By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th March 14
In a landmark ruling on Monday, the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) struck down a contentious army promotion policy, which has deeply divided the officer class since it was implemented in 2009.
The discriminatory policy rigged promotions in favour of the two biggest arms --- the infantry and artillery --- by allocating them an unfairly large number of promotion vacancies at the “commanding officer” rank of colonel.
The rigged rules ensured the dominance of infantry and artillery officers across all senior ranks, since their preponderance at the rank of colonel --- which the 2009 policy ensured --- translated into additional vacancies at the successively higher ranks of brigadier, major general and lieutenant general.
“The action of the [army in] not granting equal opportunity of promotion to all officers of all corps of Indian Army is discriminatory and violates the fundamental rights of the petitioners under Article 14, 6 and 21 of the Constitution of India”, the AFT has ruled.
The AFT has ordered that all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held after 2008 should be conducted afresh, with other arms and services allocated vacancies based on a “pro rata” calculation.
This will open promotion avenues for hundreds of officers from the arms (including armoured corps, mechanized infantry, engineers, air defence artillery, and signals), and services (army service corps (ASC), ordnance, army postal corps, etc), who were denied promotion because of curtailed vacancies.
On group emails and social media postings since 2009, outraged army officers have complained that institutionalized discrimination was feasible because the last eight army chiefs, since 1997, have all been from the infantry and artillery.
While most officers seethed or expressed their opposition privately, Lieutenant Colonel Praveen Choudhary, a serving officer of the Army Service Corps (ASC) wrote directly to the army chief, General VK Singh, opposing the policy. In addition, he filed a petition in the AFT demanding the discriminatory policy be quashed as it violated Article 14 of the Constitution.
As Business Standard reported (“All the chief’s men”, January 14, 2012), Choudhary’s bold letter stated: “The formidable Indian Army is developing cracks. What the enemy would have loved to foster is happening on its own.”
While the chief ignored Choudhary, the AFT has upheld his petition, evoking an army hierarchy that discriminated in sharing 1,484 new colonel rank vacancies that the government created to have younger battlefield commanders. Instead of sharing these equally, the infantry and artillery generals allocated most to their arms through a self-serving new policy termed the “Command Exit Model”.
The AFT judgment reveals the first 750 colonel vacancies were fairly distributed on December 21, 2004, on the pro rata basis of each branch’s strength. However, the remaining 734 vacancies, distributed on November 3, 2008, went mainly to the infantry (441) and artillery (186). The other eight arms/services got just 59 vacancies between them, with 48 discretionary vacancies retained by army headquarters.
“The newly introduced ‘differentiated command structure’ as opposed to the time tested policy of ‘vacancy allocation on pro rata of corps strength’ appears to be a malicious act of reverse engineering to justify discrimination in allotment of vacancies”, the AFT judgment states.
This “malicious” new policy was promulgated on January 21, 2009 in letter No 08176/Est/Policy/MP-2, of which Business Standard has a copy. This institutes ingenious devices to effectively multiply the colonel rank vacancies allocated to the infantry and artillery.
The infantry, which has 350-odd battalions, is also allocated responsibility to command 110 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and Assam Rifles (AR), which are manned by officers from every arm/service. Exclusionary conditions were framed to make it almost impossible for armoured corps or mechanised infantry officers to command these units, even though the AFT judgment cites figures to prove that non-infantry officers perform as gallantly as infantry officers in RR/AR. But reserving command for the infantry increased its colonel vacancies by 30 per cent, from 350 to 460.
To compound this advantage, the command tenure for the infantry was kept the shortest, just 2½ years. With 460 infantry colonels needed every 2½ years, that meant 184 colonel vacancies each year. The engineers and signals, both combat support arms, were arbitrarily given command tenures of 4 years, reducing the number of colonels required from those arms. The logistics services were given 5 year command terms.
The influence of two artillery chiefs --- including General Deepak Kapoor, who was the chief at that time --- similarly boosted the number of artillery units. Small “light batteries”, which were traditionally commanded by lieutenant colonels, were elevated to “light regiments” commanded by colonels. The artillery’s command tenure was shortened from 3½ to just 3 years, similarly boosting its colonel vacancies.
As the AFT judgment points out, this resulted in up to 60 per cent of infantry and artillery lieutenant colonels being approved for promotion to colonel rank, while some other branches had approval ratings as low as 26 per cent. The judgment says this goes “against the fundamental right of equality of opportunity”.
The army has been left with little recourse, since the AFT has rejected it permission to appeal before the Supreme Court, since “no substantial question of general public importance is involved.”
It is learned that the army is considering a “special leave petition” in the Supreme Court. However, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar having stated that he is opposed to fruitless litigation and reflexive appeals, the army may be left with no choice but to implement the AFT judgment.