'Pipping' ceremonies at the Indian Military Academy were solemn occasions. With the media revolution and the need to attract officer material, the Academy has over the past decade resorted to ceremonial innovation, such as singing a patriotic song during the oath taking ceremony. TV grabs and photos accompanying the twice-yearly news reports on officer commissions usually feature jubilant newly commissioned officers throwing their regimental caps in the air, in an imitation of the scene in the cult film, An Officer and a Gentleman.
Lately, the expression of exultation has gone even further, and now includes tossing each other into the air in full dress regalia. So it was this time when 625 cadets took the Antim Pag (The Final Step) of pre-commission training. What is more interesting than the total number, however, is the passing mention made in news reports to the origins of the cadets.
While 23 were from friendly foreign countries, 132 were from UP, 56 from Haryana and 51 from Uttarkhand. Thus, more than one third of the Indian's newly commissioned officers were from this belt. It can be assumed that other areas from which cadets have always come - such as Delhi, Punjab and nearby areas - were not very far behind. In other words, it can be hazarded that about 50 per cent of newly commissioned officers are from a narrow region in North India. The breakdown of the officer cadre of the paramilitary and central police forces is not known. It is very likely that their intake patterns are similar. Is this good for India's security?
And as for the soliders, what is their representation pattern? The figures are not known. The Ministry of Home Affairs sets ratios of desirable recruitment for its forces. In case of the Ministry of Defence, the recruitable male population serves as the index. Unfilled vacancies are to be carried over. However, this only accentuates over-representation.
While there are stipulations on vacancies for intake below officer ranks in the military and paramilitary, the officer cadres of both have all-India recruitment.
The example of the Air Force is instructive. It has jettisoned the recruitable male population index in favour of an 'All-India' recruitment pattern. As a result, those self-selecting are mainly from UP and Bihar. The reason for departure was lack of response from non-traditional areas of recruitment. In the interest of efficiency, the Air Force opted to sacrifice broad representation. Even if this was acceptable from a point of view of military effectiveness, is this in the overall interest of the service and the nation?
While there are stipulations on vacancies for intake below officer ranks in the military and paramilitary, the officer cadres of both have all-India recruitment. This implies that a selection is made from those volunteering. Given the information available and anecdotal evidence, it can be reasonably inferred that the intake for the security forces is biased towards a narrow region in North India. Those volunteering from other regions are apparently fewer or found to be less qualified. This means the nation is getting the best on offer.
It should be pointed out that the officer cadre is still as good as it has ever been, and has not been found lacking in any way as a result of skewed intake. The military remains a respected and independent institution, focused on professional training and goals, and with no participation in the political affairs of the country. Coups have been ruled out by every expert on civil-military relations in India. If the officer corps is less alluring to some, it could be partially due to the draw of other occupations. For instance in South India, other avenues in Bangalore and Hyderabad and abroad such as in the US and the Gulf perhaps lead to fewer officer candidates.
We could conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to be concerned if the intake of officers or soldiers is particularly high from one region, and less so from elsewhere. Nevertheless, the case of Pakistan is illustrative. Up to two thirds of the officer cadre is filled by Punjabis, and many of the ills of that country can be attributed to this, including the primacy of Punjab over other states. Though Indian socio-political reality is much more complex, the implications of having majority of officers and lower ranks originating from one region still bears consideration. Some concerns are highlighted below for the attention of policy makers and their political overseers.
Firstly, in principle, the multi-ethnic reality of India must find expression in its institutions, especially those charged with security. While 'recruitable male population' may be the basis of filling in the rank and file, the practice in case of under-representation of states is not known. The Army's reluctance to share figures regarding Muslim presence, in response to the query from the Sachar Committee, is well known. It indicates that shortfalls exist. Parliament should examine how the military compensates.
Indeed, going further, it could be argued that even police forces in our increasingly cosmopolitan cities should be drawn from different communities - in most metros, it is evident that the police are not anywhere as diverse as the general population of those cities. This happens because recruitment is usually state-wide, whereas the metros are much more diverse than the rest of the states in which they are found. The experience of New York, whose police forces were severely criticised for not being able to empathise with large sections of the city's population, should serve as a warning - this is one pitfall India needs to avoid, given the potential politicisation of so much of our differences.
Secondly, although the military has been spared the operation of caste-based reservations, it still has anachronistic recruitment practices. These may not have any self-evident negative connotations for military effectiveness. However, recall that the Punjab problem did lead to changes in recruiting policy. Broad-basing recruitment is the best manner of preempting problems. For instance, modernisation may require a different type of officer candidate and recruit, more technology-inclined. This may prove beyond the capacity of the unwittingly favoured recruiting area. Additionally, over representation also owes to coaching centers in these areas offering intensive coaching on how to crack the exam. This results in poor standards at intake. This original debility cannot easily be corrected through training.
Thirdly, given the unexceptionable largesse of the latest Pay Commission, it would be unfair if the same is channeled into only one region, as seems to be the case. Higher order gains - such as regional equity, and a stake in the system for all including the social and geographical periphery - need to guide decisions over recruitment.
Fourthly, fighting insurgency can be expected to continue as a preoccupation. A narrow recruiting base, particularly of the officer corps, would lead to problems with perception. A Mainstream vs Other perception tends to emerge, clouding judgments on the applicability of force. This only accentuates in case the social origin of the officers in the lower middle class is added to the consideration. For instance, dilution in the intake of percentages from the North East in Assam Rifles has been done in favour of Gorkhas and other hill people from North India. This affects the culture of the Assam Rifles defined by its motto Friends of Hill People, changing it towards a more militarized paramilitary resembling the Army from which it draws its officer cadre
Likewise, imbalanced representation would lead to institutional bias or neglect of some or other feature in security concerns. Such imbalances in perceptions can creep into institutional inputs, for instance, on India's Pakistan or Kashmir policy. It is well said that the manner the equanimity with which these problems are viewed increases with distance from Delhi. Keeping relations with Pakistan adversarial would keep the hardline policy option underwritten by military power in play. Such a policy input could result from ethnic imbalances since parochial considerations could override the rational alternative or national interest.
Happy with the status quo, institutional leadership is likely to advise: "Leave well enough, alone." Political sagacity, however, calls for initiating the change.