Arvind Kala: Hiding what`s well-known
Arvind Kala / New Delhi March 04, 2006, Business Standard
The reason for the Muslim under-representation in the Indian army, or the Sikh over-representation, is something that lies partly in history, and its public disclosure would harm nobody.
There’s something surreal about India’s debate on Muslim under-representation in the Indian army. If the defence minister says the army has done no head-count of its Muslims, how did the army give an exact Muslim figure of 29,093 last month? The figure is backed by a retired lieutenant-general who says the Muslims are 2 per cent.
Whatever the exact percentage, a huge Muslim under-representation in our army is a fact. So is a huge Sikh over-representation. See the contrast. Sikhs form 1.86 per cent of India’s population but number around 8 per cent in the Indian army. Muslims form 13 per cent of India’s population but are 2 per cent in the army. Why should this truth about Muslim under-representation be suppressed? Or that of Sikh over-representation? But an irrational love of secrecy causes Indian rulers to hide information whose public disclosure would harm nobody.
Just as Muslims are under-represented in the army, so are the Bengalis, Biharis, Oriyas, south Indians or Gujaratis. And just as Sikhs are over-represented, so are the Jats, Dogras, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Gurkhas, Marathas, Pathans and Punjabis.
The reason for this disparity lies in history. The Indian army’s recruitment pattern was set 150 years ago by India’s 1857 uprising. Traumatised by the rebellion, the British army adopted a recruitment policy that punished the groups which rebelled and rewarded the ones that stayed loyal. Because Muslims of Awadh, Bihar and West Bengal led the uprising, the British army stopped hiring soldiers from these areas.
Also blacklisted from these places were high-caste Hindus whose regiments in Bengal had also mutinied. In contrast, the British raised the recruitment of castes that had stood by the British to put down the uprising. These castes were the Sikhs, the Jats, Dogras, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Gurkhas, Marathas, Pathans, plus Punjabis, both Hindus and Muslims. Honoured as martial races, they received preferential treatment in army recruitment for the next 90 years. Like any institution, the Indian army’s a prisoner of the past.
Even today, it favours enlisting men from the martial races. Their over-representation in the Indian army is huge. Figures bear this out. Of 2.87 lakh jawans hired by the army in the last three years, a disproportionate 44,471 came from three “martial” states, Punjab, Haryana, and the mountain state of Uttaranchal. So these states which account for 5 per cent of India’s population provided 15 per cent of India’s army jawans.
In contrast, the fewest recruits came from “non-martial” West Bengal, Bihar and Gujarat. These three states account for 30 per cent of India’s population, but they provided only 14 per cent of army jawans in this three-year period. So the Indian army has not only a religion-based disparity in recruitment, but also one based on caste and region. A glimpse of this discrimination was provided by a press release issued by a defence office in Jammu five years ago. Seeking recruits for the Indian army, the press release said: “No vacancies for Muslims and tradesmen.” Meaning that martial Dogras were welcome to apply, but not Hindu business castes like the Baniyas and the Khatris.
About the Muslim under-representation in the Indian army, the reasons are three. One was Partition. Before Independence, Muslims were around 25 per cent of the Indian army and 25 per cent of undivided India. But when India broke up and Muslim soldiers were asked to choose between India and Pakistan, they joined Pakistan en masse. So Muslim numbers in the Indian army dropped so drastically that they were only 2 per cent in 1953, according to India’s then minister of state for defence. Jawaharlal Nehru himself expressed concern that “hardly any Muslims” were left in the army. And Muslim numbers never really picked up in the last 60 years for a well-known reason.
India’s military establishment hesitates to hire Muslims as soldiers because it suspects Muslim loyalty to India. This discrimination is a natural outcome of India and Pakistan’s bitter hostility over 60 years. In similar situations, the same thing happens all over the world. The Israeli army doesn’t trust its Arab soldiers in jobs related to defence security. The Buddhist Sinhalese army under-recruits its Hindu Tamils lest their sympathies lie with the Tamil Tigers. After 9/11, US army recruiters would probably screen a Muslim American volunteer more thoroughly than a Christian American. Thanks to our four wars with Pakistan, the same anti-Muslim animus works here in army recruitment.
Proof of it lies in an enormous mass of documentary and other evidence which expresses distrust of Muslims. Otherwise, why does India have separate regiments for the Sikhs, Jats, Dogras, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Mahars, the Nagas, even the Gurkhas, but not a single Muslim regiment? This is tragic but it’s a truth which shouldn’t be suppressed. It should be acknowledged and dealt with.
Events have consequences. Muslim under-recruitment in the Indian army is a consequence of Partition. India and Pakistan’s hostility is seen in both countries in Hindu versus Muslim terms. So it’s natural for India’s Hindu army establishment to distrust a Muslim who wants to join as a soldier.
This prejudice itself discourages qualified Muslim youths from applying, which drives down Muslim numbers even more. Another reason for Muslim under-recruitment is the relatively poor education of Muslims. When they try to enlist as soldiers, they are simply out-competed by better-educated Sikh, Hindu, and Christian youths. So Muslim leaders are quite right that Muslim under-recruitment in the army deprives the community of a good, life-long source of employment. It’s a sad situation not so easy to correct.
In life, however, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The under-representation of Muslims and other caste or regional groups benefits the over-represented ones. The composition of the Indian army is totally askew numbers-wise. West Bengal’s population is eight times that of Uttaranchal. But Uttaranchal provided almost the same number of army recruits as West Bengal last year. Compare a “martial” Punjab with a non-martial Gujarat. Punjab’s population is half that of Gujarat. But it provided four times as many people to the Indian army as Gujarat. The Indian army hired far more recruits in Rajasthan than in Tamil Nadu though Tamil Nadu’s population is higher. Essentially, the Indian army is dominated numbers-wise by Sikhs and Hindi-speaking Hindus of north India. The current status quo suits them perfectly.