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Militarism in South Asia

by Anuradha Chenoy, 29 February 2012

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The New Indian Express

27 February 2012

Civil- military relations appear to be seriously disturbed in all of South Asia. The president of the Maldives was forced to resign by the military and police as the vice president took his place. In Pakistan, the assertion by the military over the civilian government following the leak of an anonymous note, allegedly from the Pakistan president asking for the United States help because of fears of a military takeover, continue to haunt the nation as the matter is now in the courts. In India, for the first time the military chief has contested the government in a court of law over the issue of his date of birth. In Bangladesh, a recent attempt of coup was foiled because of the army chain of command. In Sri Lanka, the army chief who led the country in a triumphant civil war remains in jail after he accused the defence secretary of war crimes and tried to contest presidential elections against President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

All this is cause for serious concern because it is a reflection of the state of democracy in South Asia. While the tide towards democracy in this region is irreversible and the period of long-term political and military dictators appears to be receding, there remains still a deeper and equally dangerous phenomenon of militarist forms of intervention in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. This comes directly from the military in some cases and sometimes from civilian regimes themselves when they use militarist methods in their governance practice.

The military in many South Asian regions is making sure it continues to have political weight. Of course the role of the military varies from country to country as does the nature of their relation with the civil regimes. Some countries have had years of military dictatorships and elected governments being unable to complete their terms. Others countries with long-standing democratic governments have large areas where the military is allowed to take major decisions. And if the military does not directly have that kind of influence, then other forms of militarist polices do.

What is particularly dangerous is a phenomenon of military values being increasingly used in what are essentially civil decisions. This phenomenon of militarism not only threatens the civil-military balance but stalls the deepening of democratic values and threatens to enter our everyday sphere if not stopped.

This kind of militarism gets accepted because of the national security doctrines in all South Asian states. The military, or sometimes the civilian government, is seen as the unquestioned guardian of national security. It has the privilege of deciding what constitutes the idea of ‘national’ and therefore also what constitutes the anti-national. In other words, national security has become a legitimising cover for any issues that a regime may choose. Once a regime is allowed to use the national security argument against an ethnic or religious community or minority, then militarist tendencies penetrate and warp all policies.

What is even more dangerous for a society is when many people, groups, media and even political parties support military or authoritarian interventions and militarist policies. Of course there are always reasons that are cited for such support. The common ones in use besides national security threat is corruption and betrayal of promises by the elected regime. In the recent Maldives affair and earlier in Pakistan, and elsewhere, this had been cited as a reason for military intervention. But surely corruption charges should be investigated by courts of law. And there is no law whereby the country cannot go to the polls again. Are militaries themselves above corruption? After all power itself is known to corrupt.

So the real question is what is the understanding of a democracy in South Asia? How do regimes, militaries and people understand their own role and the role of institutions in democracies and how do they ensure that the balance of all these components is maintained.

Clearly the common denominator in a democracy should be that communication and negotiation between various groups, communities, institutions — including the civil and military ones — must be maintained at all times. The arbiter should be an independent judiciary that adjudicates on the basis of a constitution that is based on a social contract that is acceptable to all communities. If such a document does not exist or one does exist but does not have legitimate consensus should be re-negotiated. No document or notion is that sacred that only military and militarist policies can protect it. In fact, the opposite might be the case. A consensus in a society between all groups does not need militarist policies at all.

The problem is that when militaries or militarist policies take over many things follow. Militarist policies can be used by civilian leadership. These polices include, for example, the use and privileging of force over negotiations. Or even if they have to negotiate, would prefer to negotiate from a position of strength rather than a position of equality — which is an important position in a democracy. Militarist policies are based on dislike and contempt for the ‘other’ and also contempt for civilian values. They dislike discussion and debate. They do not have patience for justice. They are comfortable functioning in hierarchies and order. They enjoy revenge and retribution. Militaries and militarist policies are based on patriarchal relations and maintain all kinds of stereotypes, whether these are for men, women, etc.

So if South Asia has to maintain its democracies it has to curb the tendency for both — a greater role of the military in decision-making as well as the use of militarism by civilian leaderships. And both these can be done only if people themselves are vigilant about the concept of democracy, even when they are faced with the greatest of difficulties — be it a corrupt and inept regime or ethnic minorities asking for political rights. It is when all these issues are negotiated in the framework of rights and justice will real democracy function.

(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)

Anuradha Mitra Chenoy is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. E-mail: chenoy at


The above article from The New Indian Express is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.