The nature of discrimination in Army promotions is buried in the rules and procedures, making it harder to notice it. It is experienced by only a few officers when promotion board results are announced.
Caste is likely to be a dominant plot in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. But let’s interrogate how this hierarchical and discriminatory structure endures in the promotion system of the Indian Army. There is seemingly a system of reservation in Army promotions.
Discrimination based on identity derived from lineage is the hardened core of the caste system. In the Indian Army, the enduring marker for the selection of its senior leadership is the lineage or ‘inherited identity’, particularly the professional segment one is initially inducted into.
Recently, there has been an attempt to standardise identity in the Army by making uniforms the same for Brigadier and higher ranks. This involved removing regimental distinctions like the colour of the beret, lanyard, and other insignia. But it would turn out to be a mere cosmetic change without bringing any shift in military mindset.
What needs to be addressed is making ‘acquired qualities’ of Brigadiers, and above, the central index for judging leadership potential. Currently, ‘inherited’ identity is privileged and ‘acquired’ qualities take a back seat. The nature and form of discrimination are buried in the rules and procedures, making it harder to notice it. It is experienced by only a relatively small number of officers when results of the promotion board or nominations to key courses are announced.
Lineage over talent
Lineage is represented by the arm or Service in which one has been commissioned. This inheritance, so to speak, plays a major role in career progression. Broadly, the inheritance is viewed in terms of a class system that distinguishes officers according to their core function.
They are divided into Combat (Infantry, Armoured Corps, and Mechanised Infantry), Combat Support (Artillery, Engineers, Air Defence, Signals, and Army Aviation), and Services (Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and Medical Branch), which provide logistic support.
Within the Combat and Combat Support arms, the rules of the promotion have been gamed over a period of time, and the majoritarian writ of the Infantry was allowed to run the course without any meaningful checks. This is done subtly and has probably reached an unacceptable level, demanding swift remediation. Let me explain.
The Command of Battalions/Regiments is mostly allotted according to the lineage, which is fair and meets the functional demands of the Army. However, from the Brigadier level and beyond, officers from the Combat Support arm, with expertise in a broader knowledge base as well as proficiency in managing human and material resources, can also be included in the General Cadre, which is crucial for commanding operational formations. This induction from the Combat Support arm to the General Cadre is voluntary and can take place any time after the Command of Battalion/Regiment and is effective at the Brigadier or Major General level.
Technically, there is equality of opportunities between the Combat and Combat Support arms. However, post the reforms initiated during General Krishnaswamy Sundararajan’s tenure, the General Cadre promotions were split into two streams: Command and Staff. Therefore, only those General Cadre officers approved in the Command stream are eligible for higher levels of operational command. This segment of officers forms the command chain up to the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) level. The current COAS, General Manoj Pande, was commissioned in the Army Corps of Engineers.
To be fair, once an officer is transferred to the General Cadre, there should be no discrimination based on identity within the Cadre and all General Cadre officers must be treated equally thereafter. However, this is not the practice; instead, the system has been gamed to benefit the largest Combat arm, the Infantry.
The gaming ground: National Defence College
The National Defence College (NDC) course acts as a sieve for selecting officers from the rank of Major Generals to Lieutenant Generals. Completion of the course adds measurable value to the Annual Confidential Report’s (ACRs) quantification. This addition was made during the tenure of General Bipin Rawat as COAS. Considering the long-term trend of inflation in ACR assessments, an officer who doesn’t undertake the NDC course currently has very little chance of being approved for the rank of Lieutenant General.
There is a clear source of unfairness at two levels in selecting brigadier-level officers for the NDC course. First, Combat Support arm officers, now part of the General Cadre, still occupy vacancies allotted to their original arm when nominated for the NDC. For example, an engineer officer, transferred to the General Cadre and commanding an Infantry Brigade during NDC nomination, will eat into the vacancies allotted to the engineers. This protects the vacancies of the Combat arm.
Second, there should be no need to reserve vacancies for NDC within the General Cadre, as is currently being done. What is perverse about this practice is the protection of reserved vacancies for the Infantry, which is the largest cadre. In effect, merit is given a back seat while lineage is in the driver’s seat. This amounts to a system of reservations for the majority. And that is not all.
For promotion to the rank of Major General, if an officer from the Combat Support arm is found fit for it, an additional vacancy is allotted to the Combat arm so that their numbers are not affected. Such a rule favours the narrow interests of the Combat arm over institutional requirements. The very idea of splitting the General Cadre into Command and Staff was to reduce the number of officers approved for Command, ensuring reasonable lengths of Command tenures.
The Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry officers are also disadvantaged by the existing system as their cadre size is smaller compared to the Infantry. Despite being part of the same General Cadre, it is not a level-playing field for them.
No wonder the first preference for Mechanised Infantry is seeing a downward trend among the Gentlemen Cadets in the pre-commission training academies. Being part of the relatively smaller Combat arm, the Mechanised Infantry and Armoured Corps vacancies at NDC are currently meagre.
The larger point is that selection for higher Command echelons must be disconnected from inheritance and acquired capabilities be the sole criteria.
Theatre Command implementation
Excluding persons from important higher leadership positions through a quota system and privileging the lineage-based majority cannot result in selecting the brightest and the best. The catchment area should ideally include all individuals with acquired capabilities, and the selection system should be entrusted to make assessments and choices.
The ACR-based selection system is seldom able to discriminate between outstanding/good and bad/worst. When layered with discriminatory reservation practices like doorkeeping at the NDC, it could have a pernicious impact on the Services.
For those who are wondering why the three Services cannot resolve their differences, which are delaying the implementation of the politically mandated and laudable Theatre Command System, turf protection is the main mischief maker. It is fundamentally a social problem where strong tribal identities of each Service are struggling to guard their specific interests.
To overcome this, there is a need to move away from tunnel vision and instead focus on the higher purpose of the restructuring exercise. The top leadership has been unsuccessful thus far, but let us hope they will succeed sooner rather than later, and certainly well before the next Army Day on 15 January 2025.