Questioning afresh Indian military’s social representativeness
The latest evidence of the political marginalistion of Muslims in India is that a mere 25 Muslims figure in the lower house parliamentarians, up by 3 from the last one, from among some 172 million Indian Muslims.
An equally concerning figure, but less remarked upon, is that of the 291 cadets of the passing out course from the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla, in the Spring Term 2019, only five were Indian Muslims; all of 1.7 per cent. The figure is from the NDA’s magazine, Trishakti, covering the events of the just-elapsed Spring Term. In contrast, seven cadets are from foreign countries, including friendly Muslim, mainly central Asian states.
This is not a statistic easily found in the open domain, since the military – the army in this case – once famously said that it does not record the religious affiliation of its members. Its reticence is easy to understand since such a figure would be embarrassing.
The figure has been worked out by counting the Muslim names amongst those of the passing out course, leaving out those from friendly foreign countries. Among the 132 names below photos of the faculty, only one was Muslim. Two junior commissioned officer-instructors were Muslim, both unsurprisingly in the equitation section since the only horsed cavalry regiment, 61 Cavalry, from which the instructors are deputed, traditionally has had some Rajasthani Muslims.
Browsing similarly earlier through some three mid-decade years of commemorative magazines put out by the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehra Dun, the figure worked out to two per cent of those commissioned from that academy being Muslim.
Since the IMA commissioned some 70 odd foreign officers, including 50 per term from Afghanistan under a training assistance programme, foreign officer commissions are over six times the number for Indian Muslims, though the Indian Muslim population is six times that of Afghanistan and its neighbouring states.
The figure for Other Ranks is different, but inflated. A figure dating to the controversy over the number of Muslims in the army that attended the Sachar Committee seeking out the same was 29000 Muslims, about 3 per cent. The numbers are higher as Kashmiris are enrolled into the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry regiment. These days some are in the territorial army’s home and hearth units, who unfortunately periodically figure among Kashmiri dead owing to being targeted by militants since theirs is an intelligence function. For their pains, this year one of their number got the nation’s highest honour, the Ashok Chakra. This should not detract from the wide absence of Muslims in the organization.
Should the missing Muslims be concerning? This is a question Defence Minister Rajnath Singh needs answering as he beings his new innings.
To be sure, the meager number of Muslims in the security forces is not limited to the period of ascent of cultural nationalism. Little was done to remedy matters in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period.
While the UPA took steps to increase numbers of Muslims in the central police forces and the police, the figures declined over the succeeding years. Of late the government has discontinued publishing the figures having disbanded the records bureau that put out such statistics. This is of a piece with the government’s allergy to unflattering - if revealing – statistics. While numbers of toilets constructed and gas cylinders distributed are kosher, numbers such as that of unemployed and the gross domestic product are a state secret (at least up until elections are over and done with).
Given the bleak numbers for Muslims, it can be confidently asserted that the numbers for members of the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes in India’s officer corps is equally if not more abysmal. Under-representation in the professionally consequential officer corps cannot be compensated by higher numbers in the soldiery. In their case, the scheduled castes are represented in the Mahar regiment, with Ambedkar’s father being a prominent member; while the scheduled tribes are in the Bihar regiment. Even the numbers in the soldiery cannot push their representation to a decent contrast with their proportion of the population.
In effect, by extrapolation it can be seen that some 40 per cent of India’s population – roughly 14 per cent Muslims, 16 per cent scheduled caste and 9 per cent scheduled tribe – have a presence of about 4 per cent in the officer corps – short by 10 times in proportion to their numbers. With New India appraising the 75 years mark in independent existence, the competitive capability of disadvantaged communities is stark.
It can be argued that in an all-volunteer military only merit prevails. However, that the regimental system is an unacknowledged bit of affirmative action for the ‘martial races’ needs airing to, first, bust this myth, and, more importantly, to act as precedence for increasing numbers of unrepresented communities in the military.
During election run-up, commentary surfaced on certain political parties wishing for new regiments to increase the numbers of their constituents in the military. Given the military largesse in terms of a bloated revenue budget, cornering a piece of the pie for respective communities is unexceptionable. Conversely, this also accounts for the defence of the status quo by votaries of the regimental system.
The defenders have it that India should ‘not fix what ain’t broke’. Cohesion is taken as a force multiplier and not to be compromised by politically motivated meddling in the recruiting system. This is an operational level argument that could do with superseding by a political level consideration.
Firstly, the cohesion argument is dated. The seventy-plus years of a shared national life has leveled out differences considerably. There is sufficient mutual comprehension and empathy between Indians from different ethnic groups to generate the cohesion necessary for operational effectiveness. Incidentally, cohesion is liable to being cemented by the rigour of military training and the dangers of combat, as routinely obtains in the all class units across the armed forces and paramilitary. Is it the military’s case that there is a deficit in such units?
Significantly, a military that does not reflect India’s diversity belies the principle of unity-in-diversity underwriting India’s democracy. The defence minister is of a party that takes pride in flattening out differences. The prime minister believes that the minorities have been taken for a ride by the Congress over the past seventy years. The employment and developmental indices, such as lack of representation in the meritocratic officer corps even seventy years after independence, show this up starkly. While the ‘sabka vikas’ slogan if fine, it would yet take two generations before these communities measure up to the competition.
More needs doing, not in terms of affirmative action, but in terms of targeting their best to sign up for a life in uniform. This could include targeted advertising, more National Cadet Corps (NCC) units in their areas and funding coaching academies through universities in areas inhabited by them. Only then will ‘sabka vishwas’ come on the horizon. Since such a measure would be targeting the 40 per cent disadvantaged population and not 14 per cent Muslims alone, it would amount to yet one more measure to pull up by the boot straps the lower of the two castes – the poor – mentioned by the prime minister in his reworking of the caste system into two castes – one of the poor and the second who help them out of poverty. It would thus not suffer the ‘appeasement’ tag.
The ball is now in Rajnath Singh’s court. Armed here with the arguments necessary he can reclaim his ministerial space, denied earlier in the first round of distribution of cabinet committees. He can undo at long last what Ambedkar described in his inimitable exposition on caste: ‘Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.’
The writer is a visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi