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Who is Responsible for Defence of India?

Mr Amit Cowshish is a former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence and former Distinguished Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for Detailed Profile
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  • July 22, 2021

    The creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) as the fifth department of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) last year, with Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat concurrently being designated as its secretary, has revived an old debate about the propriety of the defence secretary being assigned the responsibility for defence of India. Most defence analysts are dismayed that this responsibility has not been transferred to the CDS who, among other things, is the sole military advisor to the government.

    The argument revolves around an entry – amended on 30 December 2019 – in the Government of India (Allocation of Business Rules), 1961 (AoB Rules) which assigns the subject of ‘Defence of India and every part thereof including defence policy and preparation for defence and all such acts as may be conducive in times of war to its prosecution and after its termination to effective demobilisation’ to the Department of Defence (DoD).1

    It must be noted that the said rules do not assign the responsibility to the defence secretary, but to the DoD. In fact, the word ‘secretary’ does not appear in these rules even once. Since, however, the DoD is headed by the defence secretary, analysts argue that, by implication, he/she becomes responsible for the defence of India. This argument is specious.

    The AoB Rules are one of the two sets of rules – the other one being the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1961 (ToB Rules)2 – that were notified under Clause 3 of Article 77 of the Constitution of India3 which empowers the President of India to make rules for allocation of the business of the Government of India (GoI) among various ministries, or departments, and for ‘more convenient’ transaction of such business by them, respectively.

    The ToB Rules lay down the procedure for inter-departmental consultations, functions of various cabinet committees like the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), submission of cases and papers to the cabinet, prime minister and the President for approval or information, and a host of analogous functions.

    According to Rule 11 of the ToB Rules, the departmental secretaries, are the ‘administrative heads’ of their department, ‘responsible for the proper transaction of business and the careful observance of these rules in that department’. This description does not lend itself to the inference that the defence secretary is responsible for the defence of India as Rule 3 of the ToB Rules also clearly states that all business allotted to a department under the AoB Rules shall be disposed of by, or under the general or special directions of, the minister-in-charge.

    In view of the express provisions in these rules, the defence analysts’ dismay at the defence secretary being entrusted with the responsibility for defence of India is unfounded. When confronted with these facts, they argue that the logic of appointing the CDS demands that the responsibility for the defence of India should also be passed on to the DMA. This argument sounds valid but fails to explain the necessity for, or the advantage of, transferring the subject to the DMA.

    As pointed out earlier, it is the minister-in-charge and not any of the secretaries working under him, who is responsible for the subjects allocated to his or her ministry. Therefore, irrespective of whether the subject of defence of India is assigned to the DoD or the DMA, the responsibility would be that of the defence minister.

    Defence of India is a multi-dimensional responsibility involving coordination with not only other organisations within the MoD such as the Border Roads and Coast Guard, but also several external departments and agencies such as the home, finance and external affairs ministries, cabinet secretariat, and the prime minister’s office. There seems to be no demonstrable advantage in saddling the DMA with all these responsibilities.

    In a democratic set up, the armed forces must function under the civilian political control. The defence minister can exercise such control only through a civilian department like the DoD and not through DMA which is a predominantly military department. It must be remembered that one of the objectives of the United States’ Goldwater-Nichols Act – considered by the Indian defence analysts as a template worth emulating – was to reorganise the department of defence to strengthen civilian control.4

    Above all, it remains unclear what is it that the CDS, in his capacity as the DMA Secretary, will be able to do, which he cannot presently do if the ‘defence of India’ is allocated to his department. The decision to maintain the status quo or to reallocate this responsibility, fully or in part, to the DMA should be based on consideration of these and other substantive issues and not on misapprehensions about the role of departmental secretaries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.