The Sachar committee - the Prime Minister's High-Level Committee for Preparation of Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India - was established in March last year with the aim of studying the social, economic and educational status of a religious community. The committee, comprising seven members, is to submit its report to the Prime Minister in June this year. At the time the committee was formed, the government argued that "there is a lack of authentic information about the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India which comes in the way of planning, formulating and implementing specific interventions, policies and programs to address the issues relating to the socio-economic backwardness of this community".
Clause 5 (a) of the of the panel's terms of reference seeks an answer to: "What is the Muslims' relative share in public and private sector employment?" The notification of the panel further says, "The committee has to consolidate, collate and analyse the above information to identify areas of intervention by the Government to address relevant issues relating to the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community." Clearly the government is determined to undo any imbalances unearthed by the exercise. In keeping with its mandate the committee has sought relevant information from all departments, including the military.
It is this particular query - by the committee on the number of Muslims in India's army - that has raised a political storm. The opposition has voiced its fears on the attempted communalisation of the Indian army, with the ruling party trying to play vote-bank politics with this esteemed institution. Right-wing commentators have recommended that the committee itself be wound up. The refrain in the strategic community is that uncertainty over the political use to which the statistics will be put may compromise the apolitical and secular ethos of the forces. The army chief has expressed his reservations saying, "It is not the Army's philosophy to discriminate or maintain such information. We are equal-opportunity employers. We strive to take people on certain standards after which only merit takes them forward. We do not bother about where they are from, their faith or their language. We have responded to the Defense Ministry (on the Committee's demand)."
And what might such a count reveal? One estimate comes from Shishir Gupta, who, writing in the Indian Express, suggests that there are 29,093 Muslims in the Army, with 29 battalions having a sizeable number of members from the community. The implications of these figures are best understood when it is contrasted with the fact that there are approximately 1.3 crore Muslims in the country and that the Indian army numbers about 1.1 million soldiers, with over 300 infantry battalions. Among the several hundred officers of Brigadier rank and above, there are only ten Muslims. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, incredibly, only about 25 Muslims have apparently made it to this rank since Independence.
The secular character of the forces notwithstanding, the security services do not properly reflect the nation's demography. It would appear self-evident from these numbers that there is an irrefutable case for increasing the representation of Muslims in the army. This need not be through positive discrimination in the form of reservation or quotas in their favour, as is feared by those criticising this move of the government. It could instead be through appropriate targeting of Muslim populations through an information campaign on the recruitment procedures and making these accessible in Muslim-inhabited areas. In concert with the Muslim leadership urging recruitment of qualified Muslim males into the army, the serious under-representation revealed by the figures above can be redressed over a period of time.
Critics of the government argue that the head count would erode the time-tested equilibrium in the army. "Don't fix what isn't broken", they caution. Certainly, this warning should be considered. Battle cohesion may suffer if India's British-given famed regimental system is tampered with. Also, increasing Muslim representation would necessarily be at the cost of other communities. Since the First War of Independence recruiting attention has been focused on 'martial communities', and their numbers in the armed forces might dwindle if Muslims were to be added now. But it is not as if the matter of adjusting community representation has not been addressed earlier. After the Punjab disturbances, there has been a draw-down in the Sikh recruitment. This has neither affected the economy of Punjab, nor the efficiency of the army. If any facts revealed by the Sachar committee suggest that increasing Muslim representation would be in keeping with India's secular national character, the army can similarly achieve this too.
In the President's address to both houses of Parliament while kick-starting the budget session, the government has made known one of its achievements as being the restoration of 'the pluralistic ethos that is the essence of India' and a reversal of 'a dangerous trend of intolerance'. The exercise being undertaken by Justice Rajinder Sachar is in keeping with its stated intention of 'empowering people and helping marginalised and weaker sections catch up'. The controversy should not derail the government's resolve, for it has brought to the fore a little-known fact that demands both attention and action.
It has been alleged that the government has been prompted on this course by an article in Pacific Affairs in Winter 2001/02 titled Ethnic-based recruitment into the Indian Army: The contrasting cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gorkhas and others by an MIT-based researcher, Omar Khalidi. The scholar had - in his Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India - expressed his views on the under-representation of Muslims in India's police services, and argued that increasing the proportion of minorities in Khaki would soften the approach of the police to communal riots - in which minorities have been at the receiving end of the stick irrespective of which side instigated the riot or was the more violent participant. He has since extended his case to cover the military as well, arguing, "In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society such as India in which inter-group relations are strained, the advantages of having the legitimate coercive mechanism of the state fully representative of the society far outweigh the risks involved in changing decisions pertaining to recruitment, promotion and deployment in aid to the civil authorities."
He has marshalled his thesis to reveal that 'the Indian armed forces, as composed today, do not mirror the social diversity of the Indian population'. This 'gap between the declared policy of the state to make the armed forces representative of the national demography and its actual implementation' deserves serious consideration by the government. The controversy has been useful in putting the issue in the public domain. The government could release the figures received from the forces officially to defuse the criticism. If Shishir Gupta's sources are credible then the government need not be defensive over its action.
One of the terms of reference of the NN Vohra-led Task Force on Internal Security set up in wake of the Kargil Review Committee's recommendations to the Group of Ministers in the previous NDA dispensation was to 'recommend measures to inculcate a spirit of patriotism and for enhancing citizens awareness of their duty towards maintenance of public order, inter alia, rendering national service'. It can be reasonably surmised, since the report is as yet unpublished, that one of its recommendations would certainly have been that alleviation of the economic condition of the minority would help insulate it from anti-national influences. Deepening the stakes of the community in the state is an exercise in prudence, in the face of the global unease amidst Muslim populations, so evident in the recent protest demonstrations in places such as Hyderabad over the cartoons of the Prophet.
Increasing the representation of Muslims in the Army without undercutting the ethos of the Army, would therefore be a security-enhancing exercise. There is little need to be defensive about this, as the exercise is in line with the original intent of the government in setting up the Sachar committee - to make a positive intervention in the lives of a marginalised minority. Being members of India's largest minority group, Muslims would welcome any betterment in their condition; this would doubtless contribute to enhancing India's human security through heightened human develoment indicators and societal cohesion.