The recent petition filed in the Supreme Court challenging the Army's caste, religion and region-based recruitment policy for its soldiers has not had the desired amount of discussion in the fora of defence intelligentsia. Though it is correct that this issue has been debated at many levels in the past, it may not be wrong to approach it once again in light of the petition filed in the SC and the importance given to it by the court given the fact that the Solicitor General has been asked to assist the court in the case.
In the immediate aftermath of the unfortunate events of the 1984 desertions in Sikh units, the Army did try amalgamation of regiments/units to a certain degree by changing the 'pure' composition of caste, religion, region based battalions to a 'mixed' composition. The experiment did not work out to satisfaction and was discarded in time.
At the point of time when the practice of mixed battalions was still in vogue, I chanced to speak to a second-in-command of a Dogra battalion who had a company each of South Indians, Rajputs, Jats and Dogras in the battalion. The officer was not very happy with the state of affairs. He felt that the effectiveness of the unit was reduced as a fighting force and that the essence of the Dogra Regiment was lost by having such mixed troops and in time of actual action there might be a loss of cohesiveness in the troops.
The option of having mixed fighting units with pan-India composition appears very reasonable to many, including the gentleman who has filed the petition in the Supreme Court. Arguments of such individuals often is that this system had been devised by the British for their use and efficacy in that day and age and in present day India there was no place for such a system.
However, the fact remains that despite India being one country, we are a country where language, culture and customs change every few hundred kilometers. Our uniqueness lies in the fact that despite our diverse nature we still retain our ability to bond with each other at the macro level.
Thus, when it comes to fighting, killing and dying for the country, Indian Army cannot be compared with other armies of the world where such regimental system does not exist. Everything which the British did was not bad and the basic framework which they have provided was based on their own experience in the British Army where they had region-based regiments which catered to that specific area only. It was a time tested system which was introduced with suitable amendments in Indian conditions.
The challenge to this system from external factors like sceptics going to the Supreme Court can be withstood but things may indeed change internally with the march of time. As the nation develops and better and more lucrative opportunities arise, young men may be lesser inclined to join the service. As it turns out, during the recent session of Lok Sabha Defence Minister AK Antony has admitted to a shortage of men in the enlisted ranks. This is the first time the MoD has publically accepted this fact.
Therefore, it will only be some years or decades down the line when the regimental system may have to be amended once the Army finds that it cannot muster adequate number of young men from the particular religion, caste or region to fill its vacancies in the various regiments. A case in point relates to the already existing crises in the Sikh Regiment and Sikh Light Infantry Regiment of the Army where the recruiters are facing difficulty in filling their quota. Alternate job preference, poor physical condition etc may be the cause behind it but this could replicate in other regiments too. The Maoist threat to turn of the tap of Gorkha recruitment in Nepal a couple of years back must also be borne in mind.
It is in this context that the Army may have to fine tune its policy in the years to come. As of now, however, the system is working perfectly fine. As the Americans say, 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it".