.’ [Rediff]

The higher defence setup in India, therefore, was not only modelled on the Railway Board—even that model was not fully implemented. Nehru might have had his blind spots and valid considerations, but what is truly astonishing is that India has left the system substantially unchanged for the last 62 years.

No one can reasonably argue that a set-up that didn’t even work very well in the twentieth century will somehow be effective in the twenty-first. A comprehensive strategic review is in order: the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure must be reviewed in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment.