Army and Nation by Steven I. Wilkinson

Army and Nation is a book focussed on the Indian army and its relationship with the civil leadership of India. The book mostly explores the ethnic composition of the Indian army and the early reforms carried out by the Congress after Independence. It also contrasts these two factors with the Pakistani army and the larger and larger role it took in Pakistani politics.

Pre-independence India recruited an army predominantly from a few classes and ethnicities which were perceived to be loyal to the British government. These included the Gurkhas and Punjabis. The army consciously excluded Bengalis. Hence this resulted in independent India inheriting an army that was not truly representative of its population. One of the most interesting revelations I had from this book was the fact that the early Indian government was suspicious of the army and tried to diminish its role in decision making. This was only natural, since the pre-independence army represented British interests. Such an army was now reporting to the Indian government which comprised of many freedom fighters and opponents of colonialism.

Hence the Indian government took many steps to ‘coup proof’ the army and distribute its power. The army started to report to the Defence ministry and did not have a say in political decisions. The Defence ministry took its place in the civil administration. The armed forces were split into three divisions under three separate heads, one representing the army, one for the navy and one for the air force. The intelligence agency was a civilian agency and it was also used to keep tabs on the armed forces and its top most commanders.

This interference became excessive and was one of the reasons that India lost the 1962 war with China. However these steps created the institutions to make any coup attempt in India much more difficult. Similarly by inheriting an army that was disproportionately recruited from certain sections of society it created the risk of giving those sections of society disproportionate power which could undermine national interests. The new government wanted to push rapid ethnic reorganisation of the army so that the army became truly representative of the Indian people.  They wanted to start recruitment from across the country instead of just a few states. However these steps were often put on the backburner due to wars such as the 1947 Indo-Pakistan war and 1962 Indo-China war as well as resistance from the army. Nevertheless the armed forces today recruit people from all over India and although its composition is slightly skewed towards certain classes it is still an army representative of its population. No ethnic group in the army holds excessive influence over it.  

These aspects of the Indian army are contrasted with the Pakistani army. The Pakistani army inherited an even more ethnically skewed force. Most of the army was recruited from Western Pakistan and specifically from the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP). This was coupled with the fact that it was financed mostly by East Pakistan which is today Bangladesh. The Pakistani army never fixed this imbalance. At the same time it never implemented any of the control measures done by India. As the Pakistani Political leadership became weaker it became a signal for the army to take a bigger role in Pakistani internal affairs. Eventually this resulted in the coup implemented by Ayub Khan in 1958.

The Political leadership was also less open to internal dissent by the citizens of their country. Urdu was enforced as the national language despite vehement opposition by East Pakistan, whose population predominantly spoke Bengali. Systemic discrimination of Eastern Pakistan eventually led to their freedom struggle and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh.

This book discussed certain aspects of the Indian army in great detail. However it does not give a holistic picture of the Indian army. I felt that it spends too much time discussing the ethnicity and coup proofing methods employed in the Indian army and misses out on other parts of the force. Hence it did not provide a holistic introduction to me as someone who knows very little about the Indian army. Two aspects of the Indian army I was interested in was their strategy employed in defending the country’s long land borders. Just after independence this was the land border with West Pakistan and East Pakistan and later this also includes the long un-demarcated Indo-Chinese border. This book could have also discussed the procurement of equipment of Indian army and the Soviet influence on the Indian army which could have been contrasted with the American influence on the Pakistani army. Perhaps there could have also been a short section discussing the Bangladeshi army after they gained independence. I found the book quite interesting but I felt that it has limited scope.


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