General VK Singh’s perspective on civil-military relations needs interrogation for it can be expected to carry at least some subscription within the services. The general, now retired, outlined the perspective that in case civilian supremacy is not rooted in ‘justice and fairness’, it must be ‘resisted’. A PTI report has him elaborating on the concept five days into retirement that military obedience was meant only for ‘correct’ orders.
The general is right in saying, “If the order is wrong, stand up and say that the order is wrong.” The assumption is that the level of understanding at the level at which the order is received is appropriate for arriving at a judgment if an order is ‘wrong’. The military obligation is then to ‘stand up’ for what is ‘right’. However, there are two problems with this assumption. One is when an issue has a political and a strategic dimension. While the military is entitled to determine the latter, it has its limitations in respect to the former. The second is what to do next. Is resistance the best recourse to take?
Military ethics are clear on this. Where there is a disagreement with civilian authority, the military professional having tendered his military advice, can opt for being relieved of his responsibilities or resign. ‘Shirking’ or not following up with due energy and dispatch is one way of going slow on orders. However, General Singh’s advice - to ‘resist’ - will find few supporters.
Can a military ‘resist’? When can it do so? To General Singh, this can be done “if we are to protect the institutional integrity of the armed forces.” The argument would imply that it is the responsibility of an institutional head to protect institutional integrity. This is necessary in order that the institution fulfils its social obligation effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so will open it up to abuse.
For instance, the manner in which the political and bureaucratic players have been allowed to interfere in the police function reflects poorly on the police leadership, and also contributes to the decline in law and order. The military cannot afford to go down the similar route. This would require the apex military leadership to take a ‘stand’, wherever appropriate and appropriately at that.
However, defining the threats and judging whether orders violate ‘justice and fairness’ is difficult. Take, for instance, the case of the Kargil War. The aim set by the political leadership was that the intruders be evicted. The parameter set was that the Line of Control should not be crossed. This parameter forced the army to take more casualties during the military operations than would have otherwise been the case. In fact, General VP Malik had admitted as much later. But, in the event, he went about the task without demur, even if with reservations.
Taking a counter-factual example, in case he had appreciated that this was not possible, does it mean he could have ‘resisted’? There would have been other steps that could have been taken, such as asking the political leadership to review the parameter. No self-respecting political leadership could conceivably have gone against military advice in such a case. Assuming for the sake of argument, if the political leadership had been adamant, despite its error, would that have justified resistance from the military leadership? The general could have tendered his resignation, forcing the political head either to review the decision or get a new chief with a different plan.
Resorting to Peter Feaver’s concept on ‘principal-agent’ relationship, elaborated in his Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight and Civil-Military Relations (Harvard University Press, 2003), can help answer this. The principal in the democratic scheme is the civilian leadership. It is authorised to set and approve the grand strategy. It has greater access to information since other instruments of power, such as the intelligence and the foreign service, are answerable to it. It has a better sense of how to integrate the military instrument in the wider scheme of things.
The military, being but an agent, is handicapped in judging the ‘justice and fairness’ of orders received. While fully empowered to vigourously present its case, it can only do so through established channels and to the extent that it is not insubordinate. These limits are a matter of judgment in which socialisation has a role to play. Feaver concludes that the civilians have the ‘right to be wrong’ and will be held accountable by the democratic processes, and not by the military.
That VK Singh’s version is contrary to the above argument perhaps explains some civil-military problems over the recent past. A leading military theorist, Srinath Raghavan (‘Soldiers, Statesmen, and India’s Security Policy’, India Review, 11(2), 2012, pp. 116–133), suggests that the army virtually exercises veto on AFSPA and Siachen. The question is moot whether institutional integrity is being mistaken for national security.
Even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent response on controversies in the military was that 'silence is golden', it is perhaps time the government too ‘stood up’ for its own ‘right to be wrong’.