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Curzon-Kitchner Controversy (GS1)

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Lord Kitchener was one of the most distinguished soldiers of the British empire. He took over as Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army in 1902. To him goes the credit of changing the role and nomenclature of the Indian armed forces hitherto it was a colonial army meant to fight colonial wars for annexation. He aimed at converting it into a professional army capable of holding its own in any modern war. The credit for the excellent performance of the Indian Army in the First World War.


On taking over the reigns, what irked him most was the “duality of control”. The Military­ Member in the Viceroy’s Council, generally a senior officer of the army, served as the “eyes and ears” on all matters militaries for the Governor general.


The new Commander-in-Chief was not satisfied with this system; he dubbed it as operationally ineffective and remarked that “the present system is faulty, inefficient and incapable of the expansion necessary for any great war”. In his opinion the post of Military-Member could be easily dispensed with and his charter of responsibilities could be merged with that of the Commander-in-chief.


Lord Curzon was not amenable to these proposals; he not only vehemently disapproved them, but also tried to give a political twist to the entire controversy. British traditions never allowed civilian supremacy to be downgraded vis-a-vis the control over armed forces; and in his opinion what Lord Kitchener was aiming at was nothing short of a “military despotism”. This needed shooting down, he strongly felt.


Refusing to buckle in, Lord Kitchener threatened to resign, if his recommendations were not accepted. The British Cabinet was in a great dilemma. Lord Kitchener was a hero of the British masses; there would be an unprecedented hue and cry if the British Government did not accept his proposals and allowed him to resign.


A compromise formula was worked out by the British authorities, wherein, henceforth the Military­ Member would not offer his comments on the proposals forwarded by the Commander-in-Chief. He would also be redesignated as “Military Supply Member” and would not even wear military uniform.


Unfortunately, this compromise formula was a nonstarter, since Lord Kitchener refused to spare the services of the officer (Major General Barrow), the Governor­-General asked for. In disgust, finally the Governor General Lord Curzon resigned. The issue of “dual control” coolly devoured the dynamism and spirits of a brilliant Viceroy!

Lord Kitchener’s triumph over this issue is sometimes interpreted as military subversion of civil authority, but this is far from the truth. It is an erroneous interpretation. What he actually fought against was “dual control”. His proposals acted as catalysts and they sharpened the edges of the overall apparatus which provided clues to a meaningful exercise of civilian supremacy over military matters.

Has the rationalization stood the test of time? Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, the soldier-statesman of the Indian Army (presently the Governor of Assam), sums it up appropriately: “The rationalization stood the test of time? Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, the soldier-statesman of the Indian Army (presently the Governor of Assam), sums it up appropriately: “The rationalization introduced at the instance of Kitchener stood the test of time for over four decades and stood the Indian Army in good stead during two world wars. Post-1947 the Indian Defence Organization reverted to some of the ills of pre-Kitchener era, but that is a different story.”

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