In democracies the world over, institutions are constitutionally mandated to serve their nation in consonance with the nation’s aspirations and objectives. An institution exists because and for the nation, and not the other way around. Legally and logically, all institutions are accountable to the Constitution from which they derive their responsibilities and strength.
In India the image of most institutions over the years, since the country’s Independence, has taken a beating as regards their equity, performance, professional integrity — at least in public perception. However, if there is one institution which has unquestionably retained its awe and respect in the nation’s acuity and, equally, its emotions, it’s the Indian armed forces.
Through challenging times faced by the nation since India’s violent Partition in 1947, India’s armed forces have acquitted themselves with the highest professionalism, uncommon valour and sacrifices to uphold the integrity and honour of the nation. However, events of the past month, namely, the Pulwama terrorist strike and India’s retaliatory air operations in Pakistan’s Balakot have raised significant points in the minds of some security analysts, the foreign media and even some doubting Thomases in India as regards the results of the military action. The dividing line between military transparency vis-a-vis military secrecy has been much debated.
A few skeptics and some learned ones too have asked: Does the unique respect of the nation towards its armed forces make the latter remain in the comfort zone of its cocoon, answerable to no one but themselves? It is essential, in keeping with the glorious reputation of India’s tri-services, that doubts in the minds of anyone and anywhere are amply answered in the larger interests of the nation and the armed forces themselves.
The defence forces exist to defend the country from external and internal aggression, to preserve and further national interests — something that they have consistently achieved with matchless sacrifices, aplomb and victories for the nation. However, it is equally important that wherever shortcomings in their operations surface, those must not be pushed under the carpet and ignored on some fuzzy notions of misplaced pride, secrecy or political considerations under pressure from the ruling establishment. Operational security considerations also must be given their due importance for the elements of surprise and secrecy substantially govern success in military operations.
The dastardly Pakistan-inspired and supported terrorist strike on February 14, 2019, on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir resulted in more than 40 fatalities. That this tragedy is attributable to a serious intelligence failure, shoddy road clearance drills besides the faulty decision to dispatch such huge numbers of paramilitary personnel by road and not by air (as now ordered) cannot be denied by security professionals anywhere. That India altered the counter-terror policy paradigm by launching retributive aerial attacks deep inside Pakistani territory was indeed a welcome change and, resultantly, would have sent the correct signal to a terrorism-sponsoring Pakistan.
The Indian Air Force’s deep strike and the resultant casualties in and damage caused to Jaish-e-Mohammed’s training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the next day’s shallow aerial counter strike in the Poonch-Naushera sector by Pakistan would have thrown up many lessons for India’s security hierarchy. That these lessons are addressed with alacrity and the seriousness they demand requires no elaboration.
Even in a democracy where transparency is essential in certain policy matters, the media, especially the over-noisy electronic media, has to absorb the fact that strategies and tactics, operational details, targeting and timings, employment of new weapons and platforms, strengths and weaknesses must not be discussed in the public domain. However, at an opportune time, the official arm of the government/services can and must share relevant details with the public which do not compromise national security. Equally, lapses, where emerging, even within the security forces must be analysed in great depth for future improvements.
Post the Kargil War, the Vajpayee government had, very appropriately, carried out a comprehensive review of India’s higher defence management under the aegis of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the Group of Ministers (GoM). The KRC and the GoM had done a remarkable job and some of the security organisations now in place owe their existence to them. Though India was clearly victorious in the Kargil War, the government at that time did not hesitate to discuss openly whatever shortcomings in the defence structure there were, dispensing the garb of national security or jingoistic patriotism! In the US, it is commonplace for serving generals/admirals to depose and testify before congressional committees on matters pertaining to national security. Accountability to the nation is thus a very normal hallmark in all democracies.
As the world’s largest democracy and an aspiring global player, India has to conduct itself like one. Consequently, all its institutions have to be scrupulously accountable to the nation’s Constitution and not to personalities or political dispensations. The Indian armed forces are held in near-reverence and affection by the nation, necessitating them to always display professional acumen, moral courage and integrity of the highest order. As the last bastion of the state, the three services, both in peace and war, must continue to serve the nation as only they can and never, ever compromise on the values of truth, honour and valour. For retaining their high-pedestal-esteem in a democratic set-up, the armed forces must also accept that they are no holy cows either and should welcome any legitimate queries from the government or the public as regards their functioning or performance as long as operational security considerations are not compromised.
Equally, responsible people in the nation must acknowledge the simple fact that merely questioning the government or any institution on matters pertaining to national security is not being anti-national!