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Army protects itself religiously

New Delhi, Feb. 15: Fearing that the veil over one of its closely guarded secrets ' the composition of its rank and file ' would be lifted, the army refused to answer queries by a high-level committee formed by the Prime Minister’s Office to study the status of minorities.

The correspondence between the committee to study the socio-economic and educational status of the minorities and the defence ministry/ army chief does not reveal that the body headed by retired judge Rajinder Sachar has sought information on alleged desertions or on the role of the minorities in the army.

Facts on the composition of the army are regularly maintained. Even in the recruitment advertisements put out by the army, applicants have to fill in the column for “religion”. But the army stalls access to the information because it does not want the government to tinker with a military structure that is essentially a truncated hand-me-down from the British.

The figures do not bear out the charge that the present government ' or any other preceding it ' has used the military to create job opportunities for the minorities. The proportion of the minorities in the army is vastly lower than their ratio in the population. They make up about two per cent of the troops. Many retired generals argue that the composition of the army should not be tinkered with because that is what gives the force its secular character and fighting spirit.

The Sachar-led committee wrote to the chief of army staff, General Joginder Jaswant Singh, asking for information on the composition of the army. The committee wanted the army to outline its composition in three categories: officers, junior commissioned officers and pensioners.

For the officers and the other ranks, the committee requested a break-up by rank and by community.

On August 4, 2005, Major General Samantha with the personnel services department in army headquarters wrote to the committee that such data “is not maintained and it will not be proper to collate such data”.

He added that the information, if given out, “may convey the wrong message, adversely affecting the well-established cohesion, regimental spirit and morale”. The national policy on reservation is not applicable to recruitment in the Indian Army, the officer wrote. “Recruitment to the Indian Army is done on the basis of recruitable male population.”

On September 9, 2005, the committee wrote to defence minister Pranab Mukherjee requesting the same information. There was no reply.

On January 2, 2006, Sachar wrote to the defence minister and pointed out that the air force and the navy had sent their responses and emphasised that the information was urgently needed because the committee had to submit its report by May 2006.

Sachar pointed out that the queries to the army were part of the data collection exercise done with every government organisation at the central and state levels.

“It is disturbing that asking for official data should be looked upon as a complaint,” Sachar said.

After this Mukherjee ordered army headquarters to furnish the information. The army has sent its file to the minister with a request that a public debate on the composition should not be encouraged.

By no stretch of imagination does the proportion of the minorities in the army reflect the community-wise distribution of the country’s population. However, there is a debate on whether the military force raised by a country must reflect its ethnic composition.

The only substantial academic study on the composition of the Indian Army is by Omar Khalidi, a researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In his book Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India (Three Essays Collective, September 2003), the author lists several instances when queries about composition were made in and out of Parliament but every time the defence ministry stalled them.

 

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