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That meddlesome Punjabi army

Ajai Shukla 

Steven I Wilkinson
Permanent Black;

295 pages; Rs 795

Entire library shelves already groan under the weight of civil-military relations textbooks that try to explain a fascinating paradox: the contrast between the Indian and Pakistani armies. Despite their similar origins and organisation ethos, how did the former remain scrupulously apolitical while the latter evolved into a byword for military meddling in politics?

Given the brainpower already applied to this question, one might imagine the last word had already been said. But Steven I Wilkinson, who is Nilekani Professor of Indian and South Asian Studies at Yale University, breaks fresh ground in zooming in on a structural fault line that he says largely explains the Pakistan Army's penchant for political intervention. Mr Wilkinson focuses on the ethnic imbalance within that army, where Punjabis form a large majority. A well-recognised tenet of civil-military relations holds that a military recruited predominantly from a narrow segment of the populace tends to become guardian of certain specific interests, unlike a "national" army that is recruited equitably from across a country's ethnicities, religions and geographies.

The well-known Punjabi domination of the Pakistan Army has been acknowledged as a cause of political interventionism. Yet no earlier scholar has gone into the detail that Mr Wilkinson presents. Marshalling a trove of official data beginning from the late 19th century, he illustrates how British military administrators systematically "Punjab-ised" the Indian Army. After the 1857 uprising, British recruiters drew mainly from areas that had not revolted against the British, particularly Punjab, but also the North West Frontier Province, Jammu, Garhwal and the Gurkha areas.

This deliberate Punjabi dominance was perpetuated through the post-1857 decades, the army's massive expansion during two World Wars and, incredibly, even in post-independence India and Pakistan, in particular during the expansion of the Indian Army after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Mr Wilkinson tellingly illustrates how the Indian and Pakistani military establishments, long after independence, continued to blindly follow British "martial race" policies. While Pakistan's Punjabi machismo sits well with such notions, it is hard to understand why India continued this myth, especially given the Congress party's stated commitment to broad-basing recruitment across all states.

In proving his thesis, Mr Wilkinson overcomes government opaqueness by drawing on official government statements in Parliament, and reports such as those of Parliament's standing committee on defence. This provides an object lesson to Indian researchers and academics.

An especially interesting section describes how Pakistan's army was short-sightedly allowed by Pakistani politicians and generals to become even more Punjabi. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 (in large part because of the "Punjabi" army's brutal crackdown on Bengalis) peeled away the handful of Bengali units, making Punjabi domination even more overwhelming. Thus was created the narrow-based force that Baluchistan, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Northern Areas still regard with suspicion.

As Mr Wilkinson weaves his narrative, supported by official numbers and statistics, it is like watching a train crash in slow motion in the rear-view mirror. Pakistan's disintegration and the secession of Bangladesh seem almost fore-ordained, given the deep-rooted, internalised contempt amongst Pakistani Punjabis for Bengali soldiery. This even as East Bengal simmered at having to generate the economic resources to pay for a military that generated employment, cantonments and facilities only in west Pakistan.

Mr Wilkinson also focuses on how the Congress party, and Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, systematically "coup-proofed" the Indian Army, which Indian freedom-fighters had warily regarded as a bastion of colonial thought. The author quotes from a memo that Nehru shot off to generals who were obstructing the Congress's plans for Independence Day celebrations in August 1947, in which he reminded them, "If any person is unable to [implement government] policy, he has no place in the Indian Army."

Already, in September 1946, Nehru had removed the military commander-in-chief from the Cabinet. This was sequentially followed by downgrading military ranks in the "official order of precedence"; substantial reductions in military pay and perks, including 40 per cent salary cuts for officers; discouraging military officers from giving public speeches; downgrading the position of commander-in-chief to chief of army staff, and preventing top commanders from staying too long as generals, after which (the author says) they were shipped off to far-away countries as envoys. The first army chief, general Cariappa, retired at 53 and was sent as ambassador to Australia. In a move laden with symbolism, Nehru himself shifted into the erstwhile commander-in-chief's residence, today the iconic Teen Murti Bhavan.

Sadly, this riveting, well-written book, which will undoubtedly be a reference work for future scholars, is marred by numerous glaring inaccuracies. The author is apparently unaware that officers are selected through competitive examinations and interviews, and that the number of Punjabis at any time is purely coincidental, not a reflection of policy. Nor does he factor in, while studying the number of Punjabi army chiefs, that the top job usually goes to whoever is senior-most when a chief retires. He claims general Thapar (a Punjabi) was appointed chief by then defence minister Krishna Menon "so as to block General Thimayya's pick for the job". In fact, the outgoing army chief never gets to pick his successor, and Thapar was anyway the senior-most after Thimayya.

In recounting the names of army chiefs "side-lined" as envoys after retirement, the author does not explain why so many chiefs retired quietly in India. In writing on the politics of senior army appointments, Mr Wilkinson has apparently relied heavily on Neville Maxwell's writing, not the most accurate and impartial of sources. It is hoped that subsequent editions of this book are cleansed of these errors.

First Published: Tue, April 14 2015. 21:25 IST