The changing face of Indian military–revisited

NOTE: Ever since Army Chief Gen VK Singh made his date of birth into a matter of personal honour and integrity–many people have said it is just a facade–, several learned commentators have talked about the changing and changed nature of the quality of officer cadre in the Indian armed forces and particularly the Indian Army and how their ethos and values are shaped by the background from which they come. 

The imputation being that those coming from lower strata of society do not have the same finesse as those who became officers in the first two decades of Independence.

But those who make this argument miss the fundamental transformation that Indian Society has witnessed over the past quarter of a century if not more. The hitherto dis-empowered and dare I say downtrodden class has now increasingly driving the change altering age-old power structures–be it in politics, business, academia or the armed forces.

Nearly seven years ago, I have had the opportunity to write on the changed nature of recruitment pattern in the nation’s premier defence training institute–the National Defence Academy.

While some of the shortcomings noticed then–higher age profile of commanding officers for one–have been rectified, the shortfall of officers at the cutting edge level–Captains and Majors–continues to grow by the year despite the best efforts of the authorities.
Will the latest controversy further discourage young men and women from joining the forces? 
I fear it may. But here’s the seven-year old piece for referece.

Ah, for a few good men: The changing face of our military
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A shortage of gentlemen cadets has put a question mark over the future profile of India’s defence forces. Retired officers preferring other jobs for their children has underlined it. The top brass is now thinking out of the box and recruiting bright people from premier institutes and non-military families, reports Nitin A. Gokhale 
Abhijit Sharad Mahajan grew up in the small towns of Maharashtra. In his family, a 9-5 job was the ultimate aspiration. The only apparent means of livelihood. His grandfather was in government service, his uncle and father, a junior engineer in the public works department, followed the same path. Abhijit too, by convention, should then have emulated them. But last fortnight, as he graduated from the National Defence Academy (NDA), Abhijit’s parents and grandfather were proud people.

So were Daljit Singh Tomar and his wife from Lucknow. This assistant sub-inspector in the radio department of the up police was determined to see his only son Deepak get into the armed forces. On May 31, Tomar’s dream was fulfilled when he saw his son, resplendent in the ceremonial dress, pass out from the NDA.

Like Tomar, KN Mishra, a former airman, now re-employed as a customs inspector in Patna, could not hide his happiness looking at his youngest son, RK, make it to the air force as an officer after completing three gruelling years in the NDA.
Mahajan, Tomar and Mishra may come from states as diverse as Maharashtra, up and Bihar but they have one thing in common: they represent the new breed of officers being recruited in the Indian armed forces. Lower middle and middle-class, not necessarily convent educated — hence not as ‘polished’ as sons of defence services officers — but as fiercely competitive and sometimes even more determined to succeed than their urban counterparts.

Welcome to the great new churning — call it broadbasing, democratisation or whatever else — that is quietly taking place in the Indian armed forces. More and more young men from non-military, non-martial races are opting for a career in the armed forces. A random in-house survey indicates that lack of job opportunities in other sectors, a yen for adventure, a spirit of service to the nation and desire of the parents to see their children acquire a higher status than they have, is driving this new trend. Some key statistics from a study conducted in the NDA for the period between July 1998 and January 2004 are revealing. The NDA recruited 3,600 cadets during this period. Of these, a staggering 45 percent came from the four bimaru states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and up), Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Orissa. up and Uttaranchal contributed a substantial 28 percent of all recruits during this period. A good 47 percent of the recruits came from families that had a monthly income of less than Rs 10,000. As Col RS Khandpur, director, training at the NDA puts it: “Job opportunities for children from lower and middle-class families in these states are clearly limited compared to other advanced states. So, they perhaps see a career in the armed forces as a passport to a better life.” 
So you have children of sub-inspectors, junior commissioned officers (JCOS) and non-commissioned officers (NCOS) aspiring to become officers in the armed forces, and succeeding. Although no comparative statistics are available, old-timers say more children of jcos and ncos are making it to the forces now than ever before. The NDA study indicates that of the 3,600 cadets who gained entry into the prestigious institute between 1998-2004, 9.5 percent were youth whose parents came from what is called personnel below officers’ rank (pbor). The percentage of children whose fathers are/were officers in the armed forces was just 12.5. Earlier, the ratio of the number of officers’ children to that of the children of pbor would have been overwhelmingly high in favour of the former. This narrowing of the gap between the ‘elite’ and the ‘non-elite’ is perhaps the most significant development over the past decade, old-timers say.

For one, the recruitment net is now cast wider, the base is broader and therefore the mix in an already secular, multi-ethnic armed force is all the more better. For instance, if a similar study was done say two decades ago, the percentage of people who were making it to the NDA from Punjab and Delhi would most certainly have been higher than the 10 percent recorded between 1998 and 2004. Col Khandpur has a ready explanation for the trend. “Career opportunities for children living in these economically prosperous areas are varied and more paying than a career in the armed forces. So, it is no surprise that their numbers are less than their counterparts elsewhere.” 

Cautioning against reading too much into the NDA study, Col Khandpur nevertheless points out that for those coming in from lower middle and middle-class families to a career in the armed forces is the best opportunity to move up in life through honest means. 
The challenge, Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) says, lies in moulding these youngsters according to the needs of the armed forces. “It is a very good development that the recruitment pattern is showing diversity these days. And there is nothing wrong if children from lower middle and middle-class are making it to the officers’ cadre of the armed forces,” he says. “In fact, I would think, these children would be hardier, less demanding in terms of comfort and more adaptable to adversities than the children from so-called elite, urban backgrounds. The challenge, for the higher leadership, as I see it, lies in moulding these individuals to the needs of the modern defence forces and at the same time making them feel comfortable in a force that still swears by some old, archaic British traditions.”

Even Vice Admiral SCS Bangara, the current commandant of the academy, says, “Over 70,000 apply every six months but in terms of quality, yes the best students do opt for professional courses like engineering.” Vice Admiral Bangara hits the nail on the head when he says, “I feel we have not done enough to attract better quality.”

In an environment where multiple career choices beckon the youngsters, how can the armed forces cope up with the competition? One way to do it is to create greater awareness through mass contact programmes as the Indian Air Force (IAF) has embarked upon in recent years for recruitment. As Air Marshal Narayan Menon, air officer in-charge of Personnel, (AOP) says, “In the past few years, we have decided to hold air rallies in remote and hitherto ‘non-catchment’ areas to make people aware of the air force in general and about careers in the IAF in particular. The results have been amazing (see table). These air shows or rallies, part exhibition, part awareness creation campaigns, have encouraged more and more people to join the force,” he says. “For instance, there were hardly any recruits from states like Tripura or Chhattisgarh. But the moment we held air shows there in 2001, we got a tremendous response. In 2003-04 we could select 83 airmen from Tripura and 63 from Chhattisgarh as against nil and one respectively in 2000-2001. And remember, we do not compromise on quality. Clearly, we will get more and more people from non-traditional areas if awareness is created. Broadbasing the recruitment is good for any organisation and we are happy that it is now happening in the air force,” he adds. 

NDA graduate RK Mishra Father: Customs Inspector, Patna, former airman

For recruitment in the officer cadres too, the air force is now flying into uncharted territory. It is now going directly to the iits and reputed engineering colleges to recruit bright engineer graduates for the technical branch. Although it is too early to term it as a trend, three iit graduates joining the air force last year is just the beginning that Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy was looking for. As Air Marshal Menon says, “This chief is clear about one aspect: we are not looking for quantity but quality. We are therefore taking steps to attract quality. We are also making ourselves less rigid. If a person wants to leave after a certain period, we do not stop him. At the same time, we say we have the right to throw you out if you are not up to the mark. In short, perform or perish is the new mantra.”

Apart from searching for talented personnel from prestigious institutions, the air force has also started looking for well-qualified Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOS) to promote them as commissioned officers. Air Marshal Menon says, “An internal survey we conducted threw up some amazing facts. There were several technically well-qualified warrant officers (JCOS) within the ranks. We shortlisted them, made them go through the required tests and then sent them for training at the officers’ school to be commissioned at the end of the course.” Eighteen of them will be commissioned in 2004 while next year the number will go up to 23. “This will not only help substantially reduce our shortage of officers (currently the IAF is short of about 1,600 officers) but will also speed up the promotional avenues for the ranks once these warrant officers become commissioned officers,” Air Marshal Menon points out.

The navy is also not far behind. For the first time since 1962, it will take the short-service commission route to recruit technically qualified civilians to make up the shortage of nearly 1,000 officers that it faces at present. But people at the naval headquarters are tight-lipped, unlike their army and air force counterparts. Sources said the decision to take in officers through the short service commission was based on its projections for the next 20 years during which the navy is likely to expand its fleet substantially. The navy is essentially looking at pilots for its aviation wing and technical personnel for its futuristic technological needs. Like the air force, it will target the iits and top-of-the-line engineering colleges to net highly skilled technical personnel.

While both the air force and the navy seem to have got their hr act together, the army — by far the largest of the three services with a strength of 1.1 million personnel — has to struggle to find the right formula. Not in the least because the demands made on the officers and men in the army are much more than the personnel in the other two services. The biggest problem that the army needs to overcome is the ‘greying’ of the force. Because of the stagnation in the middle ranks (captains, majors and Lt. Cols), the age profile of Commanding Officers (cos) of battalions is currently an undesirable 39-40 years. For an army that seems to be perpetually in combat — either on the international borders with Pakistan or in one internal security duty or the other — having a middle-aged commanding officer and rapidly ageing jawans (over 30 years in many cases) is inviting disaster.

The other problem that the army is facing is of a large number of officers retiring mid-career. The steep hierarchical pyramid of military forces inevitably forces the bulk of the officers and men (as much as 97 percent) to retire well below their compatriots in civilian careers. The inevitable severe attrition during promotion selection processes leaves behind the bulk of the manpower superseded at middle age with little job options outside. But family pressures are the highest at this stage, with parents growing old on one side and children needing to be educated and settled on the other.
And yet, as Air Commodor (retd) Jasjit Singh writes in a recent article, “Instead of tackling the issue as a larger challenge of strategy, we have sought to find answers internally by increasing posts in senior ranks, making the system top-heavy and enhancing retiring ages. On the other hand, what the defence forces need is a much younger manpower, and, of high calibre.” The Army fortunately is seized of the problem.
The age profile of Commanding Officers is
currently an undesirable
39-40 years. For an army that seems to be perpetually in combat — either on the
international borders with Pakistan or in internal security duties — having a middle-aged CO and rapidly
ageing jawans means
inviting disaster

One way out, it has been thought, is to have a new promotion policy in place that will ensure that each commissioned officer will at least retire as a colonel. Specially because the army is increasingly getting involved in ci (counter-insurgency) operations. Unlike in the past, it is rare to find infantry battalions getting a break from field duties. If they are not deployed on the Kashmir front with Pakistan, infantry battalions are battling some insurgency or the other in the Northeast. Fatigue, both mental and physical, sets in with continuous, tense duties. And the returns are hardly commensurate with the hardships.

No wonder the army is finding it difficult to get youngsters to join in in large numbers. Despite a high voltage campaign in the late Nineties to attract youngsters, the army has been unable to make up the shortage. The campaign was designed to appeal to the adventurous side of young men with phrases like “Do you have it in you?” Unfortunately, in a scenario where career choices have multiplied overnight, it is difficult to motivate youngsters to don the olive green uniform. The NDA study reveals that just about 12.5 percent of its recruits in the past six years were children whose fathers are/were officers in the Indian armed forces. Clearly, even serving officers perhaps do not encourage their children to join the forces any more.

The Chief of Army 
Staff (coas) Gen NC Vij announced on January 15 this year that an officer will be promoted to the ranks of substantive Captain and Major after two and six years of service, respectively. Till around the 1970s, these ranks were granted after six and 13 years of service, respectively.

Besides, the Lt-Colonel’s rank will not now be a selection grade rank. Instead, the first selection grade rank will be the Colonel’s rank. And those officers who do not make the grade for this rank will become time scale Colonels after 26 years of service. Two main advantages of this new policy are that in future all officers — if not promoted further — will retire as Colonels. The second advantage will be that there will be no stagnation in the ranks of Major and Lt-Colonel.

Clearly, India’s armed forces are trying to be in step with the rest of the society so that rising aspirations in both officers and men are met, at least partially. These measures will have to be implemented quickly and uniformly if the armed forces hope to avoid corruption (see box) seeping into its by and large upright staff.