Demand for new caste-, faith- or ethnicity-based regiments for Indian Army not in consonance with policy or national interest

Syed Ata Hasnain
Election time is usually an occasion to make attempts to garner an advantage by raising issues with narrow connotations of regionalism, ethnicity, faith, caste or linguistic divisions

If there is anything apolitical in India, it is its armed forces. Enough concern has been raised in recent weeks to reinforce that. It has also been adequately reiterated that armed forces personnel, while being apolitical, have the basic right to exercise political choice during elections. Service tradition and ethos continues to caution against the use of their symbols and their achievements for political gains. Election time is usually an occasion to make attempts to garner an advantage by raising issues with narrow connotations of regionalism, ethnicity, faith, caste or linguistic divisions.

For the armed forces to escape this is always a challenge. The demand to raise regiments on the basis of these divisions is not unusual during each such occasion. These demands cater to enhanced employment opportunities and some degree of exclusivity that assists in local political posturing. The recent demand for the raising of some caste-based regiments is therefore not something unusual. While these demands almost always help in electioneering, they have never fructified.

It is the lack of understanding of the system of recruitment, the concept of formation of existing regiments and the ongoing attempts at improvement of the representation of India's diversity in the Indian Army, in particular, that continues to bring forth these demands. There has also been an insufficient effort towards the explanation of the concept of recruitment and regimentation to the public and the political community given India's general refrain from delving into knowledge about the army. A brief attempt is being made here.

The British raised infantry regiments of the British Indian Army on the basis of the then existing idea of martial races. That idea was put to rest after Independence. However, the regiments remained with their original names and titles purely due to the motivational aspects, tradition and history; all domains that enhance military effectiveness, particularly the task of the infantry which is the most difficult and demanding. Rightly it was decided against raising any more such regiments. It does become difficult for the public to understand and appreciate the military system, but inadequate knowledge is required here.

Only a single infantry regiment was raised after Independence with any connection to ethnicity; this was the Naga Regiment and that too for a specific special purpose and under special arrangements. Very few are aware that the Naga Regiment, while having its own symbols and accoutrements, actually remains wedded to the Kumaon Regiment; it shares its training centre at Ranikhet with the Kumaonis and the colonel commandant of the two is common. What is even lesser known is that a very large percentage of the Naga units comprise Garhwalis, Kumaonis and some tribes of the North East.

There are four variations of composition of army regiments/units; Single Class, Fixed Class, Mixed Fixed Class and All India All Class. These are briefly explained below:

Single Class:  Examples of this are the Sikh Regiment, Dogra Regiment, Garhwal Rifles or the Sikh Light Infantry, where the entire regiment with all units comprises only a single ethnic class. A derivative of this is the Madras Regiment which has troops restricted to all the southern states (one region). Similarly the Assam Regiment has mixed composition of all tribes restricted to the North East only.

Fixed Class: Examples are Rajputana Rifles where primarily Jats and Rajputs are recruited and formed as ethnic sub-units too. Some units of the Kumaon Regiment are purely Ahir in composition and some fixed class between Ahirs and Kumaonis. Similarly the Grenadiers have units with pure sub-units of Jats, Dogras, Rajputs and Khem Khani Muslims.

Mixed Fixed Class: The Punjab Regiment is an example that comprises Sikhs, Punjabis and Dogras but all function in mixed sub-units. Similarly the JAK Light Infantry has Muslim, Sikh and Dogra troops also in mixed sub units.

All India All Class: The Mahar Regiment is the best example of this with troops from all over India serving in mixed sub units with the war cry, "Hindustan ki Jai". Beyond the Infantry, Armoured Corps, Mechanised Infantry and Artillery, most units of other Arms and Services such as Signals, EME and Ordnance are organised on an All India All Class basis.

In early 1985, after the traumatic period of dissonance in a unit of a Single Class Regiment, an experiment was conducted to raise units within these regiments with fixed class composition. The 18 Garhwal Rifles for example was raised with Jat, Dogra and Garhwali troops. The experiment lasted till 1999 when the original composition of these regiments was reverted to; presumably the experiment was not considered a success.

In the interim, we have had the raising of Scouts units such as Ladakh Scouts, Sikkim Scouts and Arunachal Scouts, each affiliated with an existing regiment but the units designed purely for a home and hearth (sons of the soil) role of serving only in the border region from where they have been raised. The composition for these units is considered a functional necessity and is therefore outside the scope of further analysis.

Some of the above four classifications are also found in the forces such as Armoured Corps and Artillery based on historical legacy. Many of the armoured regiments have Sikh, Dogra and Jat squadrons while there is at least one purely Sikh unit and many others are All India All Class. There is at least one pure Gurkha artillery unit in existence.

The apparently-complex concept is simplified via a system of recruitment that has sufficient leeway to ensure an equitable regional distribution of vacancies for recruitment through the Recruitable Male Population (RMP) Index which has parameters applied in terms of factors that identify the scope for recruitment in each region; ratios for recruitment are then allotted on this. Technically there are no reserved vacancies for any religion, caste, class, linguistic or ethnic group. Through representation in the various types of regiments, the recruitment has to draw upon these divisions in various ratios that are factored into the RMP Index formulae.

Actually the political class has never doubted the army's word on this which really signifies the degree of trust that exists in the army. However, for greater transparency, some well-informed Members of Parliament could well seek more information for the people's representatives to be briefed on, perhaps in camera, as such statistics are usually in the domain of classified information, being reasonably sensitive in nature and within the purview of national security.

The demand for new caste-based regiments or for that matter regional or faith-based regiments is therefore not justified from the angle of better opportunities because technically there will be no increase in vacancies for those segments. Vacancies so allotted for specially raised regiments will be compensated by cuts of that ethnic group, segment, caste or faith in ratios in other All India All Class regiments. The RMP Index system is equitable and adequately takes care of the representation.

The Indian Army is doing well to remain steadfast in its system that it will work progressively towards an All India All Class system but it cannot discount the need for esprit de corps, team spirit, historical tradition and bonding brought on by the system of regimentation which is hardly understood outside the army. A great example is Rashtriya Rifles (RR) that does yeoman service in counter-terror operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Originally, it was decided to raise it as an All India All Class regiment of ex-servicemen. Eventually not only was it manned by regulars for greater effectiveness, its units were also affiliated to the existing regimental system. The latter gave it all the needs of effectiveness that RR required in its challenging task.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army and tweets @atahasnain53

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