Indian Armed Forces Must Preserve Apolitical Spirit & Secularism As Core Values
The leadership must stand up and convey harsh truths to the political brass, however unpalatable they may be.
War and Conflict have been and will always remain intrinsic to the human DNA. However, the form and instruments will continue to change with ever-increasing rapidity. In the 21st century, the Indian Armed Forces are faced with a very challenging environment, which is likely to get even more complex in the next 10-15 years. Added to this are the challenges faced on an individual level, linked to the dynamics of society and the soldier’s interplay. It will be prudent, therefore, to understand the essence of the Indian Armed Forces.
The Three Roles of the Armed Forces
The primary role of the armed forces is to preserve national interests and safeguard sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of India against any external threats by deterrence, and if deterrence fails, by waging war. Their secondary role is assisting government agencies to cope with ‘proxy war’ and other internal threats and provide aid to civil authority when requisitioned for the purpose.
But the Armed Forces also have a derived role, where they assist in nation-building through their contribution in various ways, such as nation-building by providing security, and, when required, essential services in remote areas.
Their role also includes enhancing India’s image through their conduct and professionalism. A good example is various defence cooperation activities with many countries, as also participation in United Nations Peace Keeping Operations.
In recent times, the secondary role has assumed prominence even as the challenges under the primary role have grown significantly. Moreover, the armed forces are being dragged in as ‘First Responders’ for a variety of tasks that clearly lie in the civil domain, because of the poor performance of other instruments of the state. For this dilemma, each case has to be dealt on its merit, while ensuring that the task does not impinge on the core values of the organisation. The bottom line is that armed forces need to remain relevant whenever the nation calls, and therefore, the senior military leadership needs a good politico-military understanding and rapport in difficult situations.
An organisation’s core values define how the members of the organisation view and conduct themselves, how they relate to each other and and how the outside world views them. As far as the Indian Armed Forces are concerned, the core values act as a beacon in fulfilling our constitutional obligations. Whilst these may not have been strictly codified, the three main core values intrinsic to the Indian Armed Forces are:
Apolitical outlook: Whilst individuals serving in the armed forces have a right to vote as per their choice, the Armed Forces, as an institution, do not have any political preference but serve the Constitution of the country and take legitimate orders from the government of the day. This is a key core value and needs to be preserved in the face of any inducements or short term considerations. The danger is equally from within, where few overzealous officers have crossed the line in recent times.
Secularism: This core value has to be seen in a broader context — the Armed Forces live together, train and fight together, without any fear or favour, or any consideration of religion, region, caste or creed. In fact, the forces stand as a beacon of harmony, earning the trust of all citizens.
Professionalism with high levels of personal and professional integrity, and reflecting honour, courage and selfless service in their true essence.
Speaking Truth to Power
In the interest of national security and the organisation, senior military leadership must stand up and convey the harsh truth to not only the military hierarchy, but also to the political authority, however unpalatable it may be, for any dilution in the facts may cause the nation dear.
The example of then Chief, Gen Manekshaw, illustrates this best. He had advised the then Indian Prime Minister to defer operations against East Pakistan from pre- to post-monsoon and in winter months. It is to the credit of both that this advice was accepted, leading to a resounding victory in December 1971.
Recently, when President Trump of the US declared that the country was ready to strike 50 cultural sites in Iran, this was openly contradicted by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Mark Milley, who clarified, “We will follow the laws of armed conflict.”
On another occasion, he reiterated, “The Armed Forces of the US take an oath to the constitution of the country — not to any king, queen or any individual.” It was a crystal clear message to the political establishment not to politicise the US Military.
Responsibility, Authority, Accountability
This is one of the most important ethos on which the Armed Forces function. While this should be the basis of all government functioning, it is not so in India, where accountability is rarely owned/established. Whatever be the state on the civil side, in the Armed Forces, it can be no other way. The Indian soldier trusts the hierarchy implicitly and will risk his life willingly based on this trust. The officers of the Indian Armed Forces have always led from the front and walked the talk. There are aberrations, but these are few.
Tenets of Indian Military Philosophy
India has multi-front and multi-sector/terrain obligations, from the high Himalayas to the desert & the cceans, and with two inimical neighbours on either flank, Pakistan & China, who are also in strategic military cahoots against India.
India is not part of any military alliance and thus needs an independent deterrent and versatile operational capability across the spectrum of conflict, from counter-insurgency at the lower end to a full conventional capability against a nuclear backdrop at the higher end. While this may hold true today, temporary groupings with like-minded countries, at least on specific issues, could become the norm in the future. The Quad grouping of the US, Japan, Australia & India is one such recent grouping that has good potential to check China in the Indo-Pacific.
The Importance of a Balanced Leadership
The Indian Armed Forces are the ultimate guarantors of our nation’s security and well-being. How this instrument of last resort performs will be determined by the leadership that steers the organisation in peace and leads it in war. What makes this particularly special and different in the Armed Forces is:
Unlimited liability covenant (unwritten) between the organisation and the individual, where you give yourself up to the Armed Forces and carry out the assigned duty without any ifs and buts. In return, the organisation and the nation commit to looking after you (and yours) in life, injury or death.
Leadership in the armed forces is not about profit/loss but about life and death issues. Therefore, the motivation has to be on a higher plane, and leaders have to lead through personal example/influence, both direct and indirect, to make their command achieve the seemingly impossible.
Being the last resort of the nation, the forces have to win every time, time and again — there being no runners-up in war.
Military leadership is not about event management or entrepreneurship. It is about standing up and being counted, taking charge when the chips are down and putting yourself in harm’s way before you do so to your subordinates. It is about trust, loyalty, integrity and esprit de corps. And finally, it’s about that unique bonding and motivating factor — the regiment spirit.
It Can be No Other Way
Arun Khetrapal and Capt Vikram Batra were both awarded the Param Vir Chakra (Posthumous). Both displayed extraordinary grit and courage, leading from the front to accomplish critical missions. What propelled these young men to make the supreme sacrifice? It was all about a higher calling: trust, camaraderie, regimental spirit, the unlimited liability contract, and, finally, the well-being of the nation. But most of all, it is about leadership, leading soldiers from the front who will risk injury or even death following their leaders’ command.
Today, we need military leaders who possess the strength of character and mental resilience to carry the burdens that modern warfare conditions impose. My recipe for such a military leader is: “Humility in his persona and arrogance in his uniform”.
The Chetwode motto so aptly guides the leadership. Its essence is: the country first, always and every time; the men you command come next; your own ease, comfort and safety, comes last, always and every time.
And I reaffirm by saying—it can be no other way.
(The author is a former Army commander and lieutenant governor. Views are personal. This is a an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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