India’s first commander-in-chief: opportunities and ramifications

Successive governments in India have staunchly protected civilian control of the military, writes Iftikhar Gilani

India’s first commander-in-chief: opportunities and ramifications
Among the various momentous decisions made by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi over past six months, the appointment of the first commander-in chief of defence forces or the chief of defence staff (CDS) will go down as a milestone in the country’s history. The decision is fraught with far-reaching consequences, even though the government has assured to keep the CDS on a tight leash, lest he interferes in country’s democratic system built on the premise of civilian supremacy.

During the British era, India had a single commander-in-chief for all three services. After Independence in 1947, this arrangement was discarded. According to government business rules, separate commanders independent of each other were appointed to each service - the army, the air force, and the navy. Service chiefs were not authorised to issue orders on behalf of the government. Even in decisions of procurement of arms, they only had recommendatory powers.

After fighting the war in Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, several panels were formed. They ranged from the Kargil Review Committee led by noted strategic expert Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam to the 14-member task force chaired by former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra. All of them identified many faults lines in the Indian security system, including the lack of coordination between the army, the air force and the navy, coupled with a colossal intelligence failure.

A common suggestion proposed by all panels, including a group of ministers led by then home minister Lal Krishna Advani, was to carve out a post of chief of defence staff (CDS) - a five-star general — to supervise all three services, ensure coordination and integration. The post was meant to provide single-point military advice to the civilian authority led by the prime minister.

When India lost its first full-scale war with China in 1962, various experts at that time had also suggested integrating the three services.

But taking lessons from frequent military interventions that had disrupted civilian rule in Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand and other countries, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the idea. The Indian prime minister was peeved at developments in Pakistan, where in 1953, governor general Ghulam Muhammad had dismissed prime minister Khawaja Nazimuddin despite him having the support of the Constituent Assembly and support of the commander in chief General Ayub Khan. In 1958, the first Pakistani president Iskander Mirza dismissed the Constituent Assembly and the government of Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon, appointing Khan as the chief martial law administrator. Thirteen days later, Mirza himself was exiled by Ayub Khan, who appointed himself president. Nehru was apprehensive that this virus may cross borders and affect the Indian Army as well, especially if it was headed by a single command authority.

Successive governments in India, therefore, staunchly protected civilian control of the military. Besides the civilian political leadership, some sections of the Indian bureaucracy, including intelligence agencies and police forces, also harboured fears that single-point military commander could destabilise the institutional arrangement in India.

It is believed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government had decided to appoint the CDS in 2011, but the decision was put on hold following a tiff between army chief General Vijay Kumar Singh. In January 2012, General Singh approached the Supreme Court on the issue of his date of birth. He was demanding extension, citing year of birth registered in his school leaving certificate. In the milieu, intelligence agencies on a cold January night in 2012 woke the prime minister and reported an unexpected movement of key military units in the direction of New Delhi from various cantonments. Although it was later clarified that this was a standard drill to check deployment ability in foggy conditions, absence of usual protocols like not taking prior permission from the Defence Ministry and not informing air force raised suspicion.

The Indian Express reported at the time that given strained political-military relations over the last few weeks, nothing could be easily dismissed as a routine misdemeanour. The timing of the army chief’s petition seeking extension and the government turning down his recommendations to appoint Lt. Gen. Ashok Kumar Choudhary as director-general of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force under the army’s control, had sent alarms bells ringing in New Delhi.

The notification that approved the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as India’s first CDS soon after his retirement from the post of army chief has taken care not to vest too much authority in the post.

“Though the CDS will be a point-man for the services to contact civilian authority, he will be among one of the secretaries in the Defence Ministry,” said an Indian government official on the condition of anonymity.

That the CDS will not will not exercise control over any military command is among the many safeguards in place to avoid threats.

“The CDS will be a member of the Defence Acquisition Council under defence minister and Defence Planning Committee chaired by the national security advisor. He will also function as the military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority,” stated the notification cleared by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

The notification clarifies that the CDS will not command any troops on the ground. He will merely administer tri-services organizations like the Strategic Forces Command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the Defence Cyber Agency and the proposed divisions for space.

The CDS will head the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), a new department carved out in the Defence Ministry. He will report to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. India’s Defence Ministry already has five departments headed by secretaries — defence, procurement, research and development, welfare and finance.

The new CDS will work as the sixth secretary while heading the DMA. There is ambiguity over the role of the defence secretary who heads the bureaucracy in the ministry. While rules say he will continue to remain the primary link to coordinate activities of all departments, there is no clarity in the relations between the CDS and defence secretaries.

According to the Government of India Rules of Business 1961, the defence secretary continues to be responsible for the security of the country. Therefore, while approving the notification, Modi government has taken care to keep powers of the CDS under control. Instead of making this post superior to three service chiefs, the CDS has been kept equivalent to them. Instead of adorning five stars, the CDS will continue to have four stars on the badge. In a way, he will be a permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee. The post earlier was rotating between the senior-most service chief.

Many are happy that a military general will be part of the day-to-day functioning of India’s Defence Ministry, which was largely manned by a civilian bureaucracy. The CDS will have powers equalling a secretary. “This is a historic step. From being just attached to offices, the armed forces have entered the central edifice of the government of India, something we have been asking for years,” says retired admiral Arun Prakash, former navy chief and member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms.

Strategic expert Pravin Sawhney believes that in the current format the CDS will not be of much help in war preparedness. He said the appointment falls short of recommendations by various panels. “The CDS is likely to prepare the military to fight the wrong enemy, the wrong war with wrong procurements, training, and mind set. It might help Modi’s government politically but it will make India weak militarily,” he wrote in a defence journal.

The most important task before General Rawat would be constructing integrated military commands in his three-year tenure. This is a problem area with deep implications, as no service will like to lose control or share control with others.

Another important task for the CDS will be in the nuclear weapons policy formulation, update and execution. According to the new scheme of things, the head of Strategic Forces Command will report directly to the CDS, who in turn, will report to the National Security Advisor (NSA).

While the strategic target list update will be the joint responsibility of the NSA and the CDS, after clearance from the prime minister, it will remain in the NSA’s custody. Interestingly, the service chiefs will be outside the nuclear weapons’ loop. A former defence secretary told Anadolu Agency that oversight and control of the military’s promotions, postings, and foreign assignments and travel will give the CDS enough powers to show his clout.

Congress party has raised several questions over the appointment of General Rawat as the CDS. Party spokesperson Manish Tewari said the government has started on a wrong foot with his appointment fraught.

“Will the advice of the CDS override the advice of the respective service chiefs? Would the three chiefs report to the defence minister through defence secretary or CDS now?” he asked. He also raised the question of ambiguity between the positions of CDS and defence secretary.

“What are the implications of the appointment of a CDS on civil-military relations — the equilibrium of which has been India’s singular success since 1947? Are we down a portentous path?” he asked.

The writer is a journalist based in Turkey