Keeping the military apolitical

Uday Balakrishnan
Soldiers deserve to be admired but never revered to a point where they feel invincible
The ‘bloodless’ army coup of January 1972 in their country caught most Ghanaians by surprise. Their democratically elected Prime Minister, the genial and scholarly Kofi Busia, who had taken over from the army in 1969, seemed well-entrenched and remained reasonably popular. It was inconceivable to most people, settling down to the relative comfort of stable civilian rule after a disastrous interregnum of military dictatorship, that a mild-mannered middle-level army officer, Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, could mobilise a force strong enough to take over Ghana. One of those who thought otherwise was Chris Asher, the founder of the irreverent anti-establishment newspaper The Palaver. Asher was convinced that the civilian government would not last and that the temptation for the army, which had tasted ‘blood’ before, to stage a coup would be irresistible. Sure enough, that happened. In a scene played out so often through history in so many countries around the world, Colonel Acheampong’s takeover of Ghana was swift, ostensibly to save the country from the ‘venality’ of civilian rule. The body he formed to administer the country was appropriately called the National Redemption Council.
Coups and massacres
Ghana was not the first country to have an army take over the state nor was it the last. This was the fate of many newly independent countries in the last century, invariably with disastrous results.
Even as some countries emerged from military dictatorships, real power remained in the hands of the armed forces, as in Pakistan, Myanmar and Fiji. The end of military rule in Argentina and Chile brought into the open the silent grief of thousands whose family members had disappeared or had been tortured to death by soldiers. Army rule in Indonesia saw over half a million massacred and not one soldier has so far been brought to book. Historian Geoffrey Robinson has brought all this out in horrifying detail in his book, The Killing Season: A History Of The Indonesian Massacres 1965-66.
Escaping the military trap
Of the newly independent states, India has remained one of the very few where the army has never had a stab at taking over the country. In this respect, it deserves to be — but is not — counted alongside more established democracies like the U.S. and the U.K. How did India escape the military trap?
In his classic study, The Man On Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, Samuel Finer states that “the moment the military draw this distinction between the nation and government in power, they begin to invent their own private notion of the national interest.” Much to its credit, India’s armed forces never got around to drawing such a distinction, remaining amenable to civilian control. This was so even when it was seriously stressed following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The unique nature of the non-violent freedom struggle initiated and controlled by Mahatma Gandhi ensured that India emerged as a democracy. When Subhas Chandra Bose advocated armed rebellion, Gandhi, even as he never questioned his commitment to India’s freedom, saw to it that Bose was marginalised and eliminated as a political force. Jawaharlal Nehru took up from where Gandhi left off.
While there was much sympathy for soldiers who had been members of the Indian National Army founded by Bose, none were re-inducted into the ranks of the Indian Army, ensuring that the latter remained apolitical and under civilian control. India would do well to keep it that way.
Soldiers fully deserve to be admired and loved but never revered to a point where, as Finer says, they come to believe they know better than anyone else what is good for the country. (Courtesy : The Hindu)
Uday Balakrishnan teaches at IISc Bengaluru