Civil-Military Relations: Questioning The VK Singh Thesis – Analysis


By Ali Ahmed

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’.

Ali Ahmed

Assistant Professor, NMCPCR, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

5 thoughts on “Civil-Military Relations: Questioning The VK Singh Thesis – Analysis

  • June 14, 2012 at 1:03 am

    I happened to be present when this interview was conducted by the editor-in-chief of PTI Mr Razdhan along with another reporter. The full transcript was also put out shortly after this rather focussed and selective interpretation of the General’s comment was put out by PTI. Contrary to what has been implied by this rather immature report, General VK had stressed on the fact that civilian supremacy is paramount and he quoted the former Naval Chief Admiral Bhagwat on the issue. That it should be just and fair was a logical rider, and if those basic principles are violated, then they must be resisted. PTI’s report left me quite amazed – it was a classic case of how issues can be twisted. I’m fwding you the transcript of the interview.

  • June 14, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Civil-military relations are governed by the Constitution of the country. As law is power, a constitutional arrangement would require that the provisions bearing on the power equations will have to decide their interplay.
    The Indian Constitution significantly has two provisions in clauses 1 and 2 in Article 53 bearing on the interplay. By clause 1, the executive power of the Union is “vested” in the President who shall exercise it either directly or through officers subordi-nate but “in accordance with this constitution”. Clause 2 “vests” the supreme command of the armed forces in the President but requires its exercise to be regulated by law. This clause 2 is “without prejudice to the generality of” clause 1 but what follows is that in relation to command of the armed forces, clause 1 will be controlled by clause 2 as part of the Constitution. Here the Army Act, the Navy Act and the Air Force Act will govern the exercises of command and control powers i relation to the forces. The President will be the political point of power to declare war or conclude peace and only when the armed forces are placed in charge of the operations will they come into function. Invoking the defence power hasinteresting implications. There is always a minimum of defence power in play where the requirements of the armed forces are to be taken care of adequately so that they will be ever battle ready to protect the country. In the actual scene of military operations it is the General who decides; martial law is no law; it is euphemistically called law while in reality it is the command of the General limited of-course by international humanitarian law principles. The Defence Ministry has properly only an assistive role in which it has failed by being caught up in scams in defence deals and delays in defence procurements and self-sufficiency. It is the President wh has to be the point of interaction. The Armed Forces are co-ordinates to the Defence Ministry;not subordinates.
    Here the friction has come in because of not working the two lines power separately creating dis-satisfactions in armed forces personnel which did not reach the court in many cases. Many officers have left the services after yr=ears of service pointing to a failure in human resource management.
    Now that illegalities and corruption in the ministry has come out into the open,it is necessary to correct the flaws in the flows of power because unity of command is essential for an armed force to be decisively effective.

  • June 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I thank Prof Devidas for bringing the issue in focus. Ali Saheb, is being theoretical in extreme. Straight and narrow path for military leader is clear. He must follow, the law of land as enshrined in the Constitution and be ethical, i.e., respect human rights of enemy soldiers once they have surrendered. During Kargil conflict, General VP Malik surrendered tactical advantage, which were legitimate need of troops, by accepting an unjust and unfair curb on crossing the Line of Control. Hence he is directly culpable of causing undue casualties to the troops placed under his command.

  • June 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    If the trust between the government and the army is such that the former panics as reportedly happened on 16-17 Jan 12, either side will continue to suspect intentions of the other. As Mr Devidas rightly implies if MOD continues to treat armed forces as ‘subordinates’ and not ‘coordinates’ the chasm will, at times, lead to questioning ‘correctness’ of an order. The answer lies in involving the chiefs in the decision making process and to give them their due place in national security matters. Such a situation then will just not arise.

  • June 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Prof Ali Ahmed’s basic thesis is incorrect. Those required to implement orders have to judge the legality of those orders and cannot hide behind reasoning that they were unaware of political issues…. otherwise Hitler’s Generals would not have sufferred the fate they subsequently did.
    Also there is a need to clearly specify that civil supremacy does not imply supremacy of bureaucrats as has been interpreted in India but of the political leadership. If the military formed a part of the Ministry, as is done in other democracies, the political leadership would get the right advice and not face the situation that it presently does.
    As regards the issue of Gen Malik’s orders during the Kargil war it just showed that neither the political nor military leadership cared for the troops, however highfaulting their words.It also clearly showed how higher leadership was selected based on issues other than professionalism. The fact is that the complete higher leadership of the Army should have lost their jobs for command failure but were instead rewarded as it allowed the Vajpayee Government to shrug aside its own failures and that of earlier Govt’s. A conspiracy of silence!


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