My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance

India needs comprehensive military reforms, not mere salary increases for officers

In today’s op-ed in Mint, Sushant & I argue that rather than merely addressing military pay and procurement in isolation, India needs to urgently conduct a fundamental overhaul of its armed forces.

In 1905, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon resigned as the British viceroy of India. The reason—his feud with Lord Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army, over civilian control of the Armed Forces. Kitchener was a war hero and held emotional sway over British voters. London, obviously, asked Curzon to go.

A similar scene is now being re-enacted in a democratic India. The three defence services, in unison, have refused to accept the orders of the Union cabinet on the Sixth Central Pay Commission award. The three service chiefs cited “the larger interest of the services” in an open communication to the rank and file.

The defence services have two main grouses against the current pay award: reduction in status of military officers and lower pay than their civilian counterparts. While the pay commission and the government have gone by existent parities, the services refer to the extant Warrant of Precedence. The issue of salaries of lieutenant colonels is being projected as the main bone of contention by the services. Yet, this ignores the fact that while a lieutenant colonel used to lead a battalion of nearly 1,000 soldiers three decades ago, today, he only leads a sub-unit of 150. We have come to this pass due to a lack of appetite—both among civilians and among the Armed Forces—for fundamental military reforms that would make the profile of the Armed Forces consistent with the rest of the economy. At the heart of this unfortunate controversy lies the fact that the government has gone about dealing with the issues of military pay and procurement independently, without considering them within the overall context of root-branch reform of the Armed Forces.

The arguments of the Armed Forces are often couched in emotional terms—unstable family life, staying at far-off places and risk to life. While these are valid, the pay commission has already considered these aspects. It has allocated an additional component called military service pay to the members of the Armed Forces. Tax-free liberal compensatory allowances for postings at Siachen and other difficult locations stand doubled after the pay commission report. In contrast, paramilitary forces and civilian officials working in corresponding areas do not enjoy these benefits.

It is understandable that the Armed Forces should think they deserve more. However, instead of using the institutional mechanism for redressal, they have indulged in a game of political brinkmanship, raising demands publicly through the media.Ex-servicemen, who have no locus standi in the matter, have unconscionably taken up the cudgels as a public front for the defence services.

After announcing a ministerial committee headed by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee to address their demands, the Union government asked the service chiefs to notify the new pay. In direct defiance of government, the defence services delayed the notification. And far from nipping the tendency in the bud several months ago, defence minister A.K. Antony let the situation drift to this extent. This precedent cannot be a good sign for civil-military relations at a time when India has an acute need to rethink and modernize its Armed Forces.

India is an exception among the countries that gained independence from colonial rule in the last century. It has not experienced a spell of military rule due to the vision of its founding fathers, who devised an effective model for civilian control of the military. The Armed Forces, as envisaged in the Constitution, are a technical arm carrying out the policies of the government, responsible to the Union cabinet through the defence minister and its bureaucratic staff. In any modern democracy, the military commanders—those who actually have operational control of troops—are outside the governmental system, while there are some uniformed members in the government in the role of specialist military advisers. Parliament, through the Union cabinet and the defence ministry, has the last word on military policy. That our parliamentarians generally do not take too deep an interest in defence policy should not come in the way of appreciating the value of ensuring that civilian control of the Armed Forces remains robust and unchallenged.

The recent acts of the service chiefs threaten this prudent constitutional balance. While the government must make every effort to address the genuine grievances of the Armed Forces, they must also accept that the Union government has the final authority on this matter. The Union government must rein in the service chiefs and ensure the sanctity of the established civil-military relationship. Indeed, Mukherjee’s group of ministers would do even better to seize this opportunity to set the ball rolling on the comprehensive reform of India’s defence services. Respected voices in the strategic establishment have been calling for a blue ribbon commission that would conduct a comprehensive review of Indian defence policy. The unfortunate incidents of recent weeks are an urgent reminder of the need to heed that call.

14 thoughts on “My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance”

  1. Just a minor point to add. These are testing times for the Republic. The rise in terrorism in recent times and an inherent political stability at the center (with the main parties unable to garner simple majority on their own) would suggest that the civil-military bond remains strong. The military provides a strong deterrent for separatism, so ideally I would prefer there be no antagonism between the two.

  2. The issue of salaries of lieutenant colonels is being projected as the main bone of contention by the services. Yet, this ignores the fact that while a lieutenant colonel used to lead a battalion of nearly 1,000 soldiers three decades ago, today, he only leads a sub-unit of 150.
    What about the IPS appointments?
    Where you had an SP, today we have a DIG/IG. Why aren’t we talking of devaluation of pay of these appointments also? These are the links for equation off military to civil services.

  3. @Menon,

    You are missing the point here. There are institutional mechanisms available if the chiefs wanted redress. Recall Gen Thimayya and Nehru. So even if the services are wronged, it is still wrong on their part to disobey legitimate orders.

  4. – This fiasco, it seems, rather than an impetuous act of the service chiefs is more due to- bureaucratic one-upmanship, an incompetent Defence Minister & a procrastinating Union Government & ofcourse the ever relevant root-cause ‘Nehruvian abhorrence of the Armed force’ mind-set.
    – “We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats. You can scrap the army. The police are good enough to meet our security needs.” – Nehru
    – Gen Thimayya used to be constantly ridiculed by the sycophant Menon & worst, he was double-crossed & betrayed by Nehru, the rotten process of politicizing the Armed forces, has set in right from the beginning,
    this precedent needs to be addressed first.

  5. “Yet, this ignores the fact that while a lieutenant colonel used to lead a battalion of nearly 1,000 soldiers three decades ago, today, he only leads a sub-unit of 150. ”

    Actually this statement is not correct.
    A battalion is still commanded by a substantive Lieut Colonel who is an Acting Colonel. Most Infantry Battalion Commanders are Acting Colonels who are receiving the pay of a Lt Col and not of a full Colonel. An officer attains the rank of a substantive (paid) full Colonel in 20 years, if at all promoted that is.

    There is definitely a requirement for linking pay with length of service. The same has been implemented for all Organised Group-A civil services including the technical services but the defence services have been left out.

    Though I agree with the need to maintain a civil-military balance, I strongly feel that the Armed Forces have not been given a good deal.

  6. @ Udayan
    The grouse has always been there. 20 or 10 years ago the computer was not in vogue. Today things are different. The SCPC was discussed threadbare in bytes by the evening of the release of the initial report. Historical data is easily accessible and omissions are difficult to hide. The Service Chiefs had represented against the recommendation at each stage though not with the kind of conviction that was displayed when driven against the wall.
    Many a blog have posts by serving officers and veterans. The exchange of views between serving and retired servicemen over the e-channel is something which even the Service Chiefs indulge. The days of the Cantonment are over. The military man is no longer isolated from the civil mainstream. His social plight and that of the other veterans has moved him to represent in a form which hitherto was unthinkable of the serviceman. It was assumed that this lot will not, and can not, go against the institution. This is also the reason why representations were not given due consideration. How very wrong.

  7. “The recent acts of the service chiefs threaten this prudent constitutional balance. ”

    What balance?

    I also disagree that ex-sevicemen have nothing at stake. First, current servicemen become ex-servicemen and most ex-servicemen have been through this tamasha more than once. And Second, ex-servicemen are the civilian voice of servicemen.

    Reforms are needed, but it’s by and large blocked by bureaucracy and uncaring politicians. This is where balance needs to be created – because never existed in the first place.

  8. “It has allocated an additional component called military service pay to the members of the Armed Forces.”

    But the CoS did not think so. They thought it was a part which was existing as SDA in the basic pay which is rechristened as MSP. However armed forces agree with your contention that it should be treated as an additional component without altering the parity that existed in the basic pay earlier. The entire bone of contention originates from here.

    “The recent acts of the service chiefs threaten this prudent constitutional balance.”

    Nothing can be farther from the truth than this articulation.
    As for the Service Chiefs withholding Notifying the Govt Order, it is a simple case of they being morally bound to apprise the Govt of their perception of anomalies and ill-effects of implementing its order, prior to blindly executing it. Once the Govt (represented by the RM and PM) found merit in reconsidering the aspects brought before it by the Armed Forces and assured the Service Chiefs of having a re-look, until it got back to the Services with fresh instructions, the Services cannot be blamed for ‘defiance’ or ‘disobedience’. Once the Govt did come back during the previous weekend with interim orders, the Services have accepted the same and are implementing.

    “The Union government must rein in the service chiefs and ensure the sanctity of the established civil-military relationship.”

    Is it sufficient if only the armed forces remain subservient to the civilian political leadership. Isn’t the same applicable to the bureaucracy also to be subservient to the civilian political leadership. In this case it does not appear to be so.
    The bureaucracy misled the Cabinet into believing that their recommendations were based on fair consideration of the views and logic of the Armed Forces (if it was not so, the RM, FM and PM would not have been surprised and found merit in the issues raised by the Armed Forces subsequently).
    What is most disconcerting is the bureaucratic design that they resorted to “disobeying instructions of the RM”; and “Misleading the FM and Misrepresenting Facts Before Him”. The charge of “Defiance of Govt Authority” that is being labeled upon the Service Chiefs actually should be labeled upon the Bureaucracy.

    “Indeed, Mukherjee’s group of ministers would do even better to seize this opportunity to set the ball rolling on the comprehensive reform of India’s defence services.”

    It is anybody’s guess that the current media campaign is the handiwork of the same very bureaucrats in a last ditch effort to scuttle the “Informed Decision Making Process by the Appointed GoM” and to “Cover Bureaucratic Misdeeds & Follies” by raising the bogey of “Armed Forces’ Defiance of the Govt Authority”.

  9. The military cannot be isolated from the civil society. Their actions were a last resort. There is still a lot of mischief cooking
    The Chairperson of the UPA Mrs. Sonia Gandhi defies prohibitory orders in Rae Barelli and nothing happens to her. This was in direct defiance of the legally elected Government of the State.
    The DMK is on a tangent with national policies by resignations if the Tamil Lankans are not supported by India, a stand which implicitly vindicates Pakistan’s support to Kashmir.
    Why? All for a vote bank for the politicians?
    And, the bureaucracy? They let the politicians play musical chairs while they play their power games.
    This degradation is a slow process with the SCPC being another tool. Don’t believe me? Read this. Army HQ ‘vanishes’ from South Block
    8 May 2006, 2307 hrs IST, Rajat Pandit,TNN

    NEW DELHI: The Army HQ has disappeared from South Block. No, an enemy nation has not carried out surgical strikes to wipe out the top brass of the military. Instead, the “Army HQ” has been renamed as hold your breath “Integrated HQ of Ministry of Defence (Army)”.
    Shakespeare’s Juliet once asked, “What’s in a name?” A lot feels the government, apparently believing that calling a rose by some other name would also make it smell sweeter.
    The rationale behind the move to rechristen the simple ‘Army HQ’ and put in its place a convoluted name, which has taken effect from May 1, is historical. In the Union government’s organisational set-up since the early-1950s, the three Service HQs have been called “attached offices” of MoD.
    Some old-timers recall this was done to avoid giving the Armed Forces an institutional role in policy-making, since while ministries and their departments can make policy, their “attached offices” merely implement it.

    The 2001 Group of Ministers’ (GoM) report on “Reforming the National Security System”, incidentally, noted that the status of “attached offices” gave the “erroneous perception” that the Armed forces HQs did not participate in policy

    formulation and were “outside the apex government structure”.

    The new nomenclature, carried out by amendments to the government’s “transaction of business rules and standing orders”, seeks to rectify this. The Navy HQ, incidentally, is already functioning as the Integrated HQ of MoD (Navy).
    But many insiders feel the change in nomenclature is just cosmetic. The political and civilian bureaucracy still continues to rule the roost in MoD. “Many a time, even minor decisions of Service HQs require a stamp of approval from them,” said an officer.
    “The GoM report lamented the multiplicity of levels in India’s higher defence management, which often causes delays in decision-making. It called for progressive delegation of administrative and financial powers to Service HQs. But the progress has been quite tardy till now,” he added.

    There have been some defence reforms in wake of the GoM report which also examined the intelligence lapses which led to the 1999 Kargil conflict like the creation of the integrated defence staff, Strategic Forces Command, Defence Intelligence Agency, Defence Procurement Board and the like.
    But the most crucial GoM recommendation, the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide “single-point” military advise to the government and “administer” the nuclear arsenal, continues to hang fire.
    In the absence of a CDS, the much-touted objective to promote “jointness” in operational planning and procurements among the Armed forces also remains a piped dream, with each Service pushing its own interests.

  10. The present situation is, as seen by me, a result of the complete sway of the IAS on the decision making in the country. Had the review sought by Services been carried out by a more representative or an independent body, the results would have been different and in any case far more palatable.
    There is thus a need to clarify the apparent step motherly treatment meted out to the Services officers in career progression-pay wise- as compared to the civil services.

    It also needs to be said that the various cadre reviews carried out over the past two decades, called by whatever name and given whichever appellation, were nothing but an attempt to placate a section of the officers community without addressing the root cause-namely the frustration among the Services officers for the continuing and progressive slide in their status vis a vis others in the government ever since the independence.

    This-it is widely believed- was skillfully managed by the bureaucracy, attuned as it is to the political leadership from its days in the districts. People widely believe that pretty none of bureaucrats can keep their hands on their hearts and say that they never wanted to be close to a politician, from their district days onwards!

    This slide and the underlying causes of the public display of frustration- so far the frustration was limited within-needs to be reversed. This is as good an opportunity as any for the Government to address the underlying issues. However, having seen the response thus far, I am less than sanguine.

    The amount of bad blood that has spilled over in the public domain is a clear pointer that the Government is seen to be governing. And a clear message would be given if the administrative officials responsible for action during various recent disasters are seen to be taken to task and not merely transferred/suspended. And the corrupt are not allowed to ejoy the fruits of their corruption. Action by DMRC in dismissing an Assistant Engineer and suspending a Junior Engineer in the recent accident needs to be emulated by the Government far more often to instill confidence.

    One hopes for the day when the administration of this country, civil and military alike, is seen to be functioning on some commonly understood basis such as fair play and not being allowed to seek shelter under a plethora of rules designed to minimise accountability.

    Finally, one needs to ask as to what the IB was doing when the frustration was brewing within the Services? If it informed its masters and they did nothing, then the ire on bureaucrats is misplaced. But if it did not, then there is cause for someone in IB to pay with his/her job much like the assistant engineer in the DMRC.

  11. How much more the military persons want from their countrymen in return for their promise of security of the national borders ?????

    No one in the establishment of governemnt of India is so well compensated as an army officer and its equivalent in Navy and airforce. The package if worked out in terms of CTC (Cost to Company) will put the CTC of even some of the best paid MNC salaries in the country in the awe.
    Compare this-
    Social Living – Best lifestyle among all govt deptts. Housing plots/flats at subsidised cost at best locations
    security – safest living within their own cantonements for the military officers. Very high gratuity and pension in case of deaths on job.Their children have assured quota in best colleges. They even have their own engg, medical, management, fashion colleges. ( parallel government)
    Working environment – Extremely light working condtions for militry officers when in peace stations. Even in fields duty, the royal living style of officers could be envy of CEOs like Vijay Mallya.
    In comparison think of a police officer slogging it amidst the criminals 24×7, 365 days or a BSF person patrolling the borders day/night.

    Leaves – Military officers entitled for 3 months vacations even when working in the peace postings.
    Free – Housing, free ration, free transport, freee uniforms,
    Subsidised groceries and liquor from CSD Canteen ( at the taxpayers costs)

    Medical – High-quality hospital care available to miltary men. A govt officer of any other deptt has to bear with the insensitive and ill-equipped government hospitals
    Amenities – Luxurious amenities and facilities inside their cantonements, unthinkable for any other cadre of the Govt of India.
    Add the salaries of the multiple betmen available at the back and call of the military officers and inside their house and you have the elite class of countrymen being maintained by taxpayers at very very high price.

    This has been the fact always even before the 6th pay commission.

    The 6th pay commission only has further doled out too much liberal allowances to these previledged lot of our poor nation. And that too has been resented by the Services in a fashion reminiscent of Trade Union activism…. by none other than the Services Chiefs!!!!!….

    In contrast, the officials of other govt organizations are the ones without any patrons. Hence their plight is miserable yet unheeded. Worse, the paramilitary forces and civilians engaged in defence establishments in the similar environments do not get even a fraction of what previledges, amenities, allowances, safety and security is enjoyed by these military officers.

    How much more will satisfy these organised band of brothers??? The answer is not even the the sky will satisfy them. The reason is simple. These people are no more proud of their uniforms and service to the nation. They are busy comparing ranks and begging for more and more and if begging is’nt enough they are are ready to flex their muscles.

    Beware !! it’s a dangerous time not because we have corrupt politicians and inefficient bureaucrats but because we are faced with a greedy and nearly indiscipined and uncontrolled armed forces…. Pakistan is paying through its nose due to misdemeanor of its armed forces. …. Pray…. we don’t reach that stage due to the hegemony and overambitions of a mighty military establishment.

  12. There are factually incorrect statements in your piece. One Siachen allowance and equivalent allowance in navy and airforce are not tax free.

    2. Inspite of all , you have to say, the key is that all Civil services officers reach PB4 level irrespective of their branch, that is not the case with the armed forces. What about equivalance between Jt Sec and a major general in terms of number of years of service.

    3. So you have a case of discrimination in pay and allowances, on top of that you do not have a fundamental right to exit.

    Any thoughts on this ?

  13. Mr. Reethesh raghupati needs a few days stay at the peace and sensitive location to actually know the living and working condition in armed forces. All that he has mentioned is in books only……….

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