India’s Armed Forces: Ill-effects of politicisation

India Armed Forces Soldiers

India’s professional soldier is apolitical 

The Indian Armed Forces, or “the Armed Forces of the Union”, comprise the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. They are India’s voluntary, professional body, with the primary duty to protect India against external aggression and defend India’s sovereignty and integrity.

Before joining active service, every Indian soldier – all ranks of the Army, from jawan to General, and their equivalents in the Navy and Air Force – takes oath as follows:

“I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully serve in the regular Army of the Union of India and go wherever ordered by land, sea or air, and that I will observe and obey all commands of the President of the Union of India and the commands of any officer set over me even to the peril of my life”.

Thus, the soldier’s obedience is to the President of India and his loyalty is to the Constitution of India.

While the serving soldier is governed by military law in addition to every other law which governs every citizen, certain fundamental rights available to every citizen are denied to him by Army Act Sec.21 and the Army Rules, “because of the nature of duties performed by the members of the regular Army and for the maintenance of dscipline among them”. Specifically, Army Rule 20 prohibits “political and non-military activities”.

Over the decades, the command structure of India’s Armed Forces has preserved the highest standards of professional conduct and performance, and the apolitical character of the serving soldier.

Back in 1932, a Field Marshal advised young Indian Army officers on their commissioning at the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun: The young Indian man of education seems very attracted by politics. May I urge you to remember that politics do not, and cannot, find any place in army life. An army can have no place in politics. Once there is any suspicion that an Army, or any part of it, is biased politically, from that moment that Army has lost the confidence of the nation which pays for it. It is no longer impartial, and that way lies chaos and civil war. [Ref.1]

Public trust  

As in earlier surveys, a 2019 survey of public opinion relating to politics, society, and governance, reveals that people trust the Army the most, with the Judiciary next. The least trusted are the police, government officials, and political parties. [Ref.2]

Further, according to a survey conducted in 28 countries, the armed forces are among the world’s most trusted professions. As of 2022, India recorded the highest percentage of respondents (64%) who indicated members of the armed forces as trustworthy, with USA next at 56%. [Ref.3]

The Indian public cannot but be aware that Pakistan was founded as a democratic state, nominally secular. However, after its 1973 Constitution which made it a theocratic state named the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Pakistan Army is ideologically politicised both vertically and horizontally. [Ref.4]

India’s public recognises the apolitical nature of India’s Armed Forces, as a criterion for trust.

Selection for promotion

India’s Army has a credible selection system for promotion of a soldier from one rank to the next, within a result-oriented system, which operates on the basis of teamwork with hierarchical command and control of personnel and materiel for training and military operations. In particular, officers are promoted into strictly limited vacancies, based upon annual confidential reports (ACRs) of assessed and demonstrated professional performance. Discounting inevitable but minimal system and human errors, almost all officers are promoted deservedly, and the reason for many not getting promotion, is the lack of vacancies. [Note 1]

ACRs of officers are initiated by officers superior to them in rank, and reviewed at two higher levels. Thus, including at the top-most (3-star) levels of military command, officers are professionally competent, as assessed by professional soldiers. Trust in the system of assessment for promotion, is the primary reason that, over the decades, successive union governments have – with three exceptions – always approved the elevation of the seniormost qualified Lieutenant General to the 4-star rank of General to head the Army as COAS.

Government making exception and superceding the seniormost Lieutenant General, to select one junior to him, is not based upon the junior’s “superior” professional competence – which anyway government is not competent to assess – but upon political considerations.

It has been argued that out-of-turn promotion is the only way to recognise and encourage merit in our military. [Ref.5] It is this writer’s view that such recognition of merit concerning military competence for out-of-turn promotion, may be valid if done within the military hierarchy up to 3-star rank. It is unrealistic to assume that politicians or bureaucrats will be able to judge inter se military competence of 3-star officers for the top 4-star slot of service chief.

This is not to deny government’s discretionary power to select an officer out-of-turn for the top slot, but it would be undeniably politically motivated, possibly because the selected officer was considered to be in political alignment, and/or pliable. This happened in 1983 and again in 2016, and yet again in 2022. These promotions were viewed askance within the serving military as political interference, although nothing was expressed in the public domain because of Army Act Sec.21 and Army Rule 21 [Note 2].

Army personnel on leave

Most units and headquarters have the legacy problem of short-staffing among the officer cadre, and post-Covid, even among the cadres below officer rank. Although the command structure has maintained the Army’s operational capability and readiness, it has been at a cost.

The “cost” is the heavy toll on personnel at all levels, in terms of stress during primary-duty deployment and active operations, and additionally having to render “aid to the civil power” for internal security duties, doing what the Police forces have failed to do.

Army personnel need to avail leave to compensate for the rigours of service and long separation from families due to field/operational tenures, and very limited family accommodation in peace areas, especially for personnel below officer rank (PBOR).

Soldiers are relieved from duty stations and granted leave according to a leave roster, so that troops strength on-duty is maintained. Thus, a soldier may not get leave when he needs it, due to the exigencies of service. It is necessary to note that heightened stress, deep frustration and anger arising from not getting leave when it is needed, is one of the reasons for suicide and fratricide among troops. [Ref.6]

During the leave period, every soldier needs to spend quality time with his family. Additionally the soldier also attends to matters which his spouse has been unable to do, and which have added to his stress in his place of posting or deployment. Thus, leave is a particularly precious period of time, to which every soldier looks forward. He spends his leave not only to do things and get things done, but also de-stress himself by being away from the extreme rigours of military service.

Leave is an essential provision for maintaining individual and unit morale, the prime factor for victory in combat situations. Maintenance of morale and fighting spirit of troops is a prime responsibility of military commanders at every level. Thus, leave for a soldier is far more than being a part of his terms of service and a welfare measure.

In this well-understood situation, Army Headquarters directed – although the word used is “recommended” – that “every soldier proceeding on leave volunteers to choose any subject/domain as per own interest/competency and the felt need of one’s local community, and engages citizens, thereby making an individual contribution to the Indian Army’s nation-building effort”. [Ref.6]

Short-staffed units are to provide soldiers with literature, to use for his “voluntary” efforts on social, civic and patriotic themes, such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, etc. His unit monitors compliance using photographs/videos which he takes. Pressure to comply will cause stress during leave, and anxiety on return to duty station, perhaps defeating the purpose of leave.

The soldier-on-leave “voluntarily” promoting government schemes, and being monitored for compliance, can be negative for the Army’s morale and functioning.

Showcasing performance

On October 9, 2023, Ministry of Defence directed defence establishments to set up 822 geo-tagged ‘selfie points’ in nine cities, to “showcase good works done in Defence”, and “attract public attention”. [Ref.7]

The Armed Forces are to set up and operationalise 100 ‘selfie points’ under government-defined themes of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Sashaktikaran’, and send “action taken reports”.

The scheme, using the Armed Forces to promote and advertise government policies, has obvious political purpose.

Civil-military relations

India’s Armed Forces are subordinate to control by the union government of the day. However, government should consult Service Chiefs (or the Chief of Defence Staff) before issuing directions such as soldiers-on-leave “volunteerng” to promote government schemes, or establish “selfie-points” for the same purpose, because they impact the soldier and/or the Service. It will never be known whether government consulted the 4-star top brass, or if consulted, what they advised government.

Even earlier, the 4-star top brass had complied with directions to arrange yoga mats on Raj Path (2015) for government to set a world record, and clear garbage thrown [Ref.8] by Himalayan pilgrimage tourists (2017).  Both these tasks were within the ambit of duty and competence of other agencies.

Getting soldiers to do such tasks indicates government’s step-motherly attitude towards the Armed Forces. Other examples are: Death and disability benefits to soldiers made lower than for their civilian counterparts; Denying NFU to Armed Forces although CAPFs receive NFU benefit; Delaying payment of OROP arrears ordered by Supreme Court; Not allowing Army representation in successive Pay Commissions. These and other similar government decisions are detrimental to the soldier’s morale.


It is the duty of military top brass to convince the political leadership to not pass orders which are political in nature and intent, or impact adversely on the soldier and the Service, and thereby on national security. This is easier said than done in the best of times, but in the present dispensation it is much more difficult. Notwithstanding the difficulty, when the military leadership fails, the Armed Forces get politicised by their default.

Government’s “soldier-volunteer” and “selfie-point” initiatives for political purposes, are measures which politicise the Armed Forces, since government cannot be unaware of the Army Act and Army Rules, which prohibit political activity.

Military Veterans, notable among them, former army chief General V.P. Malik, former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, Lt Gen H.S.Panag and Maj Gen Ashok Mehta, have variously expressed concern about the deleterious long-term impact of politicisation on the morale & cohesion of our Armed Forces.

Central and State governments prepare development plans and schemes to benefit People, but advertising them is the Centre or State ruling party’s political agenda. Soldiers promoting government schemes is unambiguously political activity. When it is ordered by the highest military authority in compliance with government directives, it politicises the Armed Forces. [Ref.9] Government would do well to cease using the Army for political purposes, and the military top brass would do well to stand firm to maintain the apolitical nature of the soldier and the Service. 

Politicisation of the Armed Forces does not bode well for India’s internal or external security. 

References (hyperlinked in the text)

1. S.G.Vombatkere; “Veterans’ Concern for a Secular Military Is Not Fake News“; <>; The Wire; April 13, 2019.

2. Anisha Dutta; “Army most trusted, political parties least: Survey“; <>; The Hindustan Times; May 27, 2019.

3. “Trust in members of the armed forces as of 2022, by country”; <>; Statista; November 22, 2022.

4. Yasser Latif Hamdani; “How Pakistan Evolved From Secular Democracy To Theocracy”; <>; The Friday Times; August 15, 2022. 

5. Lt Gen H.S.Panag; “Out-of-turn promotion is the only way to recognise and encourage merit in our military“; <>; The Print; August 19, 2021.

6. Lt Gen H.S.Panag; “Army can’t ask soldiers to do social work on leave. It’s beyond the ‘call of duty’“; <>; The Print; September 7, 2023.

7. Soumashree Sarkar; “Defence Ministry Orders ‘Selfie Points’ to Showcase ‘Good Work’ – PM Modi’s Image a Must“; <>; The Wire; October 13, 2023.

8. Salil Deshpande; “Dear tourists, the Indian Army is picking up your trash“; <>; CN Traveller; October 2, 2017.

9. Ashok K. Mehta; “Politicisation of the army: no pros, only cons“; <–no-pros–only-cons.html>; Daily Pioneer; November 1, 2023.


Note 1. For information of those unfamiliar with the Army, a mere 1.3% of officers are promoted to the rank of major general, due to limited vacancies combined with age-related superannuation. This obliges many competent officers who may be approved for promotion, to retire at a lower rank.

Note 2. Army Rule 21. Communications to the Press, Lectures, etc. No person subject to the Act shall – (i) publish in any form whatever or communicate directly or indirectly to the Press any matter in relation to a political question or on a service subject or containing any service information, or publish or cause to be published any book or letter or article or other document on such question or matter or containing such information without the prior sanction of the Central Government, or any officer specified by the Central Government in this behalf; or (ii) deliver a lecture or wireless address, on a matter relating to a political question or on a service subject or containing any information or views on any service subject without the prior sanction of the Central Government or any officer specified by the Central Government in this behalf.


Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere, VSM (Retd) retired as Additional DG (Discipline & Vigilance) in Army HQ AG’s Branch. Email: <[email protected]>


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