Great Scots

From the battlefield at Bannockburn to Dolly the sheep, the country's soaring national pride speaks volumes about the potential of a complicated dissolution from the United Kingdom.

Read the first and second part of the series here. 

EDINBURGH – Wherever you are in Scotland, you're never very far from a memorial of some kind. In fact, with a population of some 5.2 million, I suspect that if you added them up, you might find that Scotland had one of the highest number of memorials per capita in the world. And now, as Scotland thinks about its future and a likely 2014 referendum on independence, thinking about the past seems more relevant than ever.

Take the date of the referendum. There is much debate about symbolism and political potency here. Unionists want the referendum to happen soon, believing that perhaps, off the back of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne, and the London Olympics this summer, there will be a lot of British feel-good factor which will help sway doubting Scots.

The counter argument comes from the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in Scotland, which wants to hold the referendum after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow -- a competition in which Scotland, like every part of the United Kingdom, competes in its own right. And the SNP is also doubtless hoping that Scottish hearts will beat for independence in the wake of celebrations that June to mark the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's defeat of the English at Bannockburn.

The battlefield at Bannockburn is dominated by a glowering statue of "King Robert." Not far off is the town of Stirling, which is itself dominated by a castle, described as "a great symbol of Scottish independence and a source of national pride." But it is also, says Stirling Castle's informative website, "the spiritual home" of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment formed in 1881, at the height of British imperial glory. Wander through the regimental museum and you can see how its men, or those from the antecedents of the regiment, fought in the Crimea, the Boer War, the two world wars, and so on.

When it comes to Scotland's martial history, there is no one better to talk to than Tom Devine, one of the country's most distinguished historians. Walking to his office at Edinburgh University one passes dozens of monuments and plaques to great Scots, and quite a few to other Britons, too. In the city center there is the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. There's North Bridge over Edinburgh's main Waverly train station , which is named after the romantic historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, who in turn is himself commemorated in a black pile of a monument that looks like a giant Victorian rocket. And on North Bridge itself, there's a memorial to Scottish soldiers who fell between 1878 and 1902 in foreign battles that include Afghanistan.  

When I finally get to Devine, he tells me that, "Scottish martial history is a key part of Scottish identity." There is a "long term notion of Scottish military excellence going back to the medieval period. From the 14th to the 17th century, Scotland's biggest export were men of violence."

Indeed, the British Empire, in which Scots played leading roles, helped produce, via the military, a fusion of Scottish and British identity. But Devine says that as the empire disintegrated, that idea of a Scottish martial sense of itself, disintegrated too. Today, as the debate turns to the pros and cons of independence Devine notes, using an old-fashioned word for Scotland: "I've not heard many voices say 'we fought two world wars together' -- not in Scotia. You would hear that up to the 1970s but it does not seem to matter anymore."

So, how do Scots see themselves now? If Edinburgh's museums are anything to go by, the answer is proud. The newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland, which reopened last year and whose antecedents go back to 1780, is full of Scotland's ancient and modern. Take Dolly the (Scottish) sheep, "the first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell," and now, stuffed, she takes pride of place in a glittering, rotating glass case. One suspects she will still be there long after Damien Hirst's potted shark is all but forgotten.

Nearby there is a steam engine built by Scottish-born James Watt and exhibits recalling John Logie Baird (the inventor of television) and Sir Alexander Fleming (who discovered penicillin). I am exaggerating a little bit, but the point is clear: Without the Scots there would have been no industrial revolution, TV, modern medicine, or seminal developments in modern science.

Not far away is the the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It was the first national portrait gallery in the world, opened in 1889. A friend tells me that before it seemed a little embarrassed, ashamed to proclaim: Scottish and proud of it. Not anymore.

The original hall is magnificent, High Victorian Gothic, crowned with a crowded frieze of famous Scots from the Stone Age to 1889 -- including Mary Queen of Scots, David Livingstone, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now, the museum, which reopened in December last year seems, according to my friend, to represent the zeitgeist -- how Scotland feels about itself.

Julie Lawson, the chief curator, laughs nervously at this suggestion and says that, if my friend feels this way, then it is just a happy coincidence. She shows me Mary Queen of Scots, a section devoted to telling the story of Tartan, contemporary pictures of Scotland and more or less everything in between. This includes, of course, Robert Burns (the national poet), Sir Walter Scott (who was, Lawson says "key in creating a fantastical, theatrical Scotland") and even Queen Victoria -- British no doubt, but who did much to popularise a "romantic view" of Scotland which still "has a great hold on the imagination."

We move on to Peter Higgs of Higgs boson and Large Hadron Collider fame, naval pictures from World War I, and key figures of the Scottish Renaissance movement -- such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. There is also a picture of young Zulus from a South African Baptist community who have apparently adopted the wearing of kilts, which were brought to the region by Scottish soldiers in the 19th century.

Moving to the contemporary section of the gallery, the museum catalogue gets rather serious: "We cannot see our own age with the hindsight of history. But we can attempt to make judgements about the significance of current events and mark those issues we think will define our time." Here are pictures of ordinary Scots partying, a few of today's more famous Scots, and Pakistani-Scots. Scotland's modern nationalism, say supporters of independence, is of the civic, all-embracing, and non-ethnic variety. We'll see. But for now, Tom Devine is doubtless right when he says: "The Scottish brand is very powerful." Today though, it remains entwined with that of Britain. But no one says that is inextricable. 

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


The Indian Mutiny That Wasn't

What's behind the strange coup rumors in Delhi?

V.S. Naipul entitled his 1990 travelogue, about the constant chaos that defines the world's largest democracy, India: A Million Mutinies Now. Yet for all the warning signs that India gives off -- a weak political system regularly seized by policy paralysis and riven by corruption, public fury at incompetent politicians, large armed forces, and intelligence agencies active in domestic politics -- the country has been wholly successful in keeping the lid on its military. In fact, the revelations this week of troop movements around New Delhi and a panicked civilian response that have spooked some Indians into thinking there was a failed coup attempt illustrates both the weaknesses of the Indian system and the sheer improbability of a military challenge to civilian rule.

The Indian Express, a respected English-language broadsheet, alleged in a story published this week that on the evening of Jan. 16, Indian intelligence spotted important military units moving toward Delhi. No one had notified the Defense Ministry, as protocol requires. Unlike in opaque China, shaken by coup rumors of its own a few weeks ago, the Indian Express released a blow-by-blow account of what the paper alleges transpired in India: The defense secretary -- the department's most senior civilian bureaucrat -- rushed back from Malaysia and summoned the army's director of military operations. The prime minister was informed "at the crack of dawn." A contingency plan, developed in response to the mutiny of Sikh units in 1984, was activated and lookouts alerted. Later, a terror alert was issued to hold up the movement of army convoys.

Speaking to The Hindu, a senior intelligence official countered that "at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed," but, he conceded, "we worried about indiscipline, or a show of support [for the army chief] by some elements -- and it's our job to consider those possibilities." While it's still too early to say for sure, it appears that India's notoriously skittish civilian leadership has cracked down on its officers once again.

India's officer corps is bound by one of the tightest leashes in the democratic world -- by design. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the military as an instrument of British repression and reviled what he saw as its culture of violence and obedience. In the 1950s, rumors of a coup -- compounded by Ayub Khan's takeover next door in Pakistan -- were one factor that prompted Nehru loyalist Krishna Menon's elevation to the position of defense minister to strengthen the civilians' already iron-clad grip over the military establishment. Military-to-military ties, particularly with the United States, were viewed with great suspicion for fear that officers would grow empowered and absorb subversive political ideas.

Yet paradoxically, the civilians have thrust expanding domestic roles onto the soldiers. Out of 17 major Indian Army campaigns between 1947 and 1995, a dozen were within India's borders. Between 1982 and 1989, the army was deployed to assist the civilian authorities no less than 721 times. All this took place during a period of such growing political instability that Atul Kohli, a scholar of India at Princeton, subtitled his 1990 book "India's Growing Crisis of Governability." The civilians appeared not to mind empowering generals as state governors and advisors, as long as their forces stayed in far-flung parts of the country. Over the past decade, the number of paramilitary troops has leapt upwards and relieved much of the burden, but domestic army deployments haven't stopped.

India's neighbors Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan have all experienced coups in the last half-century, sparked by military empowerment and political crises. How has India been able to avoid this fate? For a start, India's army is too dispersed, too diverse, too content, and too professional to challenge democratic rule. One comprehensive study of civil-military relations in India by Aburba Kundu, a scholar at Britain's Anglia Ruskin University, concludes that "commissioned Indian officers will never instigate a coup" [italics in original] because senior military officers possess a deep-seated professional ethos and commitment to democracy. Paul Staniland, a professor at the University of Chicago, also points out that "the difference between India and Pakistan is that Indian institutions and legitimacy have not crumbled" even if they've occasionally looked fragile. And although Indian officers have chafed under these restrictions, they've almost always expressed their resentment in a constitutional and proper fashion.

Despite this, the civilian leadership remains unconvinced of the army's trustworthiness. Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Cohen, an authority on the Indian Army, has written that "conversations with senior intelligence officers indicate that they have detected at least three major coup attempts by Indian generals," the most recent in the late 1980s. Cohen notes, scathingly, that "there is no credible evidence of such plots, but insecure politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom have a stereotyped image of the military, listen to these warnings."   

Military and civilian leaders do get along better now than in the past. According to a book by Stephen Peter Rosen, a professor at Harvard, the military in the 1990s had little idea of how many nuclear weapons India possessed or how they might be used in wartime (sealed instructions for nuclear use were given to a theater commander, only to be opened when a mushroom cloud appeared). Today, military officers are increasingly plugged into such policymaking -- a retired three-star rank officer now sits in the Prime Minister's Office to deal with nuclear affairs.

But when tensions flare, the Indian army is soon put in its place. On the day of the troop movements, India's army chief, General V.K. Singh, had taken the unprecedented step of suing the government to allow him to serve for another year (he claims he's a year younger than official records, which would allow him another year before mandatory retirement). Last week, a letter from Singh to the prime minister was leaked to the press. The army chief, implicitly blaming civilian fecklessness, complained that the state of the military "is indeed alarming," that the army's entire tank fleet lacks "critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks," and that he judged India's air defense system to be "97% obsolete."

As Nitin Pai, fellow at the Takshashila Institution, notes, the Indian Express's story "could not have been filed without the approval of the highest levels of the Indian government." Clearly, some in the government and civil service were keen on showing the military -- and, specifically, the rebellious army chief -- who's boss. Singh is likely to eke out the remaining month of his term, but as a lame-duck army chief who has lost the confidence of his government.

India's previous episode of civil-military rupture was similarly characterized by an overreaction from apprehensive civilians. In 1998, navy chief Adm. Vishnu Bhagwat complained publicly about the cabinet's effort to appoint a deputy naval chief. In response, the admiral's intended successor was secretly flown to Delhi in a plane operated by India's foreign intelligence agency. When he arrived, Bhagwat was dismissed and the new officer sworn in to replace him. As Anit Mukherjee, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, explains, this was part of a "plan, conceived and executed by a small circle of Indian politicians, bureaucrats, selected military officers and intelligence agencies." The army and air force chiefs weren't even told until the last moment.

Successive committees, going back decades, have urged India to reform the way it manages its military; recommending in particular that the headquarters of the three service arms better integrate with the Ministry of Defense to improve communication and cooperation between officer corps and civilian bureaucrats. The irony is that the civilians have resisted making these much-needed changes for fear of unleashing a politically influential military. Their resistance has resulted in what Mukherjee has called an "absent dialogue" between those in uniform and their political masters. It was that absence of dialogue that contributed to the errors of communication and judgment during January's late-night crisis in Delhi. India may still be wracked by political and social mutinies, but the Indian Army isn't going to lead any of them.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty