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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Soldiers in our own images

'Pipping' ceremonies at the Indian Military Academy were solemn occasions. With the media revolution and the need to attract officer material, the Academy has over the past decade resorted to ceremonial innovation, such as singing a patriotic song during the oath taking ceremony. TV grabs and photos accompanying the twice-yearly news reports on officer commissions usually feature jubilant newly commissioned officers throwing their regimental caps in the air, in an imitation of the scene in the cult film, An Officer and a Gentleman.


While 23 were from friendly foreign countries, 132 were from UP, 56 from Haryana and 51 from Uttarkhand. Thus, more than one third of the Indian's newly commissioned officers were from this belt. It can be assumed that other areas from which cadets have always come - such as Delhi, Punjab and nearby areas - were not very far behind. In other words, it can be hazarded that about 50 per cent of newly commissioned officers are from a narrow region in North India. The breakdown of the officer cadre of the paramilitary and central police forces is not known. It is very likely that their intake patterns are similar. Is this good for India's security?

And as for the soliders, what is their representation pattern? The figures are not known. The Ministry of Home Affairs sets ratios of desirable recruitment for its forces. In case of the Ministry of Defence, the recruitable male population serves as the index. Unfilled vacancies are to be carried over. However, this only accentuates over-representation.

While there are stipulations on vacancies for intake below officer ranks in the military and paramilitary, the officer cadres of both have all-India recruitment.

It can be conjectured that the general lack of transparency in recruitment is a defensive move, since the figures if known could prove embarrassing. The recruitable male population is supposed to serve as the index for recruitment. However, for instance in the Army, this can be expected to be weighted in favour of ethnic groups traditionally contributing to respective infantry regiments. Besides, some ethnic groups have representation in other arms such as in Engineers groups, artillery regiments etc.

The example of the Air Force is instructive. It has jettisoned the recruitable male population index in favour of an 'All-India' recruitment pattern. As a result, those self-selecting are mainly from UP and Bihar. The reason for departure was lack of response from non-traditional areas of recruitment. In the interest of efficiency, the Air Force opted to sacrifice broad representation. Even if this was acceptable from a point of view of military effectiveness, is this in the overall interest of the service and the nation?

While there are stipulations on vacancies for intake below officer ranks in the military and paramilitary, the officer cadres of both have all-India recruitment. This implies that a selection is made from those volunteering. Given the information available and anecdotal evidence, it can be reasonably inferred that the intake for the security forces is biased towards a narrow region in North India. Those volunteering from other regions are apparently fewer or found to be less qualified. This means the nation is getting the best on offer.

It should be pointed out that the officer cadre is still as good as it has ever been, and has not been found lacking in any way as a result of skewed intake. The military remains a respected and independent institution, focused on professional training and goals, and with no participation in the political affairs of the country. Coups have been ruled out by every expert on civil-military relations in India. If the officer corps is less alluring to some, it could be partially due to the draw of other occupations. For instance in South India, other avenues in Bangalore and Hyderabad and abroad such as in the US and the Gulf perhaps lead to fewer officer candidates.

We could conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to be concerned if the intake of officers or soldiers is particularly high from one region, and less so from elsewhere. Nevertheless, the case of Pakistan is illustrative. Up to two thirds of the officer cadre is filled by Punjabis, and many of the ills of that country can be attributed to this, including the primacy of Punjab over other states. Though Indian socio-political reality is much more complex, the implications of having majority of officers and lower ranks originating from one region still bears consideration. Some concerns are highlighted below for the attention of policy makers and their political overseers.

Firstly, in principle, the multi-ethnic reality of India must find expression in its institutions, especially those charged with security. While 'recruitable male population' may be the basis of filling in the rank and file, the practice in case of under-representation of states is not known. The Army's reluctance to share figures regarding Muslim presence, in response to the query from the Sachar Committee, is well known. It indicates that shortfalls exist. Parliament should examine how the military compensates.


Secondly, although the military has been spared the operation of caste-based reservations, it still has anachronistic recruitment practices. These may not have any self-evident negative connotations for military effectiveness. However, recall that the Punjab problem did lead to changes in recruiting policy. Broad-basing recruitment is the best manner of preempting problems. For instance, modernisation may require a different type of officer candidate and recruit, more technology-inclined. This may prove beyond the capacity of the unwittingly favoured recruiting area. Additionally, over representation also owes to coaching centers in these areas offering intensive coaching on how to crack the exam. This results in poor standards at intake. This original debility cannot easily be corrected through training.

Thirdly, given the unexceptionable largesse of the latest Pay Commission, it would be unfair if the same is channeled into only one region, as seems to be the case. Higher order gains - such as regional equity, and a stake in the system for all including the social and geographical periphery - need to guide decisions over recruitment.

Fourthly, fighting insurgency can be expected to continue as a preoccupation. A narrow recruiting base, particularly of the officer corps, would lead to problems with perception. A Mainstream vs Other perception tends to emerge, clouding judgments on the applicability of force. This only accentuates in case the social origin of the officers in the lower middle class is added to the consideration. For instance, dilution in the intake of percentages from the North East in Assam Rifles has been done in favour of Gorkhas and other hill people from North India. This affects the culture of the Assam Rifles defined by its motto Friends of Hill People, changing it towards a more militarized paramilitary resembling the Army from which it draws its officer cadre

Likewise, imbalanced representation would lead to institutional bias or neglect of some or other feature in security concerns. Such imbalances in perceptions can creep into institutional inputs, for instance, on India's Pakistan or Kashmir policy. It is well said that the manner the equanimity with which these problems are viewed increases with distance from Delhi. Keeping relations with Pakistan adversarial would keep the hardline policy option underwritten by military power in play. Such a policy input could result from ethnic imbalances since parochial considerations could override the rational alternative or national interest.

Happy with the status quo, institutional leadership is likely to advise: "Leave well enough, alone." Political sagacity, however, calls for initiating the change.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The doyen of India's strategists, K Subrahmanyam, has got it wrong before. He advocated Indian vivisection of Pakistan in 1971, not only in the East, but also in the West advising for a drive up to the Indus to bisect West Pakistan between Sindh and Punjab. In the event, India settled only for the former. But even this smaller intervention has had long consequences for India. Pakistan determined that it would go nuclear to overcome its disadvantage in conventional forces, and has since waged an endless proxy war against India under nuclear cover.

Back then, he had argued that India should go nuclear to ensure deterrence, making war prohibitive and resulting in settling of issues as Kashmir. We now know otherwise, with Kashmir figuring in a war and a near war since 1998. This reality, quite different from what was predicted back in the 1970s, should be borne in mind as we read Subrahmanyam's latest (below) on the internal conflict strategy for Central India:

"India cannot industrialise without displacing populations. While the displaced population should be compensated generously, swiftly and made stakeholders in industrialisation, it is unrealistic to talk of eliminating poverty without industrialisation and fast growth. If this proposition is considered valid, India is going to face the challenge of left-wing and secessionist insurgencies to fast growth through efficient and just governance and delivery of services to the common man. To ensure that a three-pronged approach is imperative - an effective civil armed force free from the parochial political influence, a just governance and a fast growing industrialisation cum urbanisation and poverty elimination programme" (from his article, "Wake Up Call" in Dainik Jagran (Hindi), dated 11 April 2010).

Advancing years have not made a dent on his combative prose. However, Subrahmanyam's argument is predicated on a very big 'IF'. India could go down the route of fast growth 'if' it can 'compensate generously', provide 'just governance', ensure 'delivery of services' and undertake 'poverty elimination'. Since the country's past record does not instil confidence that it can do any of this adequately well, it bears questioning whether it should venture down the route of 'displacing populations' at all. In that case, would the country's war in the central provinces - referred to as Operation Green Hunt and avidly denied by authorities - be the wrong war to fight?

It is certain now that an internal war is on. A Home Ministry's statement has it that "some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs and intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps which would provide support to the CPI (Maoist) ideology." The warning perhaps owes to Arundhati Roy's and Gautam Navlakha's take on the Maoists in Outlook and Economic and Political Weekly respectively, based on some days spent with them in Central India.

As a prescient letter to the editor in the EPW informs, the Karnataka police have served a 'notice' to a journalist on publication of his interview with a Maoist. The subtext is threat of action under Section 43 (F) UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 'Obligation to furnish information'. The article states: 'The failure to furnish the information called for under sub-section (1), or deliberately furnishing false information shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.' Such an embargo on freedom of thought and expression indicates a war is on.

Taking the development prong of strategy first, K Subrahmanyam seems to suggest displacement is justifiable, if resettlement is done alongside. The argument is that the outcome in larger good of higher growth rates will help reduce poverty. The government's record on this can best be seen in the case of the Narmada dam. Despite this being under judicial scrutiny and civil society focus, the record has been dismal. On the Maheshwar Hydel project, Chittaroopa Palit, an activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), says, "The dam construction is about 80 per cent complete, but the R&R (resettlement and rehabilitation) is only about five per cent complete (The Hindu, 23 Apr 2010)."

This reality cannot but be even worse in case of remote areas where there is little scrutiny of the government's actions. Displacement figures are taken as 30-60 million since Independence; most of the advantages having been cornered by the 'haves' at the expense of the 'have nots'.

Next, is the military prong. The gag order on the two service chiefs speaking in the wake of the Chintalnar incident shows how sensitive the Home Ministry is to criticism of its military strategy. The E N Rammohan report on the Chintalnar ambush, not released in the open domain, is also apparently critical. In a knee-jerk reaction to another ambush soon thereafter, Dantewada District Collector, Reena Kangale told the Hindustan Times, "We are working on issuing an order that the security personnel should not travel by public transport." This is war by standard operating procedures - SOPs, in military parlance - at its best!

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K Subrahmanyam recalls suggesting in the Kargil Committee Report that he headed, "They (the paramilitary) need to be trained to much higher standards of performance and better equipped to deal with terrorist threats. The possibility of adopting an integrated manpower policy for the armed forces, paramilitary forces and the central police forces merit examination." Yet another questionable suggestion, flying as it does in the face of insights from military sociology. Fighting capability at the lower level is dependent on cohesion. 'Integrated' forces from disparate backgrounds cannot hope to develop this. The Army learned this at its cost, and that of worsening the human plight in Kashmir, by deploying the Rashtriya Rifles that suffered similarly.

The Home Minister seeks to expand his mandate, spelling further militarisation at the expense of the non-existent development prong. The argument for this advanced by Swapan Dasgupta in his weekly Sunday Times column is for development to take place, "the state must uproot an illegal military presence first". With the media and civil rights activists intimidated and the higher echelon leadership of IPS officers absent from the frontline, there would be no oversight of operations or resettlement. Continuing military action by Maoists, and all untoward incidents such as that of the tragedy of the train accident at West Midnapore being placed at their door, has placed them at odds with public opinion, making the military option - even one less than effective and very definitely, inefficient - a virtual certainty.

The third suggestion of the Bhisma Pitamah of the strategic community is on improving governance. This is unexceptionable. However, the question is, can it be done given the political reality in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh? Even relatively advanced states with Naxal presence, such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka - one ruled by the Congress and the other by the BJP - are rocked by political dissidence based on mining-related money power.

The Centre cannot step in easily, as some would suggest, in light of the federal structure. In case stepping in is compelled by the war, the federal pillar of polity will be easily eclipsed. Mineral wealth and development are issues not only in adivasi lands, but in the corridors of organised state power too. A politically hobbled administrative structure whose inadequacy has caused the tribal backlash in first place, is being expected to further development on a war footing. Even if assuming the Infantry was available to roll back the Maoists, the governance prong would lag behind.

Since the strategy is wishful, what is the answer? Since Subrahmanyam's strategy cannot be operationalised on all three counts, the aim he suggests also needs jettisoning. The mineral wealth of Central India can remain untapped till the people there acquire the capacity to negotiate the terms for its use. This may take a generation, but it will protect the people from the known consequences of the ongoing war. Equally importantly, this may also shield India from the unforeseen consequences of triumph - by either left wing extremists, or the right-wingers who would seek to demolish them.

The cost of a couple of percentile points of the growth rate is a price worth paying to avoid India's Red Indian moment.