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Armed forces are not a Holy Cow
February 27, 2006
It is extremely unfortunate that the government has dropped the move to collate data on the status of Muslims in the armed forces. This follows an uproar over the steps taken by the Prime Minister's High-Level Committee -- PMHC -- on the social economic and educational status of the Muslim community headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar to approach the defence forces for such data.
The Bharatiya Janata Party sought the President's intervention in his capacity as the Supreme Commander of the armed forces to stop this 'misguided' survey. Former army officers held dharnas against the 'divisive' move, which they believe, would weaken a robustly secular institution. And former defence minister George Fernandes termed the PMHC's work a 'seditious act' aimed at 'communalising' the armed forces!
After this, much of the media simply renamed the PMHC the Sachar Committee. The Congress defensively pleaded that its survey would be 'purely a data-gathering and fact-finding exercise.' The Prime Minister's Office quickly distanced itself from the committee. Chief of Army Staff General J J Singh said: 'It is not the army's philosophy to disseminate or maintain (community-wise) information'; 'we are not concerned with the faith or language' of the people employed or 'where they come from.' And the defence ministry, which had sought the relevant data from the armed services, assured them it won't forward it to the PMHC.
In the heat of emotion, it was all but forgotten that in our Parliamentary system, the President is not the court of last resort. He is the defence services' Supreme Commander in a figurative sense. He does not possess the executive authority to start or stop a survey. Since then, former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General R S Kadyan has approached the Supreme Court to ask that the survey be stayed. He argues the survey would help to 'sow the seed of communalism in the defence forces.'
Numerous arguments were advanced by opponents of the move. These old that the very conduct of the survey would tarnish the armed forces' image as a professional force; that words like caste, creed, religion and reservation are unheard of in regimental messes; that the army is one of the few reliably secular institutions in India, which is fully trusted by the religious minorities -- unlike the police or paramilitary forces; it has an enviable record of protecting the lives of the minorities in communally charged situations.
Some of these arguments are undoubtedly valid. For instance, no one can seriously question the army's secular credentials and its impartial role in protecting the life and property of the minorities when called upon to do so. The Indian Army represents a remarkable achievement. It is one of the few apolitical militaries in the Third World to function fully under civilian control.
And yet, the anti-survey arguments miss one essential paradox: namely, that the army does not fully reflect the rich diversity and plurality of Indian society. It suffers from under-representation of certain ethnic, religious and social groups, and from over-representation of some others, most notably the so-called "martial races" favoured under the colonial system of recruitment, including Sikhs, Gorkhas, Dogras, Jats, Rajputs, etc.
Among the under-represented groups are people from the Northeast, Dalits, OBCs, and Muslims. We know from a note sent on January 9 by the army to the defence ministry that in 2004 it had only 29,093 Muslims among a total of 1.1 million personnel -- a ratio of 2.6 percent, which compares poorly with the Muslims' 13 percent share in the Indian population. Similarly, there have been complaints of under-representation from Dalit and Adivasi leaders and smaller linguistic groups.
To demand that their recruitment be increased is not to advance an anti-national, communal or divisive agenda, but to ask for diversity and balance. None other than then defence minister Jagjivan Ram raised the demand for greater Dalit recruitment in 1971.
Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's greatest prime minister, who cannot even be remotely accused of a communal bias, noted in 1953 that 'in our Defence Services, there are hardly any Muslims left. What concerns me most is that there is no effort being made to improve this situation, which is likely to grow worse unless checked.' This concern was reiterated by Mahavir Tyagi, then minister of state for defence, who disclosed that 'the percentage of Muslims in the armed forces, which was 32 percent at the time of Partition has come down to two. I have instructed that due regard should be paid to their recruitment.'
The PMHC was not being wayward in asking for information about the recruitment and status of Muslims in the army. It's vital to collect 'authentic information about the social, economic and educational status' of Muslims in different government departments. Without such a data bank, we won't know whether there is under-representation of different groups, what its extent is, and what its causes might be. Collating such information is also the best way of countering prejudices about 'minority appeasement'.>
True, such information is relevant not just for Muslims; it is necessary for other groups too. But the PMHC's brief pertains to Muslims. It was perfectly legitimate for it to solicit information about Muslims. This is in keeping with the National Common Minimum Programme of the UPA, which promised to promote the welfare of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities.
The issue of Muslim under-representation in the defence forces must be situated in context. As MIT-based scholar Omar Khalidi argues in his Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India (Three Essays, New Delhi, 2003), the army embraced the discredited colonial 'martial races' theory which favoured certain 'Fixed Classes' like Gorkhas, Sikhs, Dogras and Rajputs in recruitment. Muslims were excluded from these, except for groups such as the Qaimkhani community of Rajasthan and UP, and units like the Grenadiers, Armoured Corps, Bombay Engineers Group and the J&K Light Infantry. It Is only in 1984, after the 'revolt' by some soldiers of the Sikh Regiment following Operation Bluestar, that the army adopted a better mix in what's called the 'All-India Class.'
Yet, the proportion of Muslims in the army remains under 3 percent. In the case of officers, this may be explained by educational backwardness among Muslims. But this cannot explain the community's low representation among Other Ranks. We need to know whether this is because of a reluctance of Muslims to join the army, skewed distribution of recruitment, or because of unacknowledged barriers to entry, including prejudices.
General Kadyan's petition is wrong to allege that if such information is collated, 'it will create very illogical and unnecessary data which might create... in the mind of the minority communities... a feeling of their being less in number in the defence forces… giving them cause for... fear of the majority community.' This presumption is fundamentally mistaken. There's nothing 'illogical' about documenting the status of different communities in national institutions. The United States army, for instance, regularly compiles publicly available data on Muslims, Blacks, and other ethnic groups.
More generally, the armed forces cannot be an exception to the concept of citizenship in a multi-ethnic society. Nor can they demand to be shielded from scrutiny just because they perform a role in India's defence. All citizens have a valid role to play in our national life. Real security derives not just from military defence, but other things including human security, justice, social cohesion and human rights. The armed forces are not a Holy Cow.
A data bank on the ethnic-religious composition of all our public institutions is a precondition for measures to promote the welfare of citizens, including affirmative action in favour of the underprivileged and under-recruited. It goes without saying that this should not take the form of quotas and job reservations. But that's not an argument against diversifying recruitment or promoting equality of opportunity. There's no reason why the government cannot unilaterally announce that it will endeavour to recruit more and more under-represented groups without embracing a quota system. A caring-and-sharing society must have adequate room for such measures.
Two other points are in order. In many countries, promotion of inclusive multi-cultural policies and diversity became possible only when they abandoned ostrich-like attitudes and confronted reality. For instance, the British police began an internal evaluation after the race riots of the early 1980s. An extensive survey was undertaken of the ethnic composition of the force and prevalence of race and ethnicity-related biases. This prepared the ground for diversity sensitisation programmes, retraining, and positive discrimination.
Second, there is disturbing evidence that certain Indian security and intelligence-related agencies simply don't recruit Muslims. These include the Research & Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau and National Security Guard. This is totally unacceptable and unworthy of a plural society that aspires to a degree of equity. Even the CIA would be embarrassed if it were to exclude African-Americans. The PMHC should thoroughly probe such institutions. Exclusion, and attitudes that rationalise it in the name of 'security', are the surest recipe for alienation of our own citizens. We cannot afford this if we want a minimally decent and self-confident India.