Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence

  • Published

Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence, by Steven I. Wilkinson. Harvard University Press, 2015, 304 pp.

Steven I. Wilkinson’s Army and Nation is a historical monograph exploring the puzzle and dynamics of India’s civil-military relationship. The author is a professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University with an educational background in history. Wilkinson presents a skillful amalgamation of military organizational as well as democratic institution’s perspectives together rather than exploring them separately. Unlike other existing literature, this book offers a fresh, original perspective complimented by well researched archival, historical quantitative data.

A stable civil-military relation is of utmost importance for any country against external and internal threats. There have been numerous examples of military coups and civil wars owing to the failure of civil-military relations. In every military institution, its ethnic and racial composition plays an important role. If the ethnic balance is heavily imbalanced, there are high chances of civil war and a military coup. Wilkinson’s thesis tends to explore the intriguing dimension of the civil-military puzzle of India––an imbalanced military dominated by a martial class of men recruited from specific regions and races. Wilkinson explores the puzzle as to “how and why has India successfully managed its military when Pakistan has failed, despite similar institutional inheritances at independence in 1947.” (p. 4) His thesis, in a total of six chapters, follows a systematic approach in covering the period from the days of British colonial rule to the contemporary scene. In the introductory remarks, Wilkinson critically analyzes some of the arguments of existing literature in the context of India’s civil-military relations. He highlights the existing gaps before presenting his own set of arguments in the form of three important factors: (1) Pakistan’s worse socioeconomic-strategic-military inheritance as compared to India in 1947, (2) excellent institutional framework of the Congress as a party in India, and (3) various coup proofing and balancing measures which the Indian government under Nehru’s leadership undertook to check the influence of the Army. (p. 9) Wilkinson argues strongly that existing scholarly literature has not explored the ethnic and racial composition of the Indian army over the decades, which in my opinion forms the very backbone of his thesis.

In the book’s third and most important chapter, Wilkinson showered full praise for India’s Congress party under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru who was elected as the first prime minister of Independent India. Wilkinson argues that it was the pragmatic vision of Nehru for “transforming the whole background of the Indian Army” (p.1) through various coup proofing, hedging, and compositional strategies to diversify the military’s ethnic balance, thereby reducing the group cohesion that induced more professionalism to balance the power of military during the crucial first decade. Along with vital military reforms, the Congress government under Nehru launched vital reforms in the form of reservations for the backward classes and formation of new linguistic states, helping contain a larger macro cleavage of religion in India. However, Wilkinson argues in the fourth chapter that the balance of civil-military relations was not really smooth in India either due to some serious challenges from (1) a defeat in the brief border war with China in 1962 that led to massive expansion of the military post 1962, (2) the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, (3) the political chaos and a declaration of emergency in the mid 1970s, and (4) the Sikh militancy of the late 1970s and 1980s. But despite these four major challenges, India’s civil-military relations “survived remarkably intact” (p.152).

In the fifth chapter, comments on the contemporary situation of civil-military relations in India stress the fact that both the government and military still shy away from disclosing facts and figures relating to the ethnic composition of the military citing security concerns. But Wilkinson strongly argues that there is a tendency behind the veil to follow the colonial legacy of recruiting heavily from “martial classes” (i.e., from selective regions and ethnicities that Wilkinson thoroughly explained in the first two chapters). He argues that at present, India’s military faces new-age challenges, especially the challenge to remain a society. Issues of corruption and political interference pose a threat to military operational capacity (p.156). Perhaps the most profound aspect of this chapter lies in Wilkinson’s analysis of data on the Indian military’s ethnic composition in a contemporary scenario (pp. 162–80). He credits India’s success story by emphasizing the importance of timing and sequences of civil-military controls, hedging techniques both internal as well as external and most importantly the structural reforms in the military (p. 35).

To validate his thesis, Wilkinson, in the sixth chapter, explores the case of Pakistan that inherited a similar colonial military but failed to keep out of politics, resulting in the first military coup in 1958. Wilkinson argues that Pakistan, unlike India, inherited a deeply imbalanced military that was dominated by Punjabis and Pathans with no representation of East Pakistan’s Bengalis who constituted around half of Pakistan’s entire population. The deeply imbalanced ethnic and linguistic fault lines resulted in the partition of Pakistan in 1971. Its ruling elites and Muslim League, unlike their Indian counterparts, lacked institutional and democratic credentials with the absence of any serious efforts to check ethnic, linguistic cleavages in the society and failed to launch bold steps to curtail the influence of military. In contrast, Indian civilian leadership had a clear vision for containing the influence of the military during the very first decade of independence that in the long run, proved fruitful.

Limitations of this volume are negligible; rather I would recommend inclusion of a separate chapter dedicated to civil-military relations in the context of the development of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan as well as one chapter exploring civil-military relations in other South Asian countries. This book, with its lucid and easy to understand language and statistical data, is a must read for students, research scholars, and individuals interested in political science, Indian army’s history, and strategic affairs. This book is a fresh addition to civil-military scholarship offering elaborate arguments shaping civil-military relations in India as well as offering a rare glimpse into the overall ethnic composition of the Indian army over the years, which has not been covered in any other existing literature.

Manu Sharma

Center for International Politics,
Organization and Disarmament,
School of International Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."