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.