Leadership: India Accepts The 20th Century


June 20, 2021: India has been the military superpower of South Asia since Britain dissolved its South Asian colonial rule in 1947, leaving behind several independent nations. India was the largest of these and has continued to be the military superpower of South Asia. India has also avoided the military governments that have cursed Pakistan and Burma since the 1950s. Democratic India maintained civilian control of the military by accepting a less-effective military but a force that was so large that no other South Asian military would defeat it. That changed in the 1960s, after China had once more taken control of Tibet and defeated Indian forces in a brief border battle that saw Indian forces suffer a humiliating defeat. China did not follow up that border victory because China had lots of internal problems that kept the Indian border quiet for the rest of the 20th century. Then China became a threat again and India found it was still inferior to Chinese forces.

India knew what the problem was, that its civilian control of the military had crippled military effectiveness and efforts to modernize forces. The Indian Defense Ministry was composed of civilian civil servants or politicians and former military personnel were not welcome. There are other problems with the military leadership. Britain recognized this after 1947 and tried to convince India that a joint staff, with the military chiefs of the army, navy and air force led by a Chief of Staff was the best way to run such a large military force. All Western nations had found the joint staff a military advantage because it improved the effectiveness of the military and made cooperation between the services practical and preferable. India felt it could do without a joint staff because it reinforced civilian control of the military.

A decade ago, most Indian politicians agreed that the Indian military would never be able to match China unless some long-deferred reforms were enacted. After 2000 it became more and more obvious that civilian domination of the defense ministry and lack of a joint staff were no longer preferable and change had to come. That took a while but the joint staff was finally established in 2019, whereupon it quickly became clear the chief of staff had little influence in the Defense Ministry, which continued to control military procurement and the military budget. The civilians in the Defense Ministry had long been an obstacle to military modernization because they often ignored requests for more effective weapons and equipment and preferred to buy whatever would benefit politicians, be it bribes or do-nothing jobs for political supporters. The Indian military procurement bureaucracy had become infamous for its ability to keep Indian troops from getting weapons and equipment they wanted or desperately needed. During the Cold War this worked because India bought most of its weapons from Russia, which had no problem building bribes into the sale price. Western suppliers would not or could not, because it was illegal for them to compete with that. The West armed the smaller Pakistan military with military aid that consisted of free or very cheap weapons that did not involve much in the way of bribes. Although Pakistan lost the three wars if fought with India, it was apparent that the Western weapons were superior to the Russian ones India preferred. This lesson was repeated frequently in the Middle East and became an issue after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as the less powerful Russia which followed was even less able to keep up with Western military tech or afford to pay the bribes Indian procurement officials had been accustomed to.

By the late 1990s the Indian military was clamoring for more Western weapons simply because they were more effective and reliable than Russian ones. This trend continued and the opposition from the Indian Defense Ministry became an international embarrassment. This was particularly true as Pakistan obtained more of its weapons from China, which was building better versions of Russian weapons and eventually weapons comparable to what was available from Western suppliers. Then China began using its most modern weapons in border battles with Indian forces and the Indian disadvantage became very obvious.

This made it possible for the current Indian government to pass legislation that would reduce the dominance of civilian bureaucrats and politicians in the administration of the Defense Ministry, especially when it came to procurement. While you can pass laws to deal with this, changing a decades-old bureaucracy takes time. Making it possible for retired officers to compete for jobs in the Defense Ministry is a start but it will take years to have an impact. The new Joint Staff now has an official platform to make a case for needed new equipment and the Defense Ministry is obliged, legally, to at least pay attention. Every time a new Chinese weapon or military system shows up on the Indian border, or off the Indian coast, the Defense Ministry has a strong incentive to buy what’s best for Indian forces, not the bureaucrats.

Persistent civilian control of the military is a clear advantage compared to other parts of British India, like Pakistan and Burma, that could not control their armed forces. Pakistan, for example, has been ruled by temporary military governments about half the time since the 1950s. Military rule in Pakistan and Burma led to less economic growth and more unrest among the population.

When Britain finally dissolved its colonial government in South Asia after World War II, it was left up to local leaders to decide what new nations would emerge from all this. Those colonies became the independent nations of India, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and several smaller states, like Nepal, on the Tibetan border. “British India” included modern day India and Pakistan. India is 85 percent Hindu and ten percent Moslem while what became Pakistan was the opposite. Before 1947 many residents of British India wanted one Indian state with over 400 million people and a large (over 20 percent) Moslem minority. There was a lot of opposition from Hindu and Moslem politicians, who convinced Britain that a separate Moslem state (Pakistan) with 17 percent of the British India population and two-thirds of the Moslems would be preferable. Many Hindus agreed because British India was only about 70 percent Hindu, versus over 90 percent before Moslem armies began attacking and invading over a thousand years ago. There was never a unified Moslem India because no single Moslem invasion was able to occupy, much less control, all of India. Particularly frustrating for Moslem invaders was the Hindu resistance to conversion. Too many Hindus would rather die, or die fighting, than convert. This actually made it difficult for any Moslem invader to establish an Indian empire because many Moslem invaders found it was easier to rule Indians if they just backed off on the forced conversions. This put the Moslem rulers of different parts of India at odds with each other and that lack of unity eventually made it possible for Hindus to start replacing Moslem rulers in the century before the Europeans invaders (mainly British and French) showed up. Britain proved even more adept at the divide and rule through religious tolerance games. Britain also provided more efficient administration and security. That led to a flourishing economy and fewer incentives to resist the foreign invaders, By the early 19th century Britain controlled most of India and, by the late 19th century, all of it. British rule of a united India lasted less than a century because the British were smart enough to see that the local independence movements eventually made imperial rule too expensive in economic and political terms, and that led to a somewhat orderly British departure in 1947.

This did not solve the religious problems in South Asia. In 1947 Moslem Pakistan consisted of two geographically and culturally separated parts; west Pakistan in the northwest and east Pakistan the northeast. After two decades East Pakistan Moslem began agitating for reforms that West Pakistan Moslems would not tolerate. That problem was that East Pakistan, with about 60 percent of Pakistan’s population, was more tolerant of non-Moslems, especially Hindus, than the more Islamic conservative West Pakistan. West Pakistan Moslems dominated the leadership of the Pakistan military and government and that led to the use of force against East Pakistan to suppress “traitorous behavior.” That meant massacres of East Pakistan civilians and in 1971 India intervened on the side of the East Pakistanis and the Pakistan military occupation was ended. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. It was still a Moslem majority nation but never had to worry about a military coup or Islamic terrorists. These two elements became very common in Pakistan, which now had the name (which translates as “Land of the Pure '') all to themselves. While sometimes at odds with India, Bangladesh was never at war with India and continued to tolerate non-Moslems, something that still annoys Pakistanis. As a result Bangladesh has less violence and a lot more prosperity than Pakistan.




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