The India We Want: What would a military of Hindu India look like?

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In Modi 2.0 India is liable to be transformed from a secular republic to Hindu India. The opportunity of an enhanced mandate is likely to be put to good use in furthering the Hindutva project. The ruling party will prefer to view its renewed lease on power with a larger vote share as voter endorsement for the project.

A strategically assertive India is a facet of the cultural nationalist project. Voters were swayed by the image of a tough New India, demonstrated by the Balakot episode in the last India-Pakistan crisis. The government will therefore use their verdict as excuse to continue being strong–on-defence. This will determine the place of the military in the larger scheme of the creation of a majoritarian state.

Currently, the military is professional, apolitical and secular. The facet of professionalism is one that the government would certainly like to retain in the military since India is in a tough neighbourhood and India’s military is critical to the government’s national security showing, particularly since it wishes to be bold in the tradition of Balakot and Doklam against adversaries, Pakistan and China, respectively.

Of the two other facets, secular is an irritant that the government may like to have the military jettison. In the interim till secular figures in the preamble of the Constitution, the government may redefine the term. Since in its view India is secular because it is predominantly Hindu, the term can be taken as reflecting secularism inherent in Hindu ethos and away from any pseudo-secular and western constructs that it may have been hitherto associated with.

As for apolitical, the government can do with the military being held at arm’s length from politics. Since this is a proud tradition of the Indian military, this is the easy part. The military would continue its engagement in Kashmir and vigilance against Chinese intrusions.

The army is in the midst of reform, in which it is to implement the organisational changes that were validated in the recently concluded exercises of its western command. The air force is upgrading its inventory and firepower, receiving the Rafales by year end and having invested in new purchases of stand-off weapons. These professional preoccupations of the military will keep it introspective and away from any eddies from the making of New India.

Even so, if precedent is any guide, the government is likely to continue deep selection of service chiefs. The last army chief selection served it rather well in implementing its Kashmir strategy, that currently accounts for over 600 youth killed there, over 100 of which only this year.

The army and air force chiefs are up for retirement. Even if one of the two is kicked upstairs into tenanting the chief of defence staff equivalent position – in case the rumours of defence sector reforms implementation sometime soon are true – in choosing their successors the government would reasonably wish to have either pliable or likeminded chiefs. This measure would render the military inert and liable to look away if the creation of New India turns out turbulent politically.

The effect on professionalism of appointing a service chief as per a subjective consideration – dubbed in the case of the selection of the army chief last time as the criterion of ‘ease of working with’ – can be expected.

However, the dilution of professionalism, if any, would not be overly dangerous. On the China border the Wuhan spirit can be expected to continue under tutelage of a China expert as the new foreign minister. Against Pakistan, not only has India a preponderance but Pakistan is also in doldrums economically.

In a way, the manner of civil military relations in India can be expected to shift partially from objective civilian control to subjective civilian control. Objective civilian control is in keeping the army to the professional till and away from politics, while subjective civilian control is to ensure like mindedness at the military apex in order that the military keeps out of politics. The nature of impending selection of the two chiefs would indicate the direction the government wishes to proceed on this score.

The creation of New India will proceed apace. The military has no role in this nor is there any call for it to have a view on the new destination for India as a majoritarian democracy. The shift from civic to ethnic nationalism is not within the military’s purview, even if military members may have a personal opinion the direction of change.

That said, the military believes it has a constitutional obligation to defend the Constitution. So long as the government proceeds with its changes in the national identity down a procedurally valid parliamentary route – one that does not run afoul of the judiciary that sees itself as the last bastion of the Constitution’s basic principles – the military has no say in the matter. It would be at ease with defending Constitution revised by fair means.

This anticipatory analysis suggests that it is in the best interests of all – the ruling party, the military, the opposition – to keep the military out of the politics that are likely to loom over the question of turning India into a Hindu India. The government would be wise to stick with objective civilian control to the extent it is comfortable, even if it wishes to appoint a chief by avoiding once again the traditional seniority principle.

As for the military leadership, it is sufficiently politically savvy to know that turbulence can attend the political project of foisting of New India as defined by cultural nationalism. It must keep the military low profile and away from politics, if need be by being prickly to even its political masters. It must regularly water the three facets it is reputed for – professionalism, apolitical and secular – as they come under pressure in the second term of Narendra Modi.

Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia.


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