Argument

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

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