In March 2015, the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which is the departmental tribunal of the military, effectively vindicated the stance of the petitioners by holding that the army's policy violated Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees the right of equality of opportunity. In response to an appeal by the government, the Supreme Court has stayed the AFT's ruling, but has urged the government to expedite its submissions.
The mere fact that such a large number of officers have chosen the path of litigation underscores the salience of the issue and the simmering discontent in the army. Unless, tactfully handled the outcome of this legal battle might deeply dent the professionalism of the army.
The root of the problem stretches all the way back to the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) of 1999, which recommended reducing the average age of battalion and brigade commanders - i.e., colonels and brigadiers - to enable higher operational efficacy. The KRC was arguably barking up the wrong tree. Enhanced combat effectiveness would actually require reducing the average age of Junior Commissioned Officers, who are typically in their 40s, and at the sharp edge of combat as platoon commanders.
Be that as it may, in July 2001, the Ministry of Defence constituted the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee-named after the able bureaucrat who led the exercise-to address this issue as well as the related one of limited career progression and thwarted aspirations in the army owing to its steeply pyramidal rank structure. The committee came up with a series of short and longer term proposals aimed at pulling more officers up the chain of command, while peeling off those who had no avenue of advancement.
The short-term measures included increasing vacancies for the ranks of colonel and above: 1484 colonels, 222 brigadiers, 75 major generals, and 20 lieutenant generals. In addition a range of other "peel" measures were suggested including lateral absorption in the government, voluntary retirement scheme and so forth. The longer-term measures recommended an increase in both the intake of Short Service Commissioned Officers (SSCOs) and their ratio vis-a-vis Permanent Commissioned Officers. To make the SSC attractive, the committee recommended steps such as lump-sum grants at the end of the tenure, grant of professional training leave, relaxation of age of entering the civil services and so on.
In retrospect, the committee's pronouncement on the length of the tenures of commanding officers (colonels) proved to be fateful. The panel recommended command tenure of 2.5 years for infantry units; 3 years for artillery, armoured corps, mechanised infantry; 4 years for air defence, engineers and signals; and 5 years for the ordnance and supply corps as well as electrical and mechanical engineers. This decision, taken without any compelling reasoning, gave the infantry an edge in vacancies for promotion. This was over and above the extra 20 per cent accruing to the combat arms - infantry, armour and artillery - under the pro rata scheme, which calculated vacancies for each arm and service in proportion to the number of officers serving in them (below the rank of colonel).
Yet, this laying of down of tenures did not have a totally lopsided impact. In fact, the committee explicitly urged caution in implementing its call for increased vacancies. In 2004, the government announced the release of 750 colonel vacancies in the first phase of implementation. Between February 2004 and September 2006, the average years of service of Colonels selected by promotion boards dropped from 18 to 16 years. The fact that infantry secured nearly a third of these vacancies was not seen as a major or iniquitous departure from the past trend.
In 2009, the Army Headquarters abruptly shifted its policy on promotions. The powers that were used the committee's pronouncement on differing length of tenures to skew the game in favour of infantry and artillery. The pro-rata model was thrown overboard. A new "command exit" model apparently drawing on the committee's recommendation was promulgated. This computed vacancies for colonels in various arms and services by factoring in the length of command tenure. In effect, the disparity between the tenures of commanding officers in, say, the infantry and the ordnance corps entitled the infantry to far more additional vacancies. Thus, during the second phase of implementation, the infantry garnered 441 of the 734 new vacancies: a whopping 77 per cent increase from the first phase. The artillery registered a 53 per cent increase over the two phases. And almost all other branches saw a steep drop in the vacancies allotted to them.
It is no coincidence that successive army chiefs from 2008 have belonged to the artillery and infantry. In fact, the policy was stoutly opposed by several senior lieutenant generals, including army commanders. The Armed Forces Tribunal ruling goes so far as to call the shift in policy "a malicious act". The implications of rigging the colonel vacancies for higher ranks are obvious. The very idea of a "general cadre" from the rank of brigadier stands vitiated.
The Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence are arguing that there was no shift in policy in 2009: the army was consistently implementing the committee's recommendations. But the fact remains that between 2004 and 2007, the pro rata system was left unchanged. The Ministry was evidently unaware of the Army Headquarters' policy either in 2004 or in 2009. Either way, it throws unflattering light on the state of civilian control over the military under the previous government.
Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, the army leadership's willingness to play fast-and-loose with so central an issue as promotions does not augur well for the institution. Notwithstanding their formal legal stance, it is incumbent upon the Defence Minister and the Army Chief to take a broad and sympathetic view of the positions espoused by officers from various parts of the army. The damage wrought since 2009 will have to be repaired. In particular, invidious argument that infantry deserves special treatment because it bears the brunt of combat needs to be buried. The army fights as an integrated force in counterinsurgency as much as conventional conflict. As a former infantry officer, I find this claim for affirmative action contemptible.
More importantly, the controversy should not lead to a wholesale abandonment of the sensible recommendations made by the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee. In order to ensure career satisfaction for permanent commissioned officers, it is imperative to increase the intake of SSCOs and so reduce the pressure on the number of contenders for senior ranks. This issue has hung fire for the past decade. If anything, there has been a regression. The SSC used to be a five-year commission with the option of a five-year extension. But now there is a lock-in period of ten years-a duration that would render most officers unfit for a serious civilian career. In consequence, not only has intake failed to increase, but over 60 per cent of SSCOs seek to opt for a permanent commission. Reversing this trend is crucial to restoring the battered organizational balance and cohesion of the army.
(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)
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