Just when the nation thought that at 75, the Indian Military has become a model national institution that reflects the idea of India and is in the process of transforming itself to fight future wars, the ghost of its colonial past has come back to haunt it. On 20 September, excerpts of a shoddily drafted leaked letter giving the notice and agenda for an in-house conference under the chairmanship of the Adjutant General to discuss “decolonisation” of the Indian Army, appeared on military WhatsApp groups.
Laced with political language, the introductory paragraph of the letter read, “In conformity with the nation’s drive towards a ‘Developed Nation’ and ‘Amrit Kaal’, while doing away with the British colonial legacy, it is essential to move away from the archaic and ineffective practices. The Indian Army also needs to review these legacy practices to align to the ‘National Sentiment’, in consonance with ‘Panch Prans’.”
The letter goes on to list the “legacy practices” covering a wide ambit including names of regiments, unit insignia, uniforms and accoutrements, pre-Independence theatre/battle honours, grant of honorary commissions, names of roads/parks/institutions, affiliation with foreign armies and Commonwealth Graves Commission, ceremonials, Colonels of Regiments, and officer’s mess procedures/traditions/customs. The letter adds that the list is not exhaustive, implying that every vestige of the colonial past needs to be removed.
The Indian Army had cleansed itself of its colonial past soon after independence, ironically, under its most anglicised Commander-in-Chief and later Chief of Army Staff, General K.M. Cariappa, who could hardly speak any Indian language. From being the sword arm of Britain and its colonial enforcer, the Army was transformed into an apolitical organisation guided by the Constitution and firmly under civilian control. Most colonial traditions and customs were discarded and only those that contributed towards promoting regimentation, ethos of valour and fighting spirit were retained.
The aim of military reforms and transformation is, and should always be, the improvement of military effectiveness to safeguard national security. Will an all-encompassing review of the thoughtfully retained “colonial” traditions/customs/practices, which have become an intrinsic part of the armed forces in these 75 years, contribute towards this aim? The answer is no.
However, since the dye has been cast, let me examine the inspiration for this review, what can and should change, and what requires more deliberate thought because at stake are the ethos and morale of the armed forces, which drive its fighting spirit.
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Promoting its own version of nationalism lies at the core of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s ideology. The ruling party sees pre-independence history through its own prism and India’s colonial past is anathema to the rule which began in 2014. With respect to the armed forces, the ball was set rolling by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 6 March 2021, through his valedictory address during the Combined Commanders Conference at Kevadia, Gujarat, under the shadow of the statue of Sardar Patel. The official extract states: “Prime Minister stressed the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures and customs practiced in the armed forces.”
Based on the PM’s directions, atma nirbharta (self-reliance) in defence equipment has become a benchmark reform, which as yet remains a work in progress. The armed forces can do little about “indigenisation of doctrines” because military thought has evolved over the centuries as a continuum, and technology continues to drive change and reform. India’s failure to adopt and adapt to modern military strategy, tactics and technology is why invaders defeated us for 1,000 years. Hence, beyond adding quotes from Kautilya, Mahabharata and Ramayana, nothing much can be done.
The armed forces have now grabbed the low-hanging fruit of “indigenisation of customs”. The second of the PM’s ‘Panch Pran’ – “no part of our existence, not even in the deepest corners of our mind or habits should there be any ounce of slavery… We have to liberate ourselves from the slavery mind set which is visible in innumerable things within and around us.” – galvanised the Indian Army into action.
Public speeches of Modi are political in nature as also his customary address to the military hierarchy. For execution, the government has to give formal directions through the Ministry of Defence (MoD). In my view, the government has given no formal directions in this regard. Even if it has erred in doing so, the armed forces function under “objective control” of the government, which has always granted the military its functional autonomy as opposed to “subjective control” under which the military is co-opted in pursuit of political ideology. Rational military advice is never ignored by the government.
The armed forces either did not advise the government or, worse, they have unilaterally aligned with its political ideology. After all, in the last 75 years, the “colonial traditions” have in no way impinged on the military’s operational effectiveness.
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What can change, what shouldn’t
Most of the 15 archaic colonial traditions/practices should have changed or been done away with over the years. The traditions that symbolise bravery, sacrifice and regimental spirit must not be tinkered with. The informal linkage of the names of units/regiments to regions or British officers who raised them can easily be dispensed with. The few colonial or Greek/Roman mythology symbols in crests of units that escaped scrutiny after independence or were non controversial then, must be changed. Colonial names of roads/parks/institutions must be replaced with our war heroes or legendary Generals.
Uniforms and accoutrements can be reviewed and Indianised. However, it must be kept in mind that pomp and glamour are an intrinsic part of the military. There is a need for commonality of dress for officers and soldiers. In any case, uniforms have undergone change every 25-30 years. There is an existing policy of not celebrating pre-independence battle/theatre honours which must be enforced.
Officer mess procedures and customs are no different from what I have seen at Rashtrapati Bhavan and state banquets. However, they can be reviewed to make them simple.
Affiliation with foreign armies is part of military diplomacy; the Modi government must exercise its discretion. The memorials and cemeteries under Commonwealth Graves Commission also honour Indian soldiers. To tinker with this tradition is a taboo unless we want to construct war memorials all over the world. Not allowing descendants of British officers to visit the units of their forefathers at their own expense and with due permission is nothing more than a petty thought. Grant of honorary commission/ranks is a great motivator for our NCOs/JCOs as it enhances their pension. Change the name and procedure but do not deny this welfare measure.
What merits serious thought is the colonial religion/cast/region/ethnicity based regimental system promoted under the concept of martial races, of the Indian Army. Unit/sub-unit cohesion, and not nationalism, is the primary motivator in combat. Institutional cohesion is built over a long period of living, training and experiencing the rigours and dangers of field/operations/high altitude/counter-insurgency tenures together.
Since the Indian Army has followed a religion/caste/region/ethnicity regimental system for over 200 years, by default, cohesion also got linked to the same. It was retained in its existing form post-independence due to its time-proven effectiveness in building cohesion. This system is not in consonance with our Constitution and is also anti-merit due to reservations by default.
All-India, all-class and merit-driven recruitment under the Agnipath scheme brings about a radical change in our approach to regimentation. Thus the existing regimental system, where you serve for your entire service life, will be retained, but it will not be based on caste, religion, ethnicity or region. This will be a gradual process of reform over 15-20 years and is the best way to go about it. The change of names of regiments can be reviewed in due course.
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Enemy at the gates
With the ongoing crisis on the borders, the focus of the Modi government should be on transformation of the armed forces to fight future high-technology-driven wars. At this juncture, this reform process is in disarray. We still do not have a formal National Security Strategy. The government has failed to own the transformation by giving formal directions, supervising/coordinating the execution by setting up an empowered committee and by giving adequate budget.
Atma nirbharta in defence has yet to take off. Indian Army’s World War 2 era structures/organisations have not been reformed nor its elephantine size reduced. The fact that a new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed after 10 months reflects the sorry state of tri-service integration and theatre commands. Let there be no doubt that, so far, no tangible major reforms have taken place towards transformation of the Indian armed forces.
With the ‘enemy at the gates’, is there a need to be preoccupied with exorcising the Indian Army of the largely imagined demons of its colonial past?
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)