Using committees to demean the military

 Indian Army,Indian Military,LAC

Indian Soldier during the historic US-India joint exercise

Source: DoD

As the season changes and the hills warm up, it appears that the Doklam issue is once again on the simmer. As some may recall it was in June last year that an assertive Indian Army had halted Chinese engineers in their tracks and stopped them from constructing a road in the sensitive Doklam plateau, territory nominally held by Bhutan. Despite China’s vociferous claims to the contrary that it was their territory, the governments of India and Bhutan stood firm leading to a 73-day stand-off that was only resolved after the Chinese backed down, agreed to cease construction and moved their road construction equipment back.

Following the stand-off, the PLA had the option of moving its troops back to their depth areas, where they are customarily stationed, but instead took the more difficult choice of establishing themselves close to the vicinity of the stand-off site. Given the onset of a rather brutal winter, they had little choice but to construct the requisite perimeter defences, communication trenches and pre-fab living shelters along with helipads and garages for their mechanized resources. Obviously, the PLA had decided to settle down for the long haul, which has cast some measure of doubt as to their intentions and future course of action once the weather becomes less hostile in the forthcoming summer months.

As was to be expected unofficial reports have now started circulating that the PLA has once again recommenced its road construction activity, albeit 5-6 kilometers to the east of the original site, though far deeper into Bhutanese held territory. Not unexpectedly, the Bhutanese government has desisted from raising a hue and cry over the illegal actions of the PLA, and has shown little interest in asking the Indian Army to assist in countering the incursion. This is despite the low key visit of the NSA accompanied by the foreign secretary and the Army Chief. Their lack of enthusiasm is understandable as they have little interest in pitting themselves against the Dragon, an act that can only end in one outcome for this small and remote mountain kingdom, the demise of the ruling dynasty, as has been the case in neighbouring Nepal.

The earlier incident occurred fairly close to where the Indian Army was already deployed along the LAC. Allegedly, the decision to confront the Chinese in Bhutanese territory was taken by the Eastern Army Commander, despite an extremely non-committal chain of command, including the political leadership, that collectively avoided issuing clear cut directions of what it wanted done, at least in the initial stages.

 

This reluctance is of course another matter, but the Army’s robust response willy-nilly dragged in the Bhutanese, who found they had little choice but to support the Indian position if their leadership was to retain any shred of credibility with their own citizens. Especially since the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity were at stake. This is no longer the case as induction of the Indian Army to counter the new incursions would perforce involve a deliberately planned induction and deployment of troops in strength and could certainly lead to unwanted escalation.

It is no wonder then that the government has spared no effort to turn on the charm in matters in its recent dealings with China. This can be seen from the fact that after having initially advised senior functionaries and politicians to stay away from the events planned by the Dalai Lama to commemorate 60 years of exile, they finally forced the Tibetan government in exile to cancel both events planned in New Delhi. The government has also now announced the forthcoming visit of the Defence Minister to China to “reset” relations. In the meantime, there has been deathly silence on the happenings in the vicinity of Doklam.

Despite all attempts to cool down temperatures, there remains the distinct possibility that we are in for a hot summer, which will undoubtedly be further exacerbated by the shenanigans that Pakistan and its Jihadi cohorts will indulge in the already smoldering state of Jammu and Kashmir. If all of this were not enough to keep our armed forces on their toes in the coming months, the government has done its best to better the odds for our adversaries by shooting itself in the foot as well.

In a first, by keeping the defence budget at a measly 1.58% of GDP, the lowest since the 1962 Conflict, it has in a precedent setting move forced the vice chief of Army Staff to publicly complain to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that “The Budget of 2018-19 has dashed our hopes and most of what has been achieved has actually received a little set back…. Allocation for modernisation is insufficient even to cater for committed payment for 125 ongoing schemes, emergency procurements and other DGOF requirements.”

If that were not enough, the government’s approaching the Supreme Court to nullify the Armed Forces Tribunal’s award of making the Non-Functional Upgrade (NFU) applicable to officers of the Defence Forces. This is despite the fact that it is fully aware that by discriminating against the military while sanctioning NFU to All India and Group ‘A’ services, it has upset the decades old equivalence of civil-military ranks. This has led to serious intra-personal issues that have hampered the functioning of establishments staffed jointly by service officers and civilians paid from defence estimates such as the Defence Research and Development Organization, Border Roads and Military Engineering Services.

This downgradation of the military has to immense heart burn and anger among officers apart from adversely impacting their morale.

 

This has now been capped with the government announcing its own idea of a revolution in military affairs by establishing the Defence Planning Committee that will report to the Raksha Mantri. It is to be headed by the National Security Advisor with the three service chiefs as its members along with Defence, Foreign and Finance (Expenditure) secretaries. The chief of Integrated Defence Staff will act as the Secretary to this Committee. In plain English all that has been proposed is to make the NSA the de-facto chief of defence staff. By this single act not only does this government put to rest any further hopes of reform of the higher defence organisation, but also ensures that a political advisor, normally a retired bureaucrat, with no accountability, is placed above the three service chiefs who otherwise are on par with the cabinet secretary. The fact that the cabinet secretary is not a member of this committee speaks volumes.

There are, of course, apologists who have gone on to laud the government for its actions and have suggested that this committee will act as a think tank and a useful link between the Cabinet Committee on Security and the Ministry of Defence, as well as provide better integration among various departments of government.

That is clearly hogwash as the only manner in which our military can be enhanced is by undertaking a complete overhaul of our higher defence management. This requires measures such as establishment of the post of CDS, Joint Theatre Commands as well as posting Service Officers in the ministry. Measures that have been discussed ad nauseam for decades.

 

Now, with its actions we are doomed to have a military that finds itself further deflated and reduced in stature and influence. A state of affairs that is unlikely to change unless the coming rise in temperatures this summer leads to some unpleasant surprises at the LAC. One may recall that Nehru was cut down to size within just the four hours that it took the PLA to destroy 7 Infantry Brigade deployed on the southern banks of the Namka Chu on October 20, 1962. While results in any future conflict will be vastly different, one can be rest assured that it will be no thanks to this government, though one is certain that it will claim credit for any success that we achieve, just as it did earlier for the “surgical strikes” and which Mr Modi referred to during his recent visit to the United Kingdom.


This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Deepak Sinha

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