Army and Nation – Steven Wilkinson

When people compare India and Pakistan, one of the most frequently trotted out differences is their civil-military relations. Despite common colonial legacies that also extend to military training and recruitment, common histories and geographies, why the noted divergence in the way civil-military relations are structured and managed? Why have military coups been so common in Pakistan than in India which till date has not experienced one? Steven Wilkinson offers a incisive argument in his latest book, Army and Nation, analytically dissecting the reasons behind this curious state of affairs in the subcontinent.

Wilkinson’s argument comes in three parts. First is the ‘socio-economic, strategic and military inheritance’ that Pakistan received in 1947 compared to India. The amount of trained officers and officials, state institutions, army and stocks of capital and goods, (not to say level and quality of political leadership although this facet comes later) it received through partition left Pakistan considerably weaker than India as a coherent unit. And this was added on to by additional strategic challenges on the Western front, the need to pay their armies and soldiers and that they had to defend a much larger Eastern front against India which burdened the exchequer immediately. Pakistani Generals had no other option but to remain in the driving seat given extant threats and weaknesses, which they sought to balance. Second is the differences in party institutionalisation. India and the Congress in particular had deep roots within communities across the countries with substantial mass backing. This was not the case with the Muslim league in Pakistan that essentially retained the support of the aristocrats in certain provinces without ever obtaining mass support for their policies. This difference allowed India and the Congress party to create a broad political structure that could be used to manage divisive conflicts that emerge, which might have inflamed had they been left unattended. Politics filled the void in India and the army, given party weaknesses, filled the void in Pakistan. And thirdly, Wilkinson argues that coup-proofing, procedures and policies that governments take to distance the army from politics, were far more elaborate and implemented in India than in Pakistan. This involved keeping military institutions fragmented, less cohesive and much less likely to band together when cornered. But this as we saw in 1962 resulted in the army’s defeat to China that stemmed from poor intelligence, weak lines of communication between Nehru, his military planners and the army and the disdain both had for each other.

The book is well structured. Wilkinson prefaces his argument by examining the inheritance of India’s colonial military structure and how its operational being stoked conflicts amongst various groups in pre-independent India. Next, he moves to consider how WW II impacted the British Raj’s army composition and attendant policies aimed at muting criticism of recruiting from certain regions. Chapter 3 looks at how Nehru and other Congress leaders dealt with civil-military challenges and the strategies it deployed to minimise military’s threat. Chapter 4 looks at the impact of the China war, 1977 emergency and 1984 Blue Star operation on civil-military strategies in India. Preoccupied by these events, the political establishment did not weaken or alter the cumbersome command and control structures that Nehru and others had instituted in the 1950s to control the army. Chapter 5 considers the current state of the Indian army and civil-military relations that explains why those structures continue to remain today despite calls for reform of the Armed Services establishment. Wilkinson argues that the ‘intensification of caste, religious, and regional politics in India over the past 20 years and the distributional claims these identities have threatened, but not so far overturned, the army’s ability to recruit from its traditional communities for its single and fixed class units.’ Despite massive political changes and regionalisation, the army has thus far been largely immune from existing political pressures but there are indications that this might diminish in the near future. Chapter 6 explores Pakistan’s experience with civil-military relations, explaining why these three factors have contributed to coups over its history. Wilkinson ends with some general lessons from both experiences of managing the civil-military divide, including the timing and sequencing of civil-military relations, hedging armies with paramilitary forces and structural reforms linked to coup proofing.

Wilkinson’s research, arguments marshalled, evidence used and they way they are conveyed are top notch. The quantitative evidence on recruitment into the Indian army are gleaned from effectively to make a case for the politics associated with army operations in India. And linking civil-military relations to the politics of independence and the way parties and leaders functioned in India firmly embeds the army and its functioning within the Indian polity. Given these positives, i will dwell on one minor oversight and how it influenced civil-military relations: fluid cold war environment that forced both countries to adopt distinct survival strategies as new nation states on the world map. India chose to diversify and stay largely neutral and Pakistan aligned. To do and accomplish this, certain actors will be privileged within the country – politicians in India and Generals in Pakistan. More work needs to be done on establishing how the cold war and its vicissitudes influenced Indian foreign policy and the perceptions of its leaders going ahead to get a better sense of how institutions that had a role in foreign affairs influenced their country’s trajectory.