Monday, 3 October 2016

The army officer corps: Missing Muslims

Milligazette, 1-15 October 2016

The Army’s response to the query of the Sachar committee, investigating the socio-economic status of India’s largest minority, on the numbers of Muslims in its ranks, was intriguing. The army had responded that it does not maintain such statistics. General JJ Singh, its Chief at the time, writes in his autobiography, A Soldier’s General, that when queried by the media on the army’s withholding of the information, unlike their naval and air force counterparts, he said: ‘the system for entry into the armed forces and for enrolment is based on merit and qualifications; on the ability of an individual to perform the task assigned. We never look at things like where you come from, the language you speak, or the religion you believe in ... Therefore we consider it important that all Indians get a fair chance of joining the armed forces.’[2]
This appeared questionable on two counts. One is that there are ethnic reservations in the army, since its infantry – the largest arm - still maintains a regimental structure. Secondly, the army certainly knows the religious affiliation of its members since in war conditions it needs to know whether to bury or cremate martyrs. Perhaps it has not aggregated the data religion-wise as apparently there is no call to do so: it being an all-volunteer army. However, even this is also hard to believe since bureaucracies – and the Army Headquarters is reputed to be no less awesome as any other – thrive on statistics.
Such caginess can only give rise to suspicion that it knows it has something to hide. I had in a previous article on this issue in this publication[3] had brought out that the figure is so abysmal as to be somewhat embarrassing if revealed officially in public. A figure dating to mid-last decade had it that there were some 30000 army men, of which most – presumably more than half were in about 25 infantry battalions with Muslim representation, some of which were of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI). Thus, J&K with a merely five million Muslims offered up a larger proportion of Muslims in the army as compared to India’s other Muslim communities comprising some 34 times Kashmiri numbers. This contrasts starkly with the proportion of Muslim population in the country which the 2011 census puts short of 14 per cent.
Of the officer corps, Muslims reportedly comprised 2-3 per cent. Since the army is not parting with the figures, some unilateral spade work was required. My father, who was once Commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA), receives a complimentary copy of the twice-yearly IMA journal. The journal lists the names of the passing out course Gentlemen Cadets. In my previous article, I arrived at a figure of 2-3 per cent by counting Muslim names amongst the list of GCs passing out of the IMA. I counted about 45 Muslim names from lists of five passing out courses at the turn of the decade. Discounting the foreign GCs being trained at IMA from friendly foreign countries, about 40 Muslim GCs got commissioned in two-and-half years from IMA. About 600 officers get commissioned from IMA every year. Since officer commissions are also from the Officer Training Academy, while the absolute figure would go up, it is unlikely that the relative presence of Muslim officers increases by much. It can thus be said that about two per cent of army officers are Muslim.
A recent perusal by me of the latest journal – IMA’s Spring Term 2016 edition, led to ascertaining that the figure has remained static in the four years since. The figure from the current IMA journal is that of the 469 GCs of the 137 Regular and 120 Technical Graduates courses commissioned on 12 December 2015, 9 were Muslims, making a percentage of 1.9 per cent. Evidently, half-decade on, nothing has changed.
These figures by themselves do not spell discrimination. The figure for Muslims completing graduation is about six per cent, below that of Scheduled Castes advantaged by reservations. Consequently, they are unable to compete for a position at the IMA and OTA, the eligibility requirement of which is a bachelors’ degree. Muslim graduates, in particular from South India, are finding avenues elsewhere such as in the Gulf and therefore are not quite headed for Dehra-Dun, Chennai and Gaya, the pre-commission training establishments. Finally, there are no Muslim ‘martial races’, Indian ethnic groups that continue to be privileged over others by the quota for the regiments bearing their name. Muslim ethnic groups that were so privileged in the pre-Partition era have ended up in Pakistan. So, Muslim numbers being down in the army is easy to explain. But, the question is: should the numbers – revealing as they are - be explained away?
When I joined the NDA in the early eighties, I was one of six Muslims in my course of some 300 cadets. Little appears to have changed since, though the socio-economic indices of Muslims have registered a growth since and there is reportedly an appreciable and growing Muslim proportion in the middle classes. Clearly, looking towards the government may not be wise. The UPA-I heard out the army chief on the Justice Sachar’s inquiry without comment. By no means could Sachar’s team have turned in a recommendation of positive discrimination in Muslim favour in the military. At best it would have put forward a practical agenda on how to increase the numbers, without affecting the principles of secularism, professionalism and apolitical held by the army. The army certainly lost an opportunity to critically reflect on the larger implication of the absence of Muslims in its ranks. By not admitting to the numbers, the army denies itself an opportunity to take the measures to burnish its credentials as an equal opportunity employer.
The under representation of Muslims in the police and central police forces was remarked on in aftermath of the Sachar Committee findings and steps taken since have led to an increase in Muslims in these organisations to six per cent. This increase does not owe to positive discrimination - which is neither possible nor recommended – but to other measures that can only be taken once a problem is acknowledged to exist.
Simple measures can do the trick. One significant intake into the officer corps is from Sainik Schools and military schools across the country. In my five years at a reputed military school, I was one among three other Muslims of about 225 cadets. I later was horrified to find from a list of about 3000 cadets that had passed out of the school since Independence till early this decade, only about 30 were Muslims. A higher number of Muslim cadets in these schools will lead to a higher number of Muslim candidates for the National Defence Academy (NDA). Since these schools are under state governments, the states must increase advertising of entrance exams in Muslim areas and upping the numbers of examination centers in such areas.
Successful candidates are usually products of coaching centers. This explains the higher numbers of army officers from Uttarkhand, UP and Haryana, making up at a rough estimate over a third of army officers. Setting up such coaching centers through community initiative in Muslim concentrations - such as in Jamia Nagar, Azamgarh, Murshidabad, Srinagar, Goalpara, Kottayam etc - can result in increasing candidate numbers and their competence levels. Members of Parliament from Muslim populated areas and Muslim MPs can take the lead on this.
Since Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jamia Hamdard and Jamia Millia Islamia organise successful coaching for the administrative services entrance exam, they could use the same model for upping the armed forces’ Muslim intake too. With the current focus, the community manages to put in 30 odd candidates into the central services yearly with an intake of about 800; of which about 2-3 per cent make it to the glamourous trio – IAS, IFA and IPS. This figure can be improved on by increasing the tally in the armed forces UPSC merit lists since these are taken out twice yearly.
Both levels of entry - one to the NDA and other services academies and the second targeting the UPSC’s combined services exam for graduate entry – can be targeted. The AMU initiative of starting schools with a public school ethos in Muslim majority areas, can server to send Muslim youth to NDA. Also, women candidates need to be encouraged since Muslim girls are apparently doing better at schools than boys. The likes of Sophia Qureshi, who commanded a training component in a multi-country military exercise, and Waheedah Prizm, the first Kashmiri naval officer, are inspiring, but cannot compensate for concerted community action aimed at increasing women officer candidate numbers. This might require a cultural change, but with avenues in the armed forces opening up, the change can be reinforced by such measures.
Measures ‘targeting them young’ will also serve to alleviating quality. A further perusal of IMA journal reveals that, Muslims are absent from achievers. Amongst the GC appointments of the passing out course, there was only one Muslim, and a relatively modest Cadet Sergeant Major at that. None figured in the list of end-of-term prizes and sporting achievements. It appears this lack of achievement carries over into service, with not a single Muslim officer figuring in the IMA faculty. There are only four Muslim instructors below officer rank, three of whom are outside the military mainstream serving in the physical training and equitation sections. Scarce numbers and limited capability on entry can only translate into absence up the hierarchy in the future. For the first time in a quarter century, a Muslim figures among the army commanders, with Lt Gen PM Hariz taking over Southern Command recently.
For the army, the gains from increasing Muslims in its ranks and that of its officers would be in dispelling stereotypes of the minority amongst its officers and prospective officers. Training alongside Muslims would negate negative images they may carry over from society, which has been increasingly exposed to Islam-sceptical narratives over the past two decades. This could have useful operational spin-off in case of military operations in areas of minority concentrations such as in Kashmir and in conventional war within Pakistan. The JAK LI, which has a reasonable proportion of Muslims from J&K, has acquitted itself well in counter insurgency operations in J&K owing to its feeling of ethnic affinity and the intelligence inflow that this enables, besides ‘winning hearts and minds’.
That said, the onus for increasing Muslim officer intake is not that of the army. However, the army can help with taking measures such as targeting Muslim areas with its recruiting publicity and setting up exam centers in such areas. To make such initiatives palatable, this can be done in conjunction with similarly targeting other thinly-represented ethnic communities, such as from the North East and South India.
For the nation, the gains imply a better endowed minority and it’s mainstreaming. The benefits for the community are in terms of heightened socio-economic indices and increased national participation. Quite clearly then, the onus of change is on the Muslim community – or the several Muslim communities across India. They must offer up their youth – both young men and women - for military service and enable their facing the competition on entry.  

[2] JJ Singh, A Soldier’s General, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2012.
[3] Ali Ahmed, ‘The Army: Missing Muslim India’, Mainstream, Vol L No 27, June 23, 2012, available at, accessed 17 July 2016.