In 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed a PIL alleging that the Army recruitment policy was discriminatory and based on caste, religion and region. The court accepted the Army’s justification regarding the existence of certain regiments that are based on classification related to social, cultural and linguistic homogeneity. The contention was that such homogeneity is considered to be a force multiplier, as a battle-winning factor. The assertion was accepted without challenge. Since 2018, and more recently in March 2022, some Ahir community leaders from South Haryana have been using the Army’s logic to demand the institution of an Ahir Regiment.
Linking homogeneity to combat-effectiveness
Citing the performance of Ahirs in wars, the community is demanding recognition similar to what has been accorded to the Sikhs, Gorkhas, Jats, Garhwalis, Rajputs amongst other groups/communities. Such demands may have localised and carry popular appeal which are connected to elections. But it must not distract us from interrogating the fundamental argument that links homogeneity to combat-effectiveness. Such institutional interrogation has been ensued after the mutiny by certain Sikh units during Operation Blue Star. What followed was a shift towards units based on the All India Class composition that jettisoned the logic of homogeneity based on social, cultural and linguistic commonality. The shift was partial and easily implemented in the support and logistic echelons, like Signals, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps and Army Ordnance Corps.
The Combat arms like Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Armoured Corps, Artillery and Engineers, resisted any major shift to All India Class and continue to adhere, mostly, to different class combination models like Single, Fixed, Mixed Fixed class where ethnicity, religion, caste and region was the basis of the unit composition. However, in the Armoured Corps, Mechanised Infantry and Artillery, most new raisings were based on All India Class. The old Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery Regiments that drew their class composition legacy from the British Indian Army have resisted change, citing proven operational effectiveness and administrative convenience.
In 1949, India’s Commander-in-Chief, General K M Cariappa, raised an Infantry Regiment, The Brigade of the Guards, by converting the four oldest battalions of the Army — the Punjab, Grenadiers, and Rajput Regiments. He decided to mix all classes within these battalions. The idea was a bold experiment to promote national integration and test whether the men thus bound, would perform their military duties with the same zeal as in the name of their class. The excellent performance of the Brigade of the Guards, as integrated units, in all of India’s wars since Independence, provides ample proof of the success of the experiment. Relieved of their homogenous class identity, they fight as Indians for the nation. Even as a general rule, integrating India’s diversity within organisations provides a much larger span of a talent pool that cannot possibly be matched by homogeneity.
There is, therefore, a strong case to progressively convert the remaining Regiments to All-India Class though some exceptions will have to be made for units like Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh Scouts. It will strengthen the constitutional right of equality of opportunity in employment, which is now juxtaposed with the ongoing gender-based legal battle of women in the armed forces. The reform and conversion has to be done bottom-up by inducting persons of All India Class over some time. The transformation can be centrally planned and managed carefully. Administratively sensitive issues, like the existence of reserved vacancies in promotions for different classes, must receive proper attention with the aim that only professional merit must be the benchmark for career advancement.
As a principle, the recruitment policy for the rank and file of the Armed Forces should have merit as the primary benchmark. Presently, it is based on the Recruitable Male Population (RMP) Index System, which privileges geographical representation rather than merit. States with larger populations get greater vacancies. Inequitable geographical population growth has not been factored in the existing RMP system that is presently based on the census of 2011. The situation is similar to the disadvantages that are likely to be visited on the states when the constitutional requirement of the delimitation exercise is undertaken in 2026. The relative success of family planning in the Southern states will lead to decreasing their representation in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha while increasing the representation of the Northern states. Both the Navy and IAF have for long jettisoned the RMP model.
Luckily, so far there is no legislative provision that binds the government with any system of reservations for the Armed Forces. The recruitment can be based on a national system that is common in nature, and selection is done primarily on merit. This would involve assessment of their physical and mental capabilities. Understandably, existing provisions that cater to natural disparities due to regional and ethnic physical and educational qualifications can continue. Considering that all states have attained a certain minimum level of progress in education, there is unlikely to be any major impact on geographic representation.
End legacies of discrimination
The demand of the Ahir community is a reflection of the existing system that still carries some of the legacies of discrimination practised by the British, who had identified certain communities as belonging to the martial class and based their military power on such class composition. Though the All-India Class has been accepted in principle by the military leadership, the traditionalists have impeded change and emotions have trumped rationality. When combined with differential population growth, the existing recruitment policy may be technically non-discriminatory but practically, it lowers merit as a selection criterion.
Recruitment is a basic element of national integration. But there are other elements like leadership, training, motivation, instilling broadmindedness and the inculcation of the spirit of unity, to name a few, that determine military effectiveness. For long, all ranks of the Navy, Air Force and the officers of the Army were all recruited on an All-India merit system. The performance of infantry and other combat units based on All-India Class has deflated the argument that cultural, social and linguistic homogeneity is a necessity for operational benefits.
For sure, the merit-based All-India Class selection reforms suggested can only be brought about through political intervention. It must be done along with the ongoing search for modified service condition models that will reduce the burgeoning pension outgo, keep the Army young and promote operational efficiency.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)