The army and Hindu Rashtra through a cultural lens
The Indian Army is in throes of radical change. The most significant changes are the office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), theatrisation, the organizational rejig in favour of integrated battle groups (IBG) and the Agnipath scheme. Of the three, the last – Agnipath – is a new feature attributable to the Narendra Modi government. The others – CDS, the theatre concept for jointness and IBGs – date to over a decade.
The CDS – an office variously termed and mandated - has been in the pipeline for long, only to be shied away from by earlier governments on political grounds. From the successor to the first incumbent not being appointed as yet, it is apparent that the Modi government grabbed at the jointness agenda in order to differentiate itself from the previous governments. In the flush from a politically – but not quite operationally – successful surgical strike – and an aerial one at that – it wanted to capitalize on its strong-on-defence image. A more prosaic explanation is perhaps that it merely wished to provide a billet as CDS to a general otherwise to retire the day the appointment was announced, as reward for his political leanings.
The radical aspect of the appointment – integration of the Services in the Ministry of Defence - was hollowed out with the CDS also reduced to being head of a new department, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). This entity had not been thought up in the preceding debate on defence reforms. An outhouse for the military - but within the compound wall - was not how integration of uniformed bureaucrats was ever envisaged. This should detract from the political dividend from the reform – that the Modi regime is so strong-on-defence that it even breached the citadel of bureaucrats in a ministry the lead bureaucrat stands pompously styled as in-charge of ‘defence of India’.
News is that another assault is in the works. From the record, it can be expected to be launched as a surprise package: a new CDS delinked from DMA, itself redefined. ‘Better late than never’ and ‘better a tortoise than a hare’ will be the accompanying din, to obscure the anomaly in which the military (DMA) sits in judgment on its own case. That is by way of illustration of what to expect of the regime in relation to the military (‘army’ and ‘military’ used interchangeably) in New India.
New India has been announced, with the ‘Old’ transited out of in the observance of the Azadi ki Amrit Utsav. The distinguishing feature of New India is the triumph of Hindutva in its political dominance and dictation of political culture. Old India was a creation of the left-liberal, Khan Market/Lutyen’s gang that right wing political forces behind New India have been at pains to displace. New India is best exemplified with the fierceness in the freshly-minted Simha atop the under-construction parliament building. The head of the Executive unveiling the symbol on the grounds of the legislature in a Hindu religious ceremony, with other religion representatives being notably absent, add to the symbolic break with Old India. If the ground-breaking ceremony is indicator, the inauguration of the Ayodhya Temple on the site of the illegally demolished Babri Masjid, will mark the unmistakable passage of Old India.
A New India requires a matching military. The professional military of Old India would not do. The makeover of the military is intrinsic, symbolic of and critical to the success of the New India project. It is of a piece with major changes in States. The British Indian Army took some 150 years to stabilize after the Battle of Plassey, with the merger of the three presidency armies. Independent India also experimented with reordering the profile of the military, domesticating it from a colonial force furthering interests across three continents to one befitting a post-colonial, democratic state. It is only right that if the Second Republic in the offing has an army in its own image.
The structural aspects of this – modernization, jointness etc – are a product of doctrine keeping pace with strategic developments. Instead, of greater consequence for the incipient Hindu Republic (borrowing from the term ‘Islamic Republic’) is the accompanying cultural change. Whereas, from a cultural perspective, a shift to modernity in keeping the higher technological and educational indices of the army may appear the obvious route to go, that cannot be the trajectory taken, modernity being at odds with the reverse march of history in New India. A dharmic Republic requires an army suitably imbued with the wisdom of ancient philosophies, carted down through generations safe from marauding invaders out to extinguish Hindu civilization, by a hardy upper caste. A return to the Kshatriya ethic is necessary, its principle characteristic being its location in the caste hierarchy. It is no wonder the introduction to the nation of the newly sworn in president, the symbolic head of the armed forces, was through a photo showing her sweeping a temple floor.
This fits well with the turn to a majoritarian democracy, since the Kshatriya is subordinate to the intellectual class. Theory on a democratic military subordinates the military to the political level. While theory veers to the military professional standing outside – if not above - the political fray, in a relationship of ‘objective’ civilian control of the military by the political level, the cultural shift requires instead ‘subjective’ civilian control of the military, in which the military is – eventually - Hindutva-inspired. This explains the ‘deep selection’ model adopted by the Modi regime for military commanders, which in its latest iteration has the CDS being picked from a catchment including all serving and recently-retired three star officers; counter-intuitively, including those from the ‘staff’ stream. It also explains the delay in the selection of the second CDS. The first CDS has set the example, precedence and standards in opening up the military to Hindutva inroads. Deep selection involves looking out for such inclinations in candidates.
Teething troubles appear to have stalled the selection of a successor. There is perhaps a spillover of modernity-induced skepticism in the military to Hindutva overtures. The Old Republic is apparently not dead and the New Republic yet to be born. The prerequisite is to shift to subjective civilian control, easing the process of birthing the New Republic. It is not without reason that the process has a certain subterfuge attending it. The New Republic is presented as an evolution. It is almost as if a muscular version of the Old Republic is being manufactured, understandably, with a Hindu veneer. The talk of a Hindu Rashtra is not yet mainstream, confined to supportive formations that can be discounted as ‘fringe’ when convenient. Since plausible deniability of verbiage by the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not credible, the cat is out of the bag – as is indeed the game plan. Inject the Hindutva discourse through an intravenous drip into national consciousness.
The military has alongside to be dismantled as a credible, internally-cohesive and mandate-driven institution. Its strengths as an institution have to be dissipated. This is a horizontal lesson from other institutions that have been subverted from within, sister institutions in the security field leading the pack: intelligence, police and accountability bodies as one dealing with human rights. In the Army’s case, a dismantling and reassembling is doubly necessary. At some point in the India makeover, it might be necessary to use it against the un-persuaded. Advancing subjective civilian control is facilitative. Minimally, even if objective civilian control is to be retained for purposes as credibly managing an external security environment, then it has to be preserved from the backlash that a makeover prompts. Having a like-minded military helps.
The hold of an image as a modern, self-regarding professional military needs dilution. The contours of this are not fleshed out. To what extent the Islamisation of a neighbouring military, Pakistan, serves as a potential model is unknown. How Mujahid compares to Agniveer is uncertain. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of intent along such lines. What is certain is a difference from the neighbour in terms of purging of any praetorian tendencies through the Kshatriya model of internalised subordination.
For now, dismantlement suffices. Take for instance the tinkering with the Beating Retreat. But beginnings of reassembly can also be discerned in surprising changes within the military, such as, in one case, incorporation of the aarti into a military parade. The military not being an island, this is the tip of the iceberg. Furor that departures from the traditional practices invoke will wane as exhaustion sets in. Part of the brouhaha includes trotting out of Hindutva-adhering brass-hats with their own public missive disparaging dissent. Opportunist commentators offer their services in a gratis tongue-lashing of traditionalists. Just as an opposition-mukt Bharat is aimed for, the discourse space is to be rid of disruptive echoes from dissidents. The army's gatekeepers are to be deep selectees to unlock its gates from the inside.
What might an army of a Hindu Rashtra look like? It will certainly continue with professional preoccupations currently engaging it: jointness, IBGs et al. These are intended in part to keep its head down while the makeover progresses. It will also be kept out of trouble; securing India taken over by more Hindutva-friendly instruments as intelligence (Pakistan), home minister-answering security forces (Kashmir) and, increasingly, under Minister Jaishankar, foreign policy (China).
Modi has learnt his lessons from earlier prime ministerial ambushes: Emergency and Golden Temple in case of Indira and the military misadventures of Rajiv Gandhi. While posturing at Brasstacks and at Sumdorong Chu proved useful to project an assertive India, the latter recklessly went a step ahead with his Sri Lanka foray (as Jaishankar best knows). This partially explains the limited-aims ‘showing of eyes’ to Pakistan, including through the much-vaunted surgical strikes. Thus, despite Galwan, Indian military merely engages in talks, though deployed in strength along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) enabling other options too. From the 16 rounds of talks even this deployment has proven futile, showing ineptness even in demonstrating muscles to undergird one’s position on the table. War avoidance is dressed up as supreme strategic footwork, so much so that Jaishankar elbows Doval as India’s national security mastermind. The grand strategy is to gain time and space for consolidation of Hindutva rather than being sidetracked by traditionally-conceived national interest. To distract are volleys – including by use of the outgoing president’s shoulders for this - on the parochial impulses behind opposition’s caviling about selling of national security silver.
The inter-relationship between political, strategic and organizational culture is a useful prism to view all this. There are two ways to visualize: one is as concentric circles with political culture at its center; and second is as a triangle, with the three being vertices. The concentric circles model is hierarchical. Of the intercourse in the two directions – inside-out and outside-in – the former predominates. The second model is more reality-depicting. It shows a degree of autonomy in the three: each impacted in its own way by inter-dependent factors. Thus, not only does Hindutva impact the political level, it influences organizational culture as well; only differently.
While Hindutva minders in the national security establishment might like to bend reality, it is proving difficult and time consuming. Deep selection and the search for a pliable CDS are proving short as means. New India does not as yet approximate the reality depicted by the concentric circles model. Hindu Rashtra would. Getting to that will entail shoving the relatively autonomous vertex of strategic culture in the triangular model into being the non-entity outer circle in the concentric circle model.
Hindutva dominance of political culture leaves an imprint on organizational culture: politics playing out in a society the military comes from – the military not being an island. The tricky part is the imprint on strategic culture. While political cultural dominance profits from a projection of strategic felicity, mistaking assertiveness for aggression is to invite trouble. This explains the posturing in parliament by Amit Shah that had it that he was ready to spill blood (presumably including his own) for retaking Aksai Chin. Taking him seriously would have seen a different response to Galwan than ‘mirror deployment’. In the event, deft strategic communication compensated for strategic ineptitude. The upshot of staking out the LAC on a long-term basis is in its keeping the Indian army from looking inwards to any mandate on the preservation of the Constitution. For its part, Pakistan continues to serve as a useful foil, with Rajnath Singh happy to refer to the Maa Sharda Shakti in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir while refraining in such imagery from a mention of Mansarovar in Tibet in his depiction of Hindu-sthan’s civilisational frontiers. Hindu Rashtra as a proto Akhand Bharat is bogeyman only for Pakistan. The strategic challenge is to strut one’s stuff without having to prove it. The risk from hollowing out of the army through the Agniveer scheme can thus be run since the strategic environment will not require strategic exertion. The army’s organisational culture is to be messed around with to keep if from tripping up changes in political culture.
The army of Hindu Rashtra will be informed equally by India’s military record as its mythological past. India’s armies have always kept out of politics, though actively used in medieval times by contenders for power. Other than in colonial interest, they have seldom ventured abroad: the exertions of Ranjit Singh being mostly in territory not seen as alien. They have been largely used in placating India internally. Both mythology and epics testify to this predominant role of the army: if of the Chakravartin, ending strife, or, if of the rebel, precipitating strife. The army’s preoccupation in the Moghul period was similar.
Since these days, India is largely placid internally – and there is an extensive internal security force under the home ministry – the army can step back from this role too. Its role in external strategic management is eased by a strategic doctrine of war avoidance. In this the hollowing out of the military is messaging to adversaries that New India poses little threat, diluting any security dilemma that can detract from getting to be Hindu Rashtra. Subjective civilian control will keep the army from addressing any dilemma over its role in preservation of the Constitution. Agniveers are key national security providers getting to Hindu Rashtra.