By Pavan Nair
The author, a retired colonel, served for thirty years in the Indian Army Corps of Engineers. He now works with an NGO and writes on defence and social issues. He can be contacted on pavannair[AT]vsnl[DOT]net
The politically astute Indian Defence Minister recently conveyed to the Parliament that details of Muslims in the Indian Army would not be conveyed to the Sachar Committee. Does that resolve the issue? The rather short and ill-informed debate was mired in arguments about the secular credentials of the army, an issue which has never been in doubt. The knee-jerk reaction of several serving and retired officers and the media indicates an inherent if unspoken bias against Muslims in general which exists across most sections of Indian society. There is a need to understand the issue from a historical as also a functional perspective.
The fighting arms of the Indian Army, that is the Armoured Corps (the erstwhile cavalry), Infantry, Artillery and Engineers, have traditionally had a fixed class composition as far as the rank and file is concerned. This composition may be a single class composition(like Jats, Rajputs or Sikhs) or a mixed class composition like a combination of Sikhs, Marathas and Muslims in a specified percentage or a mix of sub-units of different classes. Some newly raised units in the armoured corps and artillery have an all-India mix. All caste- or class-based regiments also have a specified proportion of other mixed castes called Other Indian Castes or OICs. Since Hindustani Muslims (HMs), which is the official name, are specified as a caste or class, they do not form a part of the OIC quota of the army. The services like the Signals, ASC (Army Service Corps) and AOC (Army Ordnance Corps) which form about 20% of the army are based on an all India composition and vacancies are released on a zonal basis.
After 1857, the proportion of ‘high’ caste Hindu soldiers in the British army was reduced since they were held responsible for inciting the anti-British revolt whereas certain communities like the Sikhs and Gurkhas were rewarded for their loyalty by increasing their numbers. The bias of recruitment was shifted to the so-called ‘martial races’, which incidentally included Muslims mostly from Awadh, Punjab, Bihar and the North-West Frontier Province. Certain new regiments were raised over a period of time to increase the recruiting base since the army was in the expansion mode before the world wars. Some of these regiments like the Sikh Light Infantry and the Mahar Regiment specially catered to lower castes. Jat Sikhs were enrolled in the Sikh Regiment and Mazhabi and Ramdasia Sikhs in the Sikh Light Infantry. Muslims, like the Sikhs, formed a large part of the army right till the time of independence. Muslims were enrolled in pure or single class regiments as also mixed regiments. For example, a battalion of the Punjab Regiment could be composed of two or more Sikh companies and two or more Muslim companies consisting of Punjabi Musalmans or Pathans. Muslims were also mixed with Hindus in various regiments but their food and staying arrangements were always separate. Some aspects of this arrangement are still in effect. For example, one or more sub-units in Grenadier battalions can have a pure Muslim composition. To say that recruitment in the army, and specifically the fighting arms, is not based on caste or class composition is therefore incorrect.
At independence, the army was divided between India and Pakistan in the ratio of about two to one. All Muslim units and sub units were given the choice of going across to Pakistan. Most of them did. Similarly some sub units of Gujjars, Sikhs and Dogras came across to India. The percentage of Muslims in the army, which was about 25% at that time, came down to about 5%, whereas almost 60% of the Muslim population stayed on in various parts of India. Nothing was done to correct the imbalance though Nehru did express some concern. The army was immediately involved in operations in Kashmir for a few years and thereafter the issue died a natural death, presumably because the Muslim community did not raise it. Over a period of time, Muslim representation has come down to 3% because the class composition of the fighting arms has a limited and fixed number of Muslim vacancies. A Muslim wanting to join the infantry or engineers or any fighting arm with a fixed class composition can only apply for the Muslim vacancies where they exist or as and when they come up. He can also apply for the services that is the Signals, ASC, AOC and AMC in the open category but so can the Sikhs, Jats, Dogras or Rajputs who already have a large reservation in their own regiments. So there is an administrative bias which has kept the numbers very low. This needs to be corrected. To say that the numbers of Muslim in the army are low because of a lack of military attributes or physical standards is an insult to the memory of thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought valiantly in both the world wars and participated in all our wars after independence.
Any organization will resist change and the Indian Army is no different. All citizens must have the right to participate in the defence of their country and to enjoy the privileges that accrue. It is the prerogative of a government to correct an imbalance not only in the Army but in several other paramilitary organisations whose combined strength is almost equal to that of the army. Certain organizations like the NSG do not recruit Muslims or sikhs. One way to go would be to do it in stages over a period of time by increasing the number of Muslim vacancies in the fighting arms where Muslims are already integrated within units of specific regiments like the Grenadiers, Guards and the Rajputana Rifles. This will entail reducing vacancies for other classes unless the manpower ceiling of the army is raised. New raisings and Rashtriya Rifle units could have a larger proportion of Muslims. It is also for consideration whether some vacancies in the services should be reserved for Muslims as also other minority communities and Dalits who are under-represented in the army even though there is a Mahar Regiment in the infantry which recruits Dalits from Maharshtra. The secular credentials of the army and the state will only be strengthened if we correct a historical mistake. But before that, civil society needs to understand the issues involved.