The Indian Army is going through fresh turmoil.
Some observers have blamed past mistakes and personal prejudices of a couple of chiefs for the peculiar situation where the Army’s promotion policy for officers in the rank of Colonels has been quashed by the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), a quasi judicial body that is equated with a High Court for military justice. The judgement has brought forth the deep divide that exists between various arms of the Army. The reality is that the MoD had mandated implementation of a new policy within strict parameters and a tight timeframe. But more of it a little later.
The tribunal in its judgement has held that the ‘discriminatory’ army promotion guidelines of 2009 denied ‘equal opportunity of promotion to officers of all corps of the Indian Army,’ and ordered the reconvening of all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held since 2008. This has held up the promotion of the current lot of Colonels and also forced the government to go to the Supreme Court seeking dismissal of the AFT judgement. The hearing is slated for 15 April. Meanwhile, all the hidden differences between various arms of the army have spilled over into public domain with strong and sometime vitriolic arguments put forward on both sides.
So what exactly is the issue?
Before getting into specifics, for the benefit of the non-military audience, it needs to be stated that the Army is broadly divided into three main categories–combat arms (Infantry, Armoured and Mechanised Infantry), Combat Support Arms (Artillery, Army Air Defence, Engineers, Signals and Army Aviation) and Services (Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers).
The bulk of the Indian Army consists of the Infantry with over nearly 450 battalions, including counter-insurgency specific force like the Rashtriya Rifles deployed in J&K. Consequently, the number of officers in the infantry is also larger than the other arms.
Fifteen years ago, when foot soldiers of the infantry ably supported by the artillery and other arms, evicted Pakistani intruders from the Army, the entire nation hailed their exploits. In the euphoria of the victory, the Army leadership realised that the Commanding Officers (COs) of the infantry units which did exceptionally well in combat were in their early forties, not an ideal age to keep pace with the young and fit soldiers fighting in difficult terrains. Incidentally, the COs in the Pakistani Army during Kargil were between 35 and 37 years of age!
The Kargil conflict, as is well known, forced the decision makers to constitute a group of ministers (GoM) to review India’s defence and intelligence set up. One of the many follow up decisions that flowed from the GoM report was the appointment of the AV (Ajay Vikram) Singh Committee that studied the cadre management of the armed forces. The recommendations by the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee resulted in the creation of additional 1484 vacancies for colonel rank officers. The main aim was to bring down the average age of the COs from 42 years during Kargil to about 35 years.
Implementing the recommendations was easier planned than put in practice. So the next best thing was to prioritise. The distribution of vacancies had to be within the number (1484) allotted by the ministry. The Ministry released the additional vacancies in two lots with a caveat that they be implemented within five years of the allotment. So the only variable that could be applied was to adjust the tenure of COs of various arms.
A ‘Command Exit Model’ was thus applied in 2009 wherein Infantry COs were to have tenures of two-and-a-half years, Armoured and Mechanised Infantry COs (the other two combat arms) were given three year tenures while the Combat Support Arms except Artillery were given four years at the helm. COs of Services (ASC, AOC and EME) were consequently were given five years at the top.
This brought down the age of COs in every arm but created a massive rift between the Combat arms and the Services. Some Service officers went to the AFT which has now ruled that the policy be scrapped and all promotion boards since 2008 be reconvened. The basic argument of the petitioners is to revert to the age-old model of ‘pro-rata’ allotment of vacancies based on the strength of each arm and retain the ‘equivalence’ that existed pre-2008.
The AV Singh Committee had reviewed the old pro-rata system and had observed that officers in the Services were becoming COs at least three years ahead of their counterparts from the combat arms (which meant older COs in combat units and younger officers in the Services)–not a desirable situation for an army that is perpetually engaged in one form of combat or the other.
Officers from the services, peeved at the reversal of the earlier policy, went to AFT which has ruled in their favour. The government has rightly decided to appeal against the ruling. If the MoD loses the case in Supreme Court, the government will be left with no option but to create additional vacancies for colonels, once again raising the average age of commanding officers which would basically mean going back to the pre-Kargil situation.
One other long-term solution is course to increase the intake of short service commission (SSC) officers who serve for 5, 10 and 14 years and leave the army thereafter. Unfortunately, so far the response for the SSC scheme is lukewarm, mainly because the exit benefits are almost non-existent. Now, after a long deliberation a new, attractive severance package is being prepared so that the more short service commission intake is made possible and retain the young profile of the Army.
Whatever the outcome of the case in Supreme Court, the Army and the MoD will have to move quickly to find a solution to this tricky situation otherwise the cracks within will widen to the detriment of national security.