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No basis in military bias

Indian Muslims must have an equal chance to defend their country, shoulder to shoulder, with all other citizens, writes Omar Khalidi.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2006 00:21 IST

Few armies in the third world have received such well-deserved accolades as does the Indian army in protecting minorities during internal security duties. Composed mainly of Sikhs and Hindus, the army played a commendable role in protecting Muslims from marauding mobs during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. This may seem yet another Indian paradox. But on closer examination, it is clear that an army fully subordinate to civilian control had no other choice.

An armed force completely under civil control is India’s spectacular achievement. At the same time there is no doubt that the army, specially its infantry units do not mirror India’s population diversity. Some ethnic and religious groups are over represented, some grossly under-represented.

Every Republic Day India displays its martial might in New Delhi along the dramatic sweep of Rajpath, Luryens grand avenue. obbing vermillion lancers are followed by perfectly matched sets of marching Dogras, Garhwalis, Gorkhas, Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, to name only the most famous regiments.

They are part of the organisation which is perhaps the most British of all the legacies. From this legacy Muslims are missing. Pre-1947 army had a substantial number of Muslims, as much as 30-35 per cent depending on how you count. Most Muslim jawans and officers opted for Pakistan. Today, there are very few Muslims in the army. Migration alone does not explain Muslim absence as that happened nearly 60 years ago. On January 9, 2006, the army informed the Defence Ministry that there are 29, 093 Muslims in the army in 2004 including more than 29 battalions that had a sizeable number of the community, out of 11 lakhs in uniform.

Among the officers, since 1947, there have been only 3 Muslim Lt. Generals, only 8 Maj. Generals, out of several hundred. In glaring contrast, Jews and Parsis — less than 60,000 total in 2006 — provided nearly as many Lt. Generals and Maj. Generals as did 150 million Muslims. Of course there have been scores of Christians and hundreds of Sikhs in similar ranks, both tiny minorities compared to Muslims. Why so few Muslims? As far as the commissioned ranks are concerned, Muslim’s educational poverty is the cause.

Muslim-sounding names are exceptional when scanning the names of successful candidates for NDA since 1980 to date. The second cause is the persistence of colonial recruitment policy. At the dawn of the 21st century, the army still follows the discredited martial races theory that claims some ethnic, religious groups (read Gorkhas, Sikhs, Dogras, Rajput, and the like) make better soldiers than others.

The army’s recruitment policy says vacancies for recruitment are calculated against wastage. These vacancies are released for recruitment from (i) Fixed Class, (ii) All India Class based on Recruitable Male Population (RMP) as the case may be. The fixed class is the army’s term for ethnic, religious groups, which today excludes Muslims except the tiny Qaimkhani community of Rajasthan and parts of UP and Armored Corps, Bombay Engineers Group, Regiment of Grenadiers, Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. But all this adds up to very little. The Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry is barely 50 per cent Muslim in a Muslim-majority state. For many Muslims it is galling that while non-Indian citizens or nationals of Bhutan and Nepal can enter the army, no Muslim can enter as a jawan into many regiments, Gorkha and Sikh regiments, for example.

Besides Muslims, there are other groups who are not well represented; few Dalits, Scheduled Caste and Tribes are found in the army. Almost every defence ministry budget debate in the Lok Sabha (publicly available) since the 1960s reveals MPs asking for reservation for unrepresented groups, most famously by Babu Jagjiwan Ram, the Defence Minister in 1971. Similar voices have been raised in the Annual Reports of the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Regional linguistic group less well represented include Gujaratis and Telugu speakers. From time to time there have been demands to create regiments for un-represented groups. Women are now being recruited for non-combatant roles. Thus unlike Muslims, Dalits, Scheduled Tribes, and women, and certain linguistic groups, Sikhs and north Indians are in numbers larger in proportion to their population.

But the class character of the army is changing due to market forces. As a third-generation brigadier, the military attaché at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, told me, his son is not interested in following the footsteps of his father and great grandfather to join the army. He is working for an IT company, which pays a lot more than the modest salary that he will get even as a commissioned officer. That is why army is facing a shortage of 14,000 officers today. Thus what is likely to happen is that either the army will have to lower the standards so that more candidates with modest scores enter the forces or for the army to compete with the private sector, which is unlikely. Lowering the standards of entrance exams will open opportunities not merely for less educated Muslims but also for all others: SCs, STs, and women, but may be at the cost of immediate efficiency. More rigorous training of the less educated can compensate for initial less-than-bright performance. More Muslims Dalits, SCs, STs, and women will make the army mirror the diversity of the Indian society, a certainly desirable outcome for a democracy. A headcount of Muslims alone will not reveal the ethnic and religious composition of the army.

Any one who has read the army advertisements in the Indian newspapers knows that there is almost always a column asking religious affiliation. Since the records are kept, they can be made public. Why is this classified information? What negative consequences can be expected? None. In fact, revealing this information can generate healthy debate about why some groups are larger numbers in the forces than others, and what can be done to redress the situation. Even if one assumes that somehow more Muslims will be inducted in the forces as result of the headcount, how does that jeopardise India’s legitimate security concerns or the army’s secular character? Indian Muslims have shed blood for their motherland in all the wars with Pakistan. Muslims must have an equal chance to defend their country, shoulder to shoulder, with all other citizens. It’s their right to defend their country. Their equal citizen status cannot have the same weight as that of others until they shoulder the defence burden equally, and make sacrifices for their country like any other group.

Muslims caught spying for Pakistan are exceptional. In fact, the near-exclusion of Muslims from RAW (by design or default) and other intelligence agencies has means that few Muslims have access to any classified information in the first place to pass it onto enemies. In western democracies such as the United States, the ethnic composition of the armed forces is no secret: predominance of African Americans and Hispanics as soldiers, whites as officers. This unequal distribution of rank and file has not caused any problems. Why would it in India?

(The writer is a scholar at Massachuttets Institute of Technology, and the author of Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India, and Muslims in Indian Economy.)