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


We're Winning This Fight

The prime minister of Somalia, present at yesterday's deadly bombing in Mogadishu, on why terrorism won't disrupt his country's turn for the better.

MOGADISHU, Somalia – I was at the National Theater in Mogadishu yesterday, and witnessed the despicable terrorist attack by a suicide bomber in which more than six people were killed -- including two of the country's dearest sporting heroes. Seeing first-hand the appalling loss of life and harm done to my countrymen was a savage reminder of what is at stake in Somalia. On the one hand, we have an internationally recognized government, one that is growing in strength and steering the country through the last four months of transition towards a new constitution, a new parliament, and presidential elections; on the other, we still face a nihilistic terrorist group, influenced by foreign ideologies, that delights in killing Somalis and has nothing positive to offer.

Although violence has become tragically endemic in Somalia in recent years, it doesn't have to be like this. Conflict is not inevitable here. Go back to 1966, for instance, when an Associated Press news report described Somalia as "the most democratic country in Africa. Half a dozen political parties contest free elections. Government officials get modest salaries and drive modest automobiles." In those days, Mogadishu was a peaceful city of elegant avenues shaded by palm trees, handsome villas, and graceful architecture that combined the best of Africa and Europe.

Today, in the aftermath of more than 20 years of ruinous fighting, hope is once again in the air -- despite the attempts of terrorists to return the country to chaos. We are taking advantage of the longest sustained period of relative peace since 1991 to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of Mogadishu, doing everything we can to restore it to its former glory and set the country on a path to lasting peace and reconciliation.

One of the last times Somalia was featured at length in Foreign Policy, in July last year, Ambassador Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), argued that with a little more help from donors, the al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group al-Shabab could be driven out of Mogadishu. Only a month later, that came true.

Seven months later, Mogadishu is a city transformed. Yesterday's attack on myself, the country's government, and the nation's media was unusual. There is no doubt that compared to a year ago, Somalis are more confident of security and of their future. Don't just take my word for it. Actions speak louder than words: Somalis from the diaspora are flocking back to help rebuild the nation and start new enterprises. Business is resuming in earnest -- new shops, markets, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and cafés are opening. From soccer to basketball, recreation and public entertainment is resuming across neighborhoods. To the delight of the city, musical concerts are taking place again. The seaport is busier than ever; the airport is receiving more international flights than it has for years. Foreign VIPs, such as the Turkish prime minister, the British foreign secretary, and the German development minister among many others have been welcomed visitors in recent months. And earlier this year, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia decided to move its core staff to Mogadishu after 17 years of operating from Nairobi, a genuine vote of confidence in the future of Somalia. We hope that other organizations, agencies, and embassies will follow the UN's example.

The international media has also spotted the change, hence headlines this past week such as "Somalis Embrace Hope and Reconstruction in Mogadishu" (New York Times), "Sports, art, streetlights: A new life in Mogadishu" (AP), and "Is Al Shabaab cracking under the pressure?" (Allafrica). The answer to the last question, incidentally, is a resounding yes. Al Shabab, the principal obstacle to peace, is under pressure as never before and is tearing itself to pieces. By resorting to indiscriminate terrorism, as we saw yesterday, they prove that they are desperate, looking for any means to impose their tyrannical will on Somalis. Every day, they are losing more ground; on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in Bay, and Galmudug to our army, who is fighting alongside our valued partners from AMISOM.

With all this progress behind us, the next four months represent the greatest opportunity we have had for a settlement in Somalia since the collapse of the state in 1991.

The political process under the internationally agreed road map remains firmly on track. We are nearing the end of our quest for a new constitution, the bedrock of a new Somalia. The lead role will be played by an 825-member Constituent Assembly, a body chosen to represent the diverse segments and communities of our country, that will come together in the last two weeks of May. The Constituent Assembly and traditional leaders will be assisted by expertise from a panel of legal and constitutional experts.

My government and I have already engaged on the process of writing a constitution in Mogadishu, Beledweyne, Garowe, and Galkayo -- as well as with the Somali diaspora communities that are so vital for our future reconstruction, in Britain, Canada, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, Sweden, and the United States. We will continue to build inclusiveness by traveling across Somalia, listening to what our fellow Somalis have to say about the constitution. From women to youth groups, from the business community to traditional leaders and cultural figures -- all will have their say in the new Somalia. We will leave no stone unturned to make this constitutional process the most inclusive yet. Only then will the document we produce have the legitimacy that previous processes lacked.

At the same time, our institutions are being restructured to make them fit for purpose. Parliament will be reduced from 550 members to 225, newly selected by traditional Somali leaders, a key part of our commitment to responsible and representative government. This is just one of the ways in which we are tackling the issue of corruption head-on. International donors need to see we are credible and transparent partners in order to be able to give us the support so necessary for our recovery from the abyss. In August, the transitional government will come to an end and a new president will be elected, presiding over a state with a new parliament and a new constitution.

Reconciliation and a fairer sense of justice and governance will be the order of the day in the newly liberated parts of the country. We are only too conscious of the dangers of leaving a vacuum in the increasing number of areas from which al-Shabab has been ousted. Working with local communities, we will be establishing civil administrations, peace committees, and promoting social reconciliation. Of course, the state must strive to contain and remove heavy weaponry from al-Shabaab and move as quickly as we can to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants. Above all, we will be need to be flexible in what we do. No one is seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all solution in what are very different regions of Somalia. The point is: We are prepared. We have the mechanisms to end this transition.

Where al-Shabab recently refused to allow humanitarian activity and food distribution in the areas it controlled during the famine of last year, we welcome the partnership of the international agencies in assisting the populations that have suffered so terribly under its draconian regime. We will also need help from our friends in AMISOM and the wider international community in providing basic services to these communities. We must show them -- and quickly -- the benefits of stable and inclusive government or risk spoilers moving in to exploit the absence of authority.

There is no doubt that we face formidable challenges between now and August. We know from yesterday's horrific events that people are out to wreck the opportunity for peace. In the past, Somali politicians have been guilty of fracturing -- just at the moment when citizens expect and hope for the greatest leadership. Inevitably, some political factions will sow disunity. They must not prevail. We know only too well where that leads. Somali leaders must come together, and stay together, at the local, regional, and national levels to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. At the same time, we need to be realistic that progress will be incremental.

Much of the progress we have made during the past seven months has only been made possible by the support of the United Nations, AMISOM, and our international partners. As we move into the critical period that ends Somalia's transitional government, we acknowledge this assistance with grateful thanks and call on our friends to stand by us in this hour of need. Only by working together can we move forward and close one of the most catastrophic chapters in our nation's history. But with their help and our will, we can achieve this historic aims. There is not a moment to lose.