March 15, 2016

India: Yoga as a Prelude to Politicisation of the Military (Ali Ahmed)

The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 11, 12 Mar, 2016

Yoga as a Prelude to Politicisation of the Military

Ali Ahmed (aliahd66[at]gmail.com) blogs on national security issues at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in

Drawing on the news reporting of the army's association with Ramdev's organisation for yoga training, a discussion on the potential and possibility of politicisation of the military with Hindutva philosophy.

In January 2016, 250 army men of the Western Command attended the Yoga Teacher’s Training Course organised by Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar. They are the first lot of 1,000 yoga trainers who are then to return to barracks and conduct yoga for troops (Times of India 2016). That the media finds this association between the army and Ramdev’s outfit newsworthy suggests the link needs further query.

The aim ostensibly is to de-stress the army in cantonments in the Western Command’s peace stations, before they return for yet another tour of duty in some counter-insurgency area or high-altitude picket.

Superficially, this is for the good insofar as physical and mental fitness goes. The army has figured in the news earlier for the wrong reasons: soldier suicides, fratricide and affrays between officers and men. Among the enabling conditions for such avoidable incidents is stress. Yoga is meant to mitigate such stress.

Yoga caught on in the military long before the three chiefs, along with a brigade of Delhi-based troops, lined up behind the Prime Minister on the Rajpath for yoga in June 2015. It has been in practice for about a decade, with the army turning its attention to the psychological scars of countering insurgency, once the situation in Kashmir started stabilising in the middle of the last decade. The Art of Living had also made an advent at about the same time for similar reasons.

The Underside

The problem is not so much yoga as much as the army’s institutional association with Ramdev’s organisation. Ramdev is controversial, with his business deals having come in for investigative scrutiny. The premises in Haridwar where the army men spent a couple of weeks had hosted a convention for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 2014 (Trivedi 2014). Ramdev is a known cheerleader for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Such proximity is not without an underside. Yoga is enwrapped in a cultural context. Cultural transmission can be expected, such as of ritual, intonations and interpretation of Sanskritic texts. Since the programme requires residence on campus, dietary mores and ashram routine would also be conduits.

A right-wing associated organisation is not about to pass up an opportunity for influencing the army with its world view. Even if tacit, the exposure of 1,000 troops this training year, and perhaps more to follow in subsequent years, will enable the opening of a window for the penetration of the right-wing perspective into the army.

This raises the question as to why this apprehension escaped the army’s exercise of due diligence in going about its yoga training programme. I suggest that the impetus is from both directions. While it can be expected that right-wing organisations are interested in the military, counter-intuitively, it appears that the military is not averse to such attention.

With the growing grip of Hindutva forces across polity and in society, the army should be alert to the possibility that it cannot escape attention—such as that received by the education sector. This should have made it defensive, if not prickly, so as to reduce the politicisation and the corresponding effect on professionalism that the penetration of cultural nationalism entails. Its yoga programme does not suggest that it is mindful of the otherwise obvious dangers. Since these are easy to apprehend, a plausible inference is that the army is courting Hindutva. Since it takes two to tango, are there elements within the military opening the door wider?

An illustration is the appearance of articles on Vedic leadership in military publications, specifically in the journal Infantry and on the website of the army think tank, the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) (Agnihotri 2016). Another illustration is that of a book on leadership, brought out in the 1990s by the Army’s Training Command, which quotes the controversial godman Sathya Sai Baba on leadership philosophy (Nath 2001).

Is this politicisation underway? This is not politicisation in the usual sense of the term, a convergence of institutional and political interest of the military leading to its displacing of the government, as has happened in Pakistan. This is better described as the incidence of subjective civilian control in which the civilian ruling dispensation connects with the military by ensuring that the military shares its world view—in this case, that of Hindutva—such as is the case in communist states.

On the other hand, against this is objective civilian control in which the military is rendered politically inert by being left to its professional devices. The difference between the two is that, where objective civilian control is exercised, the military is not a political player. Where the military is under subjective civilian control, the military is kept out of politics because, in subscribing to the dominant perspective, it does not feel the need to intervene.

A ‘Reset’ of India

Such a move by Hindutva forces can be expected. Once they go about their “reset” of India in right earnest, they would prefer to keep the military to its professional moorings. Whereas the mechanism of objective civilian control is available to this end, the ambitious Hindutva agenda for India forces a preference for a tighter embrace of the military. This will ensure, first, that it can be kept out by decree and does not feel the need to intervene, and, second, that it can be made to weigh in on the side of Hindutva, in the case that Hindutva forces find the going tough in the long run.

In light of the Indian military’s apolitical record, it can be argued that such apprehensions of convergence of interest are outlandish. This is true insofar as the military’s interest, unlike that of its peer militaries in developing states, was never in a takeover of the state. This would continue to be so. The difference this time round is that the military will increasingly subscribe to the world view of the regime in power.

This is not troubling insofar as the paradigm is a conservative-realist one that militaries, universally, subscribe to. However, the makeover of India in the image of majoritarian nationalism is unlikely to remain a political and democratic exercise. Aware of this, Hindutva forces would like a placid military when they contrive to remain in power and their agenda goes beyond governance.

On this count, the army’s association with Ramdev is only superficially innocent, to do only with yoga. The army is not so politically innocent as to be unaware of the upfront social and political changes going on in India. Its choice of Ramdev suggests that it needs watching, as much as the moves of the Hindutva combine to influence it do.


Agnihotri, Devesh (2016): “Contemporary Indian Military Leadership with Roots in Vedic Period Literature,” Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 20 January, viewed on 1 March 2016, http://www.claws.in/1503/contemporary-indian-military-leadership-with-roots-in-vedic-period-literature-devesh-agnihotri.html

Nath, Rajindra (2001): “Leadership in Army: An Insight,” Tribune, 21 January, viewed on 1 March 2016, http://www.tribuneindiacom/2001/20010121/spectrum/books.htm#4

Times of India (2016): “Army Jawans Land Up at Ramdev’s Ashram,” 28 January, viewed on 1 March 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Army-jawans-land-up-at-Ramdevs-ashram/articleshow/50750352.cms

Trivedi, Anupam (2014): “‘Acche Din’ Begin for Ramdev: RSS to Hold Convention in Yoga Guru’s Haridwar Ashram,” Hindustan Times, 27 November, viewed on 1 March 2016, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/acche-din-begin-for-ramdev-rss-to-hold-convention-in-yoga-guru-s-haridwar-ashram/story-mEQZd1lEXewQ1loeNB83YI.html