A military force with sharp internal divisions and discontent in the ranks has far-reaching national security implications. It’s time the defence establishment got its act together
The ‘controversial’ appointment of the new Indian Army chief who assumed office on January 1, 2017 is perhaps the appropriate occasion to discuss the rising uneasiness within the Indian Army on a number of significant issues. While the unconvincing rationale given for the appointment of Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat as the new Army chief speaks volumes of the deep-rooted tactical thinking within the government, there remains an urgent need to address the lopsided promotion trends in the Army, rising infighting within the force, and their implications for India’s national security.
The supersession and the issue of merit
Those who support Gen. Rawat’s appointment arguing that merit was, and should be, the sole criterion for the supersession of two of his seniors fall short on a number of counts. First, to breach a well-established tradition in a conservative and hierarchical institution like the Army, the government should have a convincing and compelling reason which it doesn’t seem to have. Second, the argument of merit is largely redundant at the topmost levels of an organisation where all officers are equally competent, failing which they wouldn’t have made it to the Lt. Gen. rank in the first place.
Third, there is no objective criteria for deciding merit at the senior levels of the Army brass besides previous annual confidential reports and civilian considerations, both of which are subjective. Fourth, the argument that Gen. Rawat has the required experience in certain theatres is again beside the point because the “Chief of the Army Staff” is not an operational commander but a coordinator and chief strategist. Finally, and most fundamentally, non-traditional appointments without a compelling rationale set a bad precedent and could potentially lead to the politicisation of the armed forces. Imagine senior Generals of the Army running around Lutyens’ Delhi currying favour with ruling party politicians to make it to the top!
There have been reports, citing unnamed sources within the government, about the possibility of the most senior General of the Army, Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi – now superseded by Gen. Rawat – being appointed as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). While it may turn out to be mere speculation, if true, it may well be even more worrying. The first in line becomes CDS, third in line gets the Army chief’s job. What about the second in line, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ali Hariz, one of the very few Muslim officers to have become an Army commander? If the report turns out to be correct, wouldn’t the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, by ignoring Gen. Hariz, be sending out a politically incorrect signal? This question, uncomfortable as it may sound, can’t be allowed to be swept under the carpet.
The justification of Gen. Rawat’s appointment as stemming from his experience in dealing with insurgency is also indicative of the deeply entrenched tactical thinking within the government at the Centre. This then means that the BJP-led government considers anti-militancy and counter-insurgency operations to be the fundamental job description of the Indian Army. This is not just a tactical view of the country’s threat environment but worryingly also ignores strategic planning and an appreciation of the long-term strategic environment. Would the BJP-led government like to reduce the Indian Army to a counter-insurgency force?
While the Army leadership is exceptionally vocal on the ‘One Rank, One Pay’ question and parity with civil servants, there is not much discussion about the issue of promotion-related discrimination within the Army. Not only have infantry officers been getting appointed to the coveted positions in the top rungs of the Army, the chiefs often promote officers from their own regiments in a regrettable display of parochial loyalties.
The outgoing chief Gen. D.S. Suhag, for instance, is reported to have promoted officers from the Gorkha regiment (including the incumbent chief Gen. Rawat), his own regiment. Former Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh, now Minister of State in the government, was also accused of promoting officers from his own Rajput regiment. There is a growing sense of resentment elsewhere in the Army about the disproportionate opportunities for officers from the infantry and artillery wings.
Officers from other wings, especially the Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry, have been publicly voicing their concerns. Note that this is over and above the fact that only officers from the fighting arms of the Army make it to the top, meaning that those from Engineers and Signals don’t even stand a chance of doing so. This already existing discrimination is getting even more glaring thanks to the new promotion policy adopted by the Army. The victims of the new policy have been fighting it out in the Supreme Court.
The ongoing court cases
The current debate about the Army’s promotion policy has its genesis in the Kargil Review Committee report which recommended that promotion to the Colonel and Brigadier levels should be made quicker so that younger officers can command battalions and brigades. Thereafter the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee (AVSC) made some important recommendations in 2001 to restructure the officer cadre in the Army. Among other things, it recommended the implementation of the Command Exit model (as opposed to the pro rata basis) for promotion to the colonel level. While the pro rata basis gave advantage to the infantry and artillery (given their numerical superiority in the Army), the Command Exit model, which prescribed differentiated command tenures (that is, the length of the tenures of commanding officers i.e., colonels before promotion to the next level) for various arms, gives even more advantage to the Infantry. Consider the following: the AVSC fixed the command tenure of Infantry officers at 2.5 years, that of Armoured/Mechanised Infantry and Artillery at three years, and Engineers and Signals at four years. This has not only led to quicker promotions for officers from the Infantry but they have also successively managed to corner the Army chief’s post as well, including the last four times. The last four Army Chiefs, including the current one, have been infantry officers.
This ill-designed policy was challenged by serving officers in the Armed Forces Tribunal, which squashed the new promotion policy, holding that it violated Article 14 of the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court in February 2016 upheld the policy, at the same time asking the government to create 141 additional posts at the rank of colonel to be granted to officers from Engineers, Signals and Air Defence. Late last year around 350 senior Army officers have again approached the Supreme Court seeking a review of its February judgment.
Then there are ugly public spats between senior Army officers. Gen. V.K Singh, Army chief from March 2010 to May 2012, was not only the first serving Army chief to take the government to court (on the issue of his date of birth) but has made uncharitable public allegations against Gen. Suhag. Gen. Singh, during his tenure, had also placed Gen. Suhag on a “discipline and vigilance ban” which could have stopped the latter from becoming the chief. Before his retirement, Gen. Suhag filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in which he accused Gen. Singh of trying to scuttle his promotion. Gen. Singh’s words and deeds during his tenure as Army chief and after becoming a minister have not only been careless and ‘un-officer-like’ but also continue to create dissension in the Army top brass.
Need for political oversight
While politicisation of the affairs of the armed forces is indeed harmful, it may also not be a good idea to let the Army handle its own business as it deems fit. At present, politicians hardly focus on serious defence matters or inter-service/intra-service tensions. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) bureaucrats, with limited expertise in these matters, mostly function as gatekeepers keeping the forces away from the civilian seats of power.
And yet, in keeping with the commendable tradition of civilian supremacy in the country, it is time to consider civilian oversight of the promotion process at the highest levels of the armed forces. However, civil servants in the MoD or the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet can’t alone be entrusted with that job. Ideally, such high-level appointments should either be vetted by an empowered Parliamentary Standing committee on Defence or be decided by a ‘bipartisan’ Selection Committee composed along the lines of the one that selects the Central Bureau of Investigation chief and the Chief Vigilance Commissioner.
The multiple crises afflicting the Indian Army have far-reaching national security implications. Clearly, a military force with sharp internal divisions and discontent in the ranks can pose challenges for the country’s national security and the morale and cohesion of the fighting forces. Such a pervasive sense of intra-service victimhood and discrimination can further deteriorate the strength of a force which currently has a shortage of over 9,000 officers.
If the Modi government wishes to seriously address and tackle some of these troubling issues, and thereby strengthen the country’s national security, the Defence Minister and the new Army chief should take urgent measures to address the sources of this growing discontent within the country’s ace force. Moreover, it is important that the senior Army leadership rise above parochial regimental considerations and look after the interests of the force as a whole rather than those of their own regiments.
Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.