Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > National Sovereignty and the Military

Mainstream, VOL L No 12, March 10, 2012

National Sovereignty and the Military

Tuesday 13 March 2012, by S G Vombatkere

National sovereignty (meaning “complete power or authority“) is a very important issue: Consider that the word “sovereignty” combined with the word “integrity” occurs several times in the Constitution of India, in the context of law-making, citizens’ fundamental duties, Ministers’ oath of office, and oaths by judges, Members of Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies.

The Defence Forces of the Union, namely India’s military (Army, Navy and Air Force), are entrusted with the responsibility to protect India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty against external threat or invasion. India’s defence forces have always been unwaveringly under civilian government control (under the supreme command of the President of India) both in their primary role on the borders and also in their secondary role in aid to the civil power when called upon to do so.
In the defence sector, India has looked abroad only insofar as purchase of weapons, weapon platforms, weapon systems and military equipment are concerned, never for foreign military presence on Indian soil to assist in meeting
its operational requirements to face external or internal threats. That is measure of the country’s confidence in its Defence Services’ capacity to carry out their primary and secondary duties. That is the trust that the country has placed in its military so that the power and authority of the Union of India would be complete, giving strength to the constitutional Preamble “... to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic...”.

India-USA Strategic Agreement

India’s primary strategic document is its Constitution which came into force on January 26, 1950. Among other things, it guides govern-ment on all issues pertaining to the power and authority (sovereignty) of the state, including “entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries”. Accordingly, two major strategic agreements were signed between the USA and India, namely:
• New Framework Agreement for US-India Defence Relationship, between the US Secretary of Defence and the Indian Defence Minister, on June 28, 2005;
• US-India Joint Agreement signed between U.S President George W. Bush and India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, on July 18, 2005.

The strategic agreements included civil nuclear co-operation, the Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA), and closer military ties. However, in India, public and media attention was focussed on the 123 Agreement pertaining to nuclear power, which was vociferously opposed mainly by the CPI-M, and the other components went almost unnoticed. There were problems within the USA too, for having signed a 123 Agreement with India, which was not a signatory to the NPT.
Possibly to overcome the alarm at home, a legislation titled ‘‘Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006’’ came into force in the USA on January 3, 2006. Though this legislation is not binding on India, its stated India-specificity caused alarm in India. This was because even though the USA had signed very similar 123 Agreements with other countries like the one signed with India, there was no country-specific US legislation that laid down strategic conditionalities like the Hyde Act does. The Hyde Act speaks of making the 123 Agreement subject to India having a foreign policy congruent with that of the USA and to “secure India’s full and active participation in US efforts to... sanction and contain Iran...” as a matter of US policy. [Note 1]

US President George W. Bush visited India in March 2006 and, with PM Dr Manmohan Singh, signed a Joint Statement on India-USA Strategic Partnership. A photograph taken on March 2, 2006, commemorating this historic event has been interpreted as the body language of “big-brother-hood”. Indeed, in the current context of PM Dr Manmohan Singh calling public attention to a “foreign hand” supporting the anti-nuclear agita-tion at Kudankulam and the anti-GM upsurge across the country, the photograph seems to draw precisely the same counter. The PM’s accusation amounts to claiming that foreign funding (even if this is actually happening) of indigenous protests against India’s nuclear and GM programmes advanced as part of the India-USA Strategic Agreement, is an attack on the Indian goverment’s sovereignty, and hence is anti-national. [Note 2]

Thus far, the first two of the main components of the India-USA Strategic Agreement (nuclear and GM) have been discussed. It is now necessary to examine the third, namely, the military co-operation component.

Military Cooperation and Ties... and Sovereignty

No nation can stand alone in modern times. In relations between nations, history (including armed invasions and migrations), culture, religion, ethnicity, language, economics, etc., all play their role in national strategy that is designed to main-tain the sovereignty and integrity of each nation. The military of a nation thus maintains relations, which may be co-operative, neutral or adver-sarial, with other militaries, depending on national strategy. In democracies in which the military is under the control of an elected govern-ment as in India, military strategy and doctrine is subservient to national strategy. Thus India’s military has contacts with the other militaries of the world through a variety of means such as: diplomatic through military attaches; exchange or deputation of military personnel for training and familiarisation; exchange programmes for senior military officers for strategic and doctrinal studies; military co-operation as in UN operations; observer status in military exercises; and joint military exercises. These contacts are all sanc-tioned by the national government, specifi-cally the Ministry of Defence (MoD), through its bureaucratic machinery. Whatever one’s opinion of the attitude or functioning of India’s bureau-cracy (justified or not, most military officers take a jaundiced view of the bureaucracy), it remains the means by which the national political leader-ship and the military ordinarily communicate with each other.
In September 2010, when Admiral Willard, the US PACOM Commander, visited India, he proposed to expand the existing defence engagement of co-operation and inter-operability between the US and Indian militaries to a “much richer dialogue” including the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), to go “beyond bilateral exercises and sale of military hardware”. [Ref 2, 3] And in order to do so more efficiently, Adm Willard’s suggestion, in blatant interference in India’s affairs, was to “slice away bureaucratic procedures for the armed forces to work with each other”. Here was a US military commander openly trying to wean India’s military away from civilian control exercised through the bureaucratic machinery. Knowing the present UPA Government’s procli-vities, it is not surprising that there was not even a squeak of protest where there should have been a ticking-off of Admiral Willard and the USA’s ambassador in India summoned to receive a strong formal protest. This was the failure of the Indian Government to assert national sovereignty.

About 18 months later on March 3, 2012, Indian mainstream newspapers reported that Adm Willard (the same US PACOM commander who had wanted to slice away bureaucratic procedures from India-USA military ties) had stated that US Special Forces were positioned in India. BBC News on March 2, 2012 [<> ] reported that Willard told a U.S Congressional hearing: “We have currently special forces assist teams—Pacific assist teams is the term—laid down in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, as well as India.” He went on to say: “We are working very closely with India with regard to their counter-terrorism capabilities and in particular on the maritime domain but also government to government, not necessarily department of defence but other agencies assisting them in terms of their internal counter-terror and counter-insurgency challenges.“

Admiral Willard’s statement was clarified by the US Embassy in India saying that the troops were not stationed in India, and was also denied by India’s Defence Ministry. The key word is “stationed”. US troops have in the past been sent to India for training, though it was not very clear whether US troops were training Indian troops or the other way around, but now Admiral Willard’s statement that “In the past months, the US has trained Indian counter-terrorist specialists“, clarifies this. The US troops sent for training Indian troops cannot be considered as stationed in India because their role is training and not operations. But Adm Willard’s admission that the US Special Forces troops are “laid down” in India confirms their operational role.

Having US troops on Indian soil in an opera-tional role is especially hazardous, for if any of them are killed in operations, it will form cause for the USA to augment its military strength on Indian soil. These US troops would remain under the US PACOM command and control, the Indian military having no say in their deployment or operational role. There have been precedents for such action in the past across the globe. Besides, the presence of foreign troops on Indian soil in an operational role is a slight on the Indian military and upon Indian sovereignty.
Denial both by the US Embassy and MoD of the US Special Forces troops being “positioned” or “stationed” in India is ominous. Foreign troops on Indian soil in an operational role is undesirable for the morale of India’s military, which upholds India’s sovereignty.


1. “The real foreign hand” by Samir Aich, Hindu Business Line, February 29, 2012, <>

2. “Defence engagement goes beyond exercises, sales—US Admiral points to common interest in quelling terror”, The Hindu, Bangalore, September 10, 2010, p. 14.

3. “Focus on India-US cooperation on homeland security exhibition—Comes after aerospace, defence executive missions to India”, The Hindu, Bangalore, September 10, 2010, page 20.


1. The following are quotes from the Hyde Act: “It is the sense of Congress that... (6) it is in the interest of the United States to enter into an agreement for nuclear cooperation arranged pursuant to section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 of U.S.C 2153) with a country that has never been a State Party to the NPT if... (B) the country has a functioning and uninterrupted democratic system of government, has a foreign policy that is congruent to that of the United States, and is working with the United States on key foreign policy initiatives related to non-proliferation.” The Hyde Act also states in Section 103, Statements of Policy, “The following shall be the policies with respect to South Asia:... (4) Secure India’s full and active participation in United States efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability and the capability to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel, and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction.” [Emphases added]

2. An interview that appeared in the online edition of The Hindu dated February 24, 2012 reported: “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has criticised non-governmental organisations that receive support from abroad for stalling the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and leading protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. In an interview published in the latest issue of journal Science, Dr. Singh pointed to the potential of biotechnology, saying “in due course of time we must make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture.” Also, Reference 1.

S.G.Vombatkere retired as a Major General after 35 years in the Indian military. He is engaged in voluntary social work, and is member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). As Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, he coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for under-graduate students from the USA and Canada. He holds a Master of Engineering degree in structural engineering from the University of Poona and a PhD in civil structural dynamics from the IIT, Madras.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted