In our much-storied history, which our hyper-nationalists will possibly claim is the most ancient, there has been just one recorded instance where a commander-in-chief of the army overthrew the government of the day and seized power. This issue finds some resonance today in the context of the attempted coup in Turkey. Many ask, could this happen here, although the answer is pretty unambiguous that it cannot and will not. The recorded instance referred to happened around 187 BC, when Pushyamitra Shunga, the senapati of the Maurayan empire, killed the king during a guard of honour, and founded a dynasty that lasted till around 70 BC.
No king, sultan, emperor, viceroy or prime minister — Hindu,
Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Sikh — has since then has been overthrown
by a military coup. Yes, empires have declined, rulers have been
defeated, lost their kingdoms to rebels and relatives, but it is
difficult to find another instance of the event that defines a coup —
the takeover of a government by its military. In addition, of course,
the modern Indian military identifies its DNA with that of Britain,
another country which has never had the history of a coup.
Yet, even today, in the 21st century, dread of the man on a horseback
runs like a thread through India’s governmental attitudes towards the
armed forces. It is not open, but exists in the shadow world of
intelligence agencies and civilian bureaucrats, who stoke the
insecurities of politicians on the need to keep the military in check,
and have succeeded in keeping uniformed personnel out of policy-making.
It was this perception that led Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to
eliminate the powerful post of commander-in-chief and make all three
service chiefs equals in 1955. There were several instances in the 1950s
and 1960s when politicians revealed their insecurities in relation to
the armed forces. The first set of rumours came when General KS Thimayya
retired as army chief in 1961. The train of events beginning with
Thimayya’s resignation in August 1959, its withdrawal under Nehru’s
pressure, the appointment of General PN Thapar as his successor, led to
rumours of a coup with a specific date — January 30, 1961 — being
designated as D-Day.
This is detailed in a book India’s Defence Problem by SS Khera, who
was India’s defence secretary between 1963 and 1967. In chapter titled
“Coups”, Khera noted that in January 1961, Nehru and home minister G B
Pant had come to know of some military movements and had countermanded
them. Apurba Kundu, who has examined the events, noted in his book
Militarism in India that “the stories [of the alleged coups] may be
dismissed as unfounded”. Khera did conclude that the chances of an
outright coup were difficult, if not impossible, in India.
Again, after the debacle of the 1962 border war with China, according
to Neville Maxwell, Nehru expressed his concerns about the military in a
letter to philosopher Bertrand Russell.
There is another incident widely known in the army. This is when the
IB reported to the authorities about the movement of military personnel
in the wake of Nehru’s death in May 1964. Actually, the then Army chief,
General JN Chaudhuri, ordered the movement because he thought that it
would be needed to help handle the crowds that would gather, just as he
had experienced as a young officer in Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. As a
result, even today the IB maintains a discrete watch on the movements of
military units in the vicinity of New Delhi.
All this could have been understood in the context of the 1950s and
1960s, when many newly independent countries — especially Burma and
Pakistan — came under the heel of military dictators. But it sounds
ridiculous in the 21st century, when the probity of the Indian armed
forces has been thoroughly tested by time and circumstances.
Yet, more than half a century after the Thimayya “coup”, New Delhi
was rocked by a newspaper story hinting at a coup attempt and
coincidentally, again in January, in 2012. A front-paged report splashed
across a New Delhi newspaper claimed that “central intelligence
agencies” had detected “an unexpected (and non-notified) movement by a
key military unit … in the direction of the capital,” subsequently,
another similar movement was detected involving a parachute unit. This
was in relation to a suit filed in the Supreme Court by the then army
chief General V.K. Singh. The same newspaper later reported that “the MOD’s
considered view now seems to be that it was a false alarm”. The
ministry’s official spokesman too denied the report as being “baseless”.
Actually, these sensitivities continue in the highest levels of the
Indian political system today. Many observers believe that the refusal
of the political system to appoint a chief of defence staff stems from
their worries over “the man on the horseback”. Indeed, this writer was
told by a former national security adviser that the principal opposition
to the CDS in the UPA regime came from Sonia Gandhi, who raised worries
about the possibility of a coup if a CDS took charge.
All this has had a deleterious effect on our national security
planning. The dysfunctional system we have arises from the decision to
keep the uniformed personnel out of planning and administering the
military. This has prevented effective reforms to make our military a
modern, war-winning force which requires the organisation and
functioning of the military under the joint command of a chief of
defence staff and the restructuring of the military under theatre
But the answer to the question as to why a coup in India has not
taken place, and will not do so, provided the country is not brought to
the verge of collapse by its civilian leadership, lies in the quality of
the military. Despite the fact that the politicians and the bureaucrats
have gone out of their way to belittle and even insult them, the Indian
military has remained steadfast in its commitment to democracy. This
has as much to do with its history and DNA, as the outlook of the
personnel who constitute it.
Hindustan Times July 18 2016