Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Myths and half-truths: Muslims and the military

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 7th Nov 2006

The Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee findings have prompted a media outcry about the status of the Muslims in the country. But no tears are being shed for what the Sachar Committee was never allowed to address: the status of Muslims in India’s defence forces. A clamour from the right, astonishingly supported by well-reputed secularists, has stifled what should have been a considered debate about how India could benefit from giving its Muslim citizens a proportional share in the country’s defence. The thinking was simple: this Holy Cow is delivering the goods, so let it graze in peace. So on 21 February this year, India's defence minister told Parliament: “No survey has been conducted or is proposed to be conducted for the compilation of any other statistics than those maintained on the existing database of the armed forces.”

Pranab Mukherjee's statement was the misleading conclusion to a largely misdirected debate. The defence minister knew well that no new survey is required to determine Muslim representation in the Indian armed forces. The existing database already has the figure: between 2 and 3 per cent, much lower than in most other government departments. 

Mr Mukherjee’s statement of half-truths is deceptive to an audience unfamiliar with recruitment issues. Take this part: “The existing policy of the Government on recruitment in the Armed Forces is based on merit and is open to every citizen of the country including the members of the Muslim community without any discrimination on the basis of their caste, creed, religion or region.” 

Recruitment is, indeed, based on merit. The armed forces are, indeed, open to every citizen of India, including Muslims. But dishonesty lurks in what Parliament was not told: that recruitment has for over a century been based on, and continues to be based on, quotas. Not just quotas to states in proportion to their populations, but also specific allocations to castes, ethnic groups and even religions. 

To see how quotas are applied at the ground level in the army, consider a random combat unit: 73 Armoured Regiment. This regiment consists of three 100-men squadrons: one reserved entirely for Sikhs, one for Muslims and one for Rajputs. Not only are recruitment vacancies balanced between these three groups, but so are promotions at every rank. When a Sikh havaldar is promoted, his place is taken only by another Sikh. And when a Muslim soldier retires or lays down his life, only a Muslim can replace him. 

A similar logic of caste, class and religious-based reservation applies across most of India’s 29 infantry regiments, including the famous Gurkha, Rajput, Jat, Madras and Naga regiments. Only two are free of recruitment quotas. A large part of the army's other branches are also structured along class, caste and ethnic lines. For example, large numbers of vacancies within the artillery, engineers and armoured corps are reserved for Sikhs.

While there is no entirely Muslim unit, vacancies for Muslims are reserved within several groups, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. But what the Sachar Committee was not officially told is that while minorities like Sikhs are represented in a greater proportion than their overall numbers, Muslims serve in a remarkably smaller proportion than theirs. 

Those opposed to allocating more recruitment vacancies to Muslims frame their arguments in inflammatory terms such as “communalisation of the army”. But for the soldiers of the army’s hundreds of “fixed-class” units, recruitment based on religion, caste and ethnicity is purely an administrative matter. To argue that more vacancies for Muslims will communalise the army overlooks the military’s enormous success in identity integration. The defence services manage to make each soldier simultaneously a follower of his religion, a member of his unit and a citizen of India. Before any important activity a unit prays together at a puja, namaaz or ardaas; but, rising from prayer, even multi-faith units operate as secular arms of the government of India.

A more substantive --- and equally diversionary --- argument made is that too few Muslims, particularly from UP and Bihar, meet the physical and educational requirements for enrolment. Why so is a larger sociological question that should be addressed, but many Muslims in other states do meet those qualifications. In J&K, hordes of enthusiastic young men flock to recruitment rallies --- 300 candidates for each vacancy --- but most are turned away since J&K has a tiny number of vacancies. The shortfall of Muslim recruitment from other states is of no benefit to them because vacancies for one state cannot be transferred to another. Vacancy transfers are an immediate way to both bring more Muslims into military service, and assimilate the youth of J&K into mainstream India, denying militancy that pool of manpower. 

Political opposition to such measures is inevitable, because one state's gain is another's loss. But the larger issue is strategic, of taking deliberate steps to give communities on the geographical and demographic fringes a visible and viable stake in the concept of one's nation. The Indian army, unlike Pakistan’s predominantly Punjabi Muslim army, represents equity and balance; the shortage of Muslims is a glaring aberration. New Delhi has taken some tentative first steps by raising units like the J&K Light Infantry and the Ladakh Scouts. It must now openly discuss ways of enabling more Muslims to bear arms for India.

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