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Conscription is not the answer

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • January 25, 2008

    Shortage of officers, especially in junior ranks of the Indian Army, has been engaging the attention of policy planners, the public and the media. Armed forces reflect the society from which they are recruited and enrolled. With economic liberalisation and globalization, job opportunities for the educated youth have increased manifold. Traditional professions such as the civil service and the military do not seem to be very popular among the youth. Corporate India has now provided an environment for entrepreneurship. Also, in the booming service sector one does not have to rely on fixed salaries and time-bound promotions.

    Also, the nature and role of the military has changed with the changing security situation and the transformation in the nature and character of war. Traditional security is understood as territorial integrity where the military needs to fight and defeat an enemy in defence of the nation. The last such event was in 1971 and to a limited extent in 1999. Over the years the bulk of the military has been deployed on internal security and counter insurgency roles, where the fight is against our own misguided countrymen and the aim is to win hearts and minds and accommodate them within the Indian politico-economic system. Soldiering is no more as glamorous and society at large does not identify with the soldier as the guardian of national security.

    While scholars will continue to list out economic, sociological and psychological factors for the military not being able to attract the cream of the youth, the managers of the profession of arms would continue to deliberate, indeed worry, about how to make a career in the armed forces more attractive. While pay is just one factor, we also need to deliberate on issues such as the very idea of an “officer” and the recruiting base. Here, one thing stands out very clearly. There is sufficient evidence to show that it is better to manage with a few good officers rather than lower selection and promotional standards and have a large number of mediocre officers.

    When we refer to conscription, it is not only for filling up the officer corps but also includes all ranks (soldiers). Given India’s youth bulge and the availability of sufficient manpower in society, conscription is not the most effective way of seeking to make up for shortfalls in the officer corps. Probably, the public relates this to the need for compulsory military training, which is not the same.

    Talking about the idea of an officer, we now need to debate the role of an officer in combat. Decentralisation and small unit actions such as patrols, ambushes, raids, cordon and search in small groups, etc., are now more in demand. Special Forces and special missions also demand delegation to lower ranks.

    In recent wars such as in Afghanistan, the crucial and in a way “strategic” role of corporals and sergeants has already been recognised in the Special Forces. The terms “strategic corporal” and “tactical general” have emerged in current literature due to the strategic nature of Special Forces operations. We recently celebrated 150 years of the first war of independence. There were no Indian officers then, but only JCO equivalent ranks. The war or “mutiny” was led by Subedars and Jemedars. The lesson is that our JCOs/NCOS are also capable of performing if given a chance. There is thus a need to focus on better training and selection of JCOs/NCOs. This first step will reduce the load and demand on officers to lead each and every patrol or special mission in war and counter-insurgency and the responsibility for routine administrative details in peace. In other words, we need to bring about institutional change in delegation of combat and administrative tasks to Junior Commissioned Offices (JCOs) and Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs).

    Selection and promotion of JCOs and NCOS must be made more scientific, including aptitude tests on lines similar to psychological tests in the Services Selection Board (SSB) for officers. The socialistic cum welfare oriented pattern of promotion of soldiers to NCO and JCO ranks needs to change.

    The second thing that needs to be done is to take a re-look at the recruiting base. Recall how before the 1999 Kargil conflict there was debate in the media that the right kind of youth is not joining the army. Our young officers demolished this misperception by leading their troops in assault. Another stale topic is that sons of JCOs/NCOs are the ones who join the Services the most as officers. The self-styled superiority of the old brown sahib and the “Koi Hai” mentality needs to be changed. We need to know that our army has already produced a number of generals including chiefs who were sons of JCOs/NCOs. The present Pakistani Army Chief is also from such a background.

    Presently, the military labour market is the urban youth brought up and educated in city schools (either government or public). Only about 30 per cent of India is urbanised. A number of our youth in small villages and towns may be the right officer material. Unfortunately, due to procedural (in selection) and socio-economic conditions like lack of educational opportunities including poor knowledge of English or Hindi, this large majority invariably gets ignored. Poverty and other socio-economic factors also aggravate this situation. Thus there may be a case to widen our officer recruiting base. But this will demand that we select them young (well before class X), educate them in revitalised military schools and make them fit physically, mentally and academically, including in English/Hindi, nurture them to acquire minimum social graces, thus qualifying them for the officers selection programme. This will mirror to an extent the Indian Army’s experiment with the erstwhile Boys Company (like Signal Boys) for soldiers or Boys Sports Company (for sportsmen).

    This scheme should not be mixed up with the concept of Sainik Schools or Rashtriya Indian Military Academy. Rather, these institutes need to work out strategies that induce cadets, on completion of training, to opt for NDA and not change track and choose the private/civil sector. Simultaneously, the budget for the National Cadet Corps (NCC) should be increased to spread the training to more number of schools and colleges, including in the hinterland and border regions. This will also widen the recruiting base. There is a very positive relationship between all round military training /NCC training and future life performance. Even if all those so trained do not opt or get selected to the profession of arms, the country would still stand to gain from such a no regret option.