22 September 2015

Civil Power and the Army

By Lt Gen SK Sinha
20 Sep , 2015


Civil Power is the ultimate authority charged with the governance of the State. The execu­tive; the legislature and the judiciary, functioning in their respective spheres and in the prescribed manner, are the various elements that constitute Civil Power. Civil administration and the Army are the two in­struments available to Civil Power to execute in its decisions.

In this scheme of things, the Army must always remain subordinate to Civil Power no matter what the form of Government. The Army is here referred to in its generic sense, meaning the military and stands for the Defence Services as a whole.

Lenin talked of the need for the Party to control the gun and advocated a politically committed Army. This is the pattern obtaining in socialist states, where the Army remains totally aligned with the Party. Senior military officers are important functionaries in the Party. Through political education and with political commissars monitoring the Army’s functioning at all levels, the Party exercises strict control over the Army.

In addition to this, professional control over the Army is exercised by the State at the na­tional level as in other forms of Government. In democracies, the Army is not required to be committed to any party. In fact the em­phasis is on the Army remaining apolitical. At the national level, full control is exer­cised by Civil Power over the Army which is required to function in accordance with its directions.

At other levels there is no interference or interaction by political leaders with the functioning of the Army. Both in socialist and democratic countries, the subordination of the Army to Civil Power is a well established fact. In military dic­tatorships the Army is not subordinate to Civil Power.

There it replaces Civil Power. Military dictatorships are aberrations and are something foreign to the Indian ethos and Indian traditions. In thousands of years of our history there has been’ only one instance of a military coup. That was in Be 185 when Pushyamitra, the Mauryan Commander-in-Chief assassinated Bridharta, the last Mauryan Em­peror and assumed the reins of Power.

Historical background

It is not generally realised that the subor­dination of the Army to Civil Power was truly established only in the twentieth century. Earlier, both political and military authority used to be concentrated in one in­dividual. Alexander, Chandragupta, Caesar, Shivaji or Napoleon exercised both political and military authority. With the advance of democracy, monarchs became constitutional Heads of State or were replaced by Presi­dents. Political authority began to be exer­cised by elected Heads of Government owing responsibility to the people and military authority by Generals was required to func­tion under the control of the Head of Govern­ment.

Long after Char les I was beheaded in England and Louis XVI guillotined in France, the required pattern of relationship between the civil authority and the military estab­lishment did not get fully formalised or properly institutionalised. There was a ten­dency on the part of Generals not to accept subordination vis-a-vis the Head of Govern­ment. Possibly, the practice of the Head of State for ceremonial purposes also being the Commander-in-Chief or Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces provided some legitimacy for the outlook of the Generals. Till as late as the nineteenth century, there were instances of Army Chiefs not accepting the supremacy of the Head of Government. Von Moltke, the Ger­man Chief of Staff considered himself inde­pendent of the great German chancellor, Bis­marck. He used to deal directly with the sovereign, ignoring the Chancellor. During the Franco Prussian War of 1870, Bismarck complained to a correspondent of the Times that he knew less about the plans of opera­tions and progress of the Prussian army than was known to that correspondent.

During the American Civil War, MacClellan, the Commander-in-Chief, would, keep President Abraham Lincoln waiting before agreeing to see him. On one occasion he even sent him away without seeing him. This was despite the fact that Lincoln was both the Head of State and the Head of government. Later, following MacClellan’s failure in battle, Lincoln removed him from command of the Army. In Britain, Prime Minister Disraeli lamented his difficulties in dealing with the Commander in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge who was the cousin of the reigning sovereign, Queen Vic­toria. It was only after both the Queen and the Duke had died that a major reorganisation of the British War Office was carried out which fully institutionalised the control of Civil Power over the British Army.


With the dawn of the twentieth century, the supremacy of Civil Power over the Army became fully established in most countries. However, there have been some serious controversies between Heads of Government and Generals over matters of policy. These need to be dis­cussed. The first such controversy arose in India, when Curzon and Kitchener clashed. Their dispute is often misrepresented as an attempt by the military to subvert the authority of the Civil Power.

In fact this is a twist which Curzon wanted to give to the dispute. At no stage did Kitchener question the supremacy of the Civil Power or the Viceroy. He only questioned the duality of functioning inherent in having two army of­ficers in the Viceroy’s Executive Council ­the Commander-in-chief and the Military Mem­ber.

The latter was far junior in rank and status to the Commander-in-chief but was a co-equal member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He rendered advice on military mat­ters but had no responsibility for executing decisions. Though not responsible for opera­tions, he controlled the logistics of the Army functioning independently of the Commander-in-Chief.

He also acted as a link between the Viceroy and the Commander-in­Chief commenting on all proposals put up by the latter. Kitchener found this arrangement irksome and unsatisfactory. He felt that military advice to the’ Viceroy and the Government should be available from only one source and that should be the Commander-in­ Chief who was responsible for executing the military decisions taken by the Government.

He insisted that there should be only one military officer in the Viceroy’s Executive Council – the Commander-in-Chief. Curzon, on the other hand, argued that the Civil Power was supreme, and that it should have the benefit of military advice from more than one source so that could choose between them rather than be merely a rubber stamp to en­dorse the advice received from only one source.

The British Government rejected the stand taken by Curzon and he resigned in protest. The reorganisation of the Defence High Command in India, as demanded by Kit­chener, was then carried out. The appointment of Military Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council was abolished. The reorganised setup stood the test of two world wars and con­tributed towards the Indian Army acquitting itself so well in these wars.

During World War I, differences arose be­tween Churchill and Fisher, and also between Lloyd George and Robertson. As the Lord of Admiralty in World War I, Winston Churchill, was keen on a naval operation to break through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea. Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, was opposed to this operation and represented his views to Churchill who overruled him. The proposal to launch this operation was discussed at a meeting of the War Cabinet at which Fisher was present.

Churchill argued in favour of the proposed operation and Fisher remained silent at the meeting. Fisher felt that it would be an act of disloyalty on his part to express views contrary to those of his Minis­ter. His responsibility had ended in this regard after he had represented his views to Churchill and had been overruled. Loyalty on his part demanded that he should now fall in line with whatever the Minister wanted. The War Cabinet approved the Dardanelles plan.

The operation was launched but it ended in a fiasco with the loss of thousands of lives. There was an uproar in the country and a Parliamentary Committee was set up to probe the reasons for the failure. Churchill had to resign from the Cabinet and he went into political oblivion for a long time.

The Com­mittee castigated Fisher for his silence at the meeting of the War Cabinet which was con­strued to mean his concurrence with the plan. As the nation’s top naval officer, it was his duty to apprise the members of the War Cabinet of his professional views even if they happened to be contrary to those of his Minister. Fisher was removed from his ap­pointment

There was another controversy between a statesman and a soldier during World War I on a strategic issue. By 1917 the war in Europe had been fought to a stalemate with the op­posing armies stuck in trenches. Big offen­sives launched by either side did not yield more than a few thousand yards of territory but cost each side several thousands of casual ties.

There arose a school of thought which began to propagate that the war would not be won in the West. This group wanted resources to be concentrated in the East so that Turkey could be knocked out of the war thereby weakening Germany and making possible its defeat.

The other school argued that the defeat of Turkey would hardly affect Germany: the war had to be won or lost in the West. Therefore, any diversion of resources from the Western theatre to the East would be very dangerous. France was the main theatre of operations and the war was being fought on French soil. For the French, it was a matter of life and death and they were totally op­posed to any diversion of effort from the West. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minis­ter, was a proponent of the eastern theory.

At a meeting of the Supreme War Council at Paris, presided over by Clemencau, the French Prime Minister, future strategy was being discussed. Lloyd George advocated diversion of some effort from the Western theatre to the East where, he maintained decisive results could be achieved. Clemencau was op­posed to this proposal.

He invited comments from the others present at the meeting. When asked to give his views, Robertson was very forthright. He fully supported Clemencau and opposed the suggestion of his own Prime Min­ister. The Supreme Council decided against any diversion of resources to the East. It was just as well that it did so otherwise the Allied front may have crumbled when the Ger­mans launched their big offensive of 1918. After the meeting of the Supreme War Council, Lloyd George was furious.

He considered that Robertson had shown rank disloyalty to him and he dismissed him from the appointment of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Robertson’s view was that as Britain’s top military advisor and a member of the Supreme War Council in his own right he could not af­ford to remain silent like Fisher at the meeting of the War cabinet and allow his silence to be interpreted as his concurrence.

His loyalty to his nation and to ensuring victory in the war transcended his loyalty to any individual. It was his duty to give his professional views at the Supreme War Council even if these views were contrary to the views of his Prime Minister. He felt that if he was not free to express his views at the Council then there was no point in his being asked to participate in its deliberations.

Yet another controversy on strategy, in­volving Truman and MacArthur, took place during the Korean War. President Truman wanted the war in Korea to be kept localised and not be allowed to escalate. This was also the view of the Governments allied to America who had sent troops to serve in the UN Command in Korea. On the other hand, General MacArthur felt that in war there could be no substitute for victory.

He advo­cated. utilisation of all resources towards defeating international communism in Asia, because otherwise its tentacles would spread to Tibet and Indo China. He proposed a four point programme: (a) Blockading of the Chinese mainlandi (b) Destruction of Chinese industrial capability (c) Reinforcing the UN Force in Korea with the Chinese Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai Shekhi and (d) Removing restrictions on Chiang conducting operations from Formosa against the Chinese mainland. He even proposed the laying of active nuclear waste along the Yalu River to isolate Korea from China. MacArthur represented his views to Truman but these were not accepted.

In April 1951 MacArthur told foreign press cor­respondents that the UN Force in Korea was circumscribed by many artificial restrictions in a war without any definite objective. An American Senator wrote to MacArthur that if American soldiers were not in Korea to win the war then the Truman Administration should be indicted for the murder of thousands of American boys. MacArthur wrote back to the Senator that he fully agreed with his views.

The Senator released this letter to the press. This led to the dismissal of MacArthur. Truman may have been right in deciding to remove MacArthur from his command but the ham – handed manner in which he chose to dis­miss the most renowned and brilliant General known to American history led to a storm – in the USA the like of which had never happened before. The consequences were that Truman could not be the candidate of the Democrat Party at the next Presidential election and the Democrats lost to the Republicans at that election.

In India, in 1959 a controversy arose be­tween Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister and the Army Chief, General Thimayya. The point of dispute was the supersession of Major General Giani by Major General Kaul for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General. Thimayya had recommended Giani’s promotion but this had been overruled. Thimayya’s rela­tions with Krishna Menon had soured for various reasons and this was the last straw.

Thimayya resigned and this caused a great stir pandit Nehru persuaded Thimayya to withdraw his resignation and the crisis was defused. Later, Nehru criticised Thimayya in Parliament for having tendered his resigna­tion. After this criticism Thimayya did not consider it necessary to .resign in protest. He appeared to have lost his old fire and his image was badly tarnished by the whole af­fair. Had he not withdrawn his resignation, the course of events that followed may have been very different. Kaul may not have become the Corps Commander in NEFA and possibly the trauma of the national’ humiliation of 1962 could have been averted.

It is to be noted that in all these con­troversies between statesmen’ and soldiers, no attempt was made by the latter to question the supremacy of Civil Power even though dif­ferences in viewpoint arose. In some cases these differences were tackled in an ap­propriate manner and in others not so. Kit­chener was right in pressing for the restruc­turing of the higher defence organisation. Fisher was wrong in remaining silent at the meeting of the British War Cabinet. Robertson was right in asserting his right to express his professional views at the meeting of the Supreme War Council. MacArthur was wrong in publicly airing his views on the Korean War and Thimayya was wrong in withdrawing his resignatioo without getting the issue at stake appropriately resolved.

Civil-Military Relations

The bedrock of sound civil-military relations in a modern State must be the supremacy of Civil Power over the Army, duly accepted and respected by the latter at all times. The soldier must be subordinate to Civil Power but should never be subservient to it. The statesman in authority must have all the resources of the state, both civil and military, at his call to discharge his onerous responsibilities.

The soldier must be scrupulously loyal to him but this does not mean blind’ obedience as romanticised by Tennyson: “There is not to reason why, but to do and die.” Such an attitude may be very commendable on the battlefield but it can hardly be the basis of civil-military rela­tions’ at the national level. At that level the soldier is an essential part of the deci­sion – making process for the formulation of defence policy.

He must freely and frankly render his professional advice even if it is not palatable to his political masters. Nearly two centuries ago Napoleon wrote, “Every General-in-Chief who executes a plan which he finds bad is guilty. He should rep­resent and insist that the plan be changed.

If he is unable to get this done, he must resign rather than be the instrument for the ruination of his troops.” That advice is equally valid today for Generals functioning at the national level. They cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that their loyalty to the nation and the Constitution transcends their loyalty to any individual who may, for the time being, occupy the seat of power. In the event of a serious conflict between his two loyal ties, it is incumbent upon the General to resign so that the issue gets placed before the nation and is resolved in a democratic manner.

I can say, in all humility, that when I faced such a situation I chose to quit the Army and sacrifice my personal interests. In so doing I believe I have been able to serve the wider interests of the nation and the Army. My stand was duly vindicated a few years later to the benefit of the Army as a whole. . However, when a con­flict of loyalties arises and the General decides to resign he must not, while in serv­ice, publicly express views or act in a man­ner which may even remotely smack .of dis­loyalty to the Government.

Civil Administration and the Army

There is another sphere of civil-multiply relations that also needs to be examined. The use of the Army for civil duties within the country is a well established practice. In the past, when not employed for military operations, the Army often carried out police functions. With the police getting organised as a separate force, the position has greatly changed in this regard. However, great military commanders have ‘often been called upon to carry out police duties. Napoleon had to use a “whiff of grape” in the streets’ of Paris and MacArthur had to deal with bonus marchers in Washington.

The primary role of the Army is to defend the country against external aggression. Its secondary role is to assist the civil ad­ministration when called upon to do so. Some people tend to consider Civil Power and the civil administration as synonymous but in reality they are two separate entities. Whereas the Army is subordinate to Civil Power, it is not subordinate to the civil ad­ministration.

The latter, like the military, is an instrument at the disposal of Civil Power. An important consideration in our case is that our Constitution provides for law and order as a State subject and not, as the responsibility of the Centre. The Army being a force of the Centre cannot be made subor­dinate to the State Administration. It must also be remembered that when called upon to assist the civil administration, the Army is not required to replace the latter. The day the Army replaces the civil administration, we will have martial law and martial law is something not envisaged in our Constitution.

The Army may be required to assist the civil administration in a host of ways. Assistance may be required during natural calamities like floods, earthquakes, brought and so on. Army assistance may also be called for during strikes by worker to maintain es­sential services for the sell being of the community. Another area in which Army assis­tance may have to be given is in any major development work or a task of national impor­tance such as the Asian Games.

The most com­mon type of assistance to the civil ad­ministration by the Army is combating violence during internal disorders. With in­creasing violence in our society this type of military assistance has unfortunately become very frequent. Over 90 per cent of the cases in which the Army .has been called out to as­sist the civil administration falls in this category.

The Government recently stated in Parlia­ment that in the past four years the Army was called out to aid the civil administration on no less than 369 occasions, mostly to restore law and order. It is an unfortunate fact that during the last four years the Army has been employed on these duties many times more than during two centuries of British rule in this country. It is ‘a.lso a lamentable fact that in these four years many more Indian citizens have died as a result of Army and Police firing than during the two centuries of for­eign rule.

There are various reasons for this. Violence in our society has increased considerably and society has become afflicted with rampant corruption and debasement of values. These evils cast their shadow on the functioning of Government at all levels. All this has led to the erosion of the moral authority of the State. In the event, the State has to increasingly rely on force to maintain its authority.

The two instruments of force available .to the State are the Police and the Army. Due to increasing political interference in the functioning of the Police at all levels, the Police has become both politicised and demoralised. Often one sees a nexus between the politician, the criminal and the policeman. It is no wonder the Police is now not a very effective in­strument for maintaining order and that the administration has to seek Army assistance frequently to combat internal disorders.

The are four dangers inherent in the frequent use of the Army to carry out the tasks of the civil administration. First, modem wars are complex and modern weapons highly sophisticated.

This requires the Army to remain fully preoccupied with training for war and with maintaining expensive and com­plicated modern equipment. It can ill afford to spare much time from its primary task for the secondary role of assisting the civil ad­ministration. To keep the Army committed on secondary tasks for a prolonged period will inevitably be detrimental to its operational preparedness. In 1947 when the Indian Army was widely committed in maintaining order during the Partition riots, Pakistan invaded Kashmir with tribal lashkars in the first in­stance.

The Pakistani General Staff felt that with the Indian Army being so preoccupied in dealing with internal violence and with Kash­mir isolated from the rest of India due to poor communications, the capture of Srinagar would be a cake walk. Jinnah was all set to make his victorious entry into Srinagar.

The fact that the Indian Army successfully met the challenge despite heavy odds speaks volumes for its professionalism and devotion. However, prudence demands that we should not allow the combat effectiveness of the Army to be eroded on account of it being embroiled in internal security duties. The Army must al­ways be kept in a state of training and readiness to enable it to give a fitting reply to anyone who commits aggression against us.

Secondly, the frequent and prolonged use of the Army on these duties can prove a great strain on its discipline. The Army has been an island of discipline in a rising sea of indiscipline in our country. The soldier living in the seclusion of his barracks can remain better disciplined than the soldier constantly exposed to our in disciplined society while carrying out policing duties.

It may be recalled that due to such prolonged exposure during the Partition riots, cracks started appearing in the discipline of the Punjab Boundary Force. This force had to be wound up in September 1947. More recently, the unfortunate mutiny of the Sikh soldiers showed how discipline can break down if ef­fective steps are not taken to guard against this risk while employing troops on sensitive tasks in aid of the civil administration.

Thirdly, the deterrent effect of the Army becomes eroded if it is frequently employed in dealing with civil disturbances. Troops are then compelled to use more force thereby causing greater casualties then would other­wise have been necessary. It is pertinent that after World War II, Field Marshal Auchinleck decided that the Indian Army should not revert to its prewar khaki uniform. The Army continued to wear the olive green ill1iform which was introduced during the war for reasons of camouflage in. the jungles of Burma. Auchinleck took this decision be­cause he anticipated increasing violence in the country with troops being Palled out frequently to combat violent disorders.

He wanted the Army to look strikingly different from the Police, who wear khaki, so that its arrival at the scene of trouble has a deter­rent effect. Today the Indian Army continues to wear olive green except for troops ear­marked for Operational tasks in the desert. It is interesting that recently when troops were called out in aid of the civil ad­ministration in Ahmadabad they temporally switched over from khaki, which they normally wear because of their role in the desert, to olive green for carrying out internal security duties.

Lastly, if the civil administration is seen to collapse repeatedly in the face of internal violence and becomes incapable of functioning without using the Army as a crutch, its credibility and authority will be seriously eroded. This may give the wrong signals both to the people and to the sol­diers.

The former may begin to feel that Army rule is unavoidable and the latter may begin to think that instead of repeatedly helping the civil administration they might as well replace it. A civil administration relying solely on the Army to maintain its authority may, in the long run, find itself in the position of the young lady of Niger who could not resist the temptation of riding a tiger. As we all know, the young lady ended up in­side the stomach of the tiger.

Insurgency and Terrorism

While highlighting the drawbacks inherent in the frequent use of the Army for civil duties, it is not for a moment suggested that the Army should never be used for these duties. During grave crises the State may have no other option but to use the Army to restore order. However I for the reasons as elaborated above, every effort must be made to ensure that the employment of the Army on such tasks be an exception and not be allowed to become a routine affair.

When faced with insurgency or large scale terrorism the State must use the Army to deal with this extreme manifestation of violence. Counter-insurgency operations require special techniques: While so employed troops act in aid of the civil administration but these operations are different from the aid usually rendered to the civil authorities during in­ternal disorders. Troops have to learn the technique of dealing with guerilla warfare and at the same time endeavour to win the confidence of the people so that the insur­gents are isolated. Insurgents may be armed with modern weapons given to them generously by hostile powers and the Security Forces have to be prepared to fight conventional battles at the unit or sub-unit level while dealing with them.

The British evolved a good organisational pattern for the conduct of counter – insurgency operations in Malaya. A unified command of Security Forces was set up under a senior military officer, designated I as Director of Operations, who functioned directly under the Head of Government. The functioning of intelligence agencies was fully coordinated. The military and the civil officials dovetailed their work through joint committees at various levels thus ensuring fully integrated utilisation of the resources of the State in combating insurgency.

Terrorism is another form of serious violence that the State may be called upon to tackle. Isolated cases of terrorism are best dealt with by the police but when terrorism becomes widespread and terrorists start get­ting foreign assistance as also enjoying a measure of popular support, then it tends to verge on insurgency. It is difficult for the police to deal with such terrorism. This is the situation in Punjab today, unfortunately compounded by another development. Some ele­ments of the State the police have shown com­plicity with the terrorists and anti-national forces and have forfeited the confidence of a large section of the People.

An exodus of thousands of people has begun from the State. Recent reports of the involvement of some Punjab policemen in the terrorist attack on the State Police Chief at Jala11dhar have been a shocking but not a surprising revelation. Para military forces are being extensively used in Punjab to combat terrorism and hitherto, for political reasons, the Army has not been employed to deal with them or for sealing the border. If the para military forces are not able to overcome the problem there will be no option but to use the Army. Many people, including myself, feel that had the Army been used perhaps the situation would not have deteriorated to this extent. By taking firm action early trouble can be nipped in the bud; as they say, a stitch in time saves nine.


The Army must always remain subordinate to Civil Power and loyally carry out its direc­tions. However subordination should not be misconstrued as subservience. Senior Generals carry special responsibility in this regard. This is particularly important in our society in which the culture of sycophancy has become so pervasive. In case of a clash of loyalties between loyalty to the nation and the Con­stitution and loyalty to any transient in the seat of power, the higher loyalty is the former and it must take precedence. In such an eventuality, it is incumbent on the General to resign so that the nation I s atten­tion gets focused on the point at issue.

Civil Power should not be confused with civil administration. While the Army must remain subordinate to Civil Power there is no question of it being subordinate to the, civil administration as is the case with the police which is a part of it.

The employment of the Army for police duties should be avoided as far as possible, but when faced with a grave crisis like large scale violence, insurgency or widespread terrorism, the State should not show indecision and hesitate” to employ the Army to deal with the situation.

The Army is the ultimate weapon available to the State to enforce the nation I swill. When diplomats fail to preserve peace, the soldier has to go to war to restore peace. And when the civil administration fails to preserve order, the soldier is called upon to restore order. As the nation’s final safeguard, the Army must not fail in either circumstance. To ensure that this never hap­pens, the Army must always remain in a high state of trim. This requires that the Army must be highly professional, completely dis­ciplined and, in a democratic setting, to­tally apolitical.
© Copyright 2015 Indian Defence Review

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