The new age tendency to find equivalence and parity in the name of justice and equality seems to have percolated down to quasi judicial bodies like the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) too. The judgement by the Delhi bench of the AFT in early March striking down the Army’s 2009 policy of promotion for colonel rank officers stems exactly from this new fad.
Every organisation is made up of different arms with varying skills, roles and responsibilities. And so it is with the Army. All parts—infantry, artillery, armoured, engineers, signals, supply and ordnance, not to forget the RVC (the Remount Veterinary Corps)—make up for the sum total of the Army. But some, like infantry, armoured and artillery are more equal than others simply because of the nature of the job they have to do.
Although many of my friends in the non-combatant branches may want to strangle me for what I am going to say, the fact is in one stroke the AFT has tried to initiate a policy that orders parity between a combat arm officer and supply or logistics branch officers or between an armoured corps officer and an RVC officer for instance. No organisation can have that luxury, least of all the army. Let me try and give an analogy which may not be wholly appropriate but may be demonstrative.
In a television news company for instance, there is an editorial team and then there are technical departments. The reporters and desk hands decide on the news content but the technical hands–camera persons, news producers, video editors–give the news the final shape. Reporters become Editors in due course, camera persons become senior camera persons and eventually rise to become heads of department as do video editors and news producers. But when it comes to choosing Chief Editors/Managing Editors/Executive Editors, as a rule only reporters and desk hands (turned editors) are considered, not the technical people, no matter how brilliant they are in their jobs simply because their training and experience is not geared towards doing the job at the very top.
Or to take an example from the government itself. All aspirants write the same exam for entry into civil services but once they get selected for the respective verticals (Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Revenue Service or the Indian Police Service), the officers compete between themselves within that particular vertical and depending on merit and available vacancies rise or not rise to the top. No IRS/IPS Officer demands or more appropriately, can demand equivalence with the IAS officer, notwithstanding individual brilliance or achievement.
While the contribution of combat support arms and services is acknowledged and well-known, the Indian army will perforce remain a pre-dominantly infantry and artillery oriented force given the nature of threats and challenges India faces. Other arms will remain in supporting roles.
The tribunal in its judgement has held that the ‘discriminatory’ army promotion guidelines of 2009 denied ‘equal opportunity of promotion to all officers of all corps of the Indian Army,’ and ordered the reconvening of all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held since 2008.
For decades, the infantry has had more promotion opportunities given the sheer number of battalions it has in the Indian army. In my view for the AFT to now say each of these services must be given equal opportunity for promotion, is to encroach upon the Army leadership’s prerogative to decide who it should promote or how it should run the force. That the Army needs to keep the age profile of the Commanding Officers in the infantry low is undeniable. That it needs to take the entire army along and not allow disaffection to set in in other arms is also accepted. May be the government should take a re-look at increasing the number of vacancies in the support arms to resolve the issue?
The Supreme Court is set to hear the government’s leave petition on 15 April. The verdict might as well go against the Army. If that happens, the Defence Ministry can release more vacancies for other aspirants without diluting the need to keep the Infantry and Artillery fighting fit and without letting the rancour seep too deep within.
Once the matter settles down, everyone should let the Army decide how to run the organisation, based on threat assessments.