India’s late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was haunted by prospects of a military takeover early in her career, says a book by a Singapore-based researcher who has served in the Indian army.

A very well researched book on India’s civil-military relations by Anit Mukherjee says, “Indira, like her father, also suffered from a fear, where justifiable or not, of a military coup.”

But Mukherjee, who now teaches in the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, says that the successful liberation of Bangladesh and India’s military victory over Pakistan in 1971 changed that.

“However this fear dissipated over time as she gradually gained confidence and learned how to engage with the military. The contrast would be complete when, much later, she manipulated rules to favour selected military officers,” writes Mukherjee in the book titled “Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India” (OUP).

Mukherjee refers to an incident in March 1966, when Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan “bluntly asked” Army chief General J.N. Chaudhuri about the possibility of a military coup.

“The general later recounted this discussion to the British high commissioner. According to a note prepared by the British diplomat, General Chaudhuri has apparently reassured Chavan that a coup was inconceivable, This conversation, both with Chavan and with the British high commissioner was remarkable – first for its candor and second for its impropriety by repeating a private conversation with a defence minister to a foreign diplomat,” writes Mukherjee.

He says that it was apparent from the diplomat’s note General Chaudhuri believed that a coup was possible if ordered by the Supreme Commander of the armed forces (President).

“This indicates the tense relations between President Radhakrishnan and successive Prime Ministers like Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi. The army was caught in the middle of these political intrigues,” writes Mukherjee.

He says the 1971 war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent country gave a significant blow to the ‘two-nation theory’ and as Indira’s stature skyrocketed at home and abroad, her fears of the military takeover evaporated.

The civil-military relations in the rundown to and during the war are often touted as the “objective control model” because the politicians took the final decision but on the basis of quality professional advice from the military, which was allowed complete operational freedom and excellent tri-services coordination was achieved.

But Mukherjee’s book challenges this notion.

“A closer reading of the war, however, does not support this notion. Instead, indicative of some organizational learning from the 1965 war, civilians played a much more active role – although they preferred to do it from behind the scenes. This ensured greater coordination between the military,” he writes in the book.

Mukherjee also claims the Indian army had no war plans until August 1971 to capture Dhaka but had envisaged the capture of a large part of East Pakistan to install the Bangladesh exile government on that territory.

“However, whether by accident or by design, the outline of the plan got leaked and the Pakistan army redeployed accordingly. Ironically this left Dhaka undefended and helped the Indian army in its eventual victory.  While the army deserves compliments for its operational flexibility, the unconditional surrender was ordained,” Mukherjee writes in the book.

He says that the war was not conducted less directives from Delhi and more by decisions taken at the operational level by the Eastern Command.  Mukherjee says General Manekshaw’s so-called “standing up to the civilians” against pressures for an early military intervention in East Pakistan in the summer of 1971 is a myth (not supported by documents) that have been blown up by the general’s “embellished account.”

Interestingly, Indira Gandhi after 1971 intended to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff above the three services chief to achieve tri-services integration for better military performance. Manekshaw was an obvious choice but Air Chief P C Lal, also an assertive and competent professional, launched himself as a stout contender. Indira and her civilian advisers shelved the idea because, according to Mukherjee, many of them were against creating too powerful a military leader.

Prime Minister Modi has now decided to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff in keeping with the recommendations of the Group of Ministers’ recommendations in 2001 in the aftermath of the Kargil War.

But Mukherjee very competently details the challenges that the new CDS will face. “Appointing a CDS does not ensure military jointness,” he writes.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com