Army officer corps: missing Muslims

Ali Ahmed

I have been intrigued by the army’s response to the query of the Sachar Committee investigating the socio-economic status of India’s largest minority, on the number of Muslims in its ranks. The army had responded that it did not maintain such statistics, or words to that effect. The army certainly knows the religious affiliation of its members since in war conditions it needs to know whether to bury or cremate martyrs. Perhaps it has not aggregated the data religionwise since there is no call to do so, it being an all-volunteer army. That too is hard to believe since bureaucracies - and the army headquarters is reputed to be no less awesome than any - thrive on statistics.

Such caginess can only give rise to suspicion that it knows it has something to hide. A figure dating to mid-last decade had it that there were some 30,000 army men, of which presumably more than half were in about 25 odd infantry battalions with Muslim representation, some of whom were of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. Of the officer corps Muslims reportedly comprised 2-3 per cent. This contrasts starkly with the proportion of Muslims in the country’s population, which the 2011 census puts at just a little short of 14 per cent.

Since the army is not parting with the figures, some unilateral spade work was required. My father, who was once commandant of the Indian Military Academy, receives a complimentary copy of the twice yearly IMA Journal. A perusal of the latest issue - its Spring Term 2016 edition - lets on that 469 Gentlemen Cadets (GC) of the 137 Regular and 120 Technical Graduates courses commissioned on 12 December 2015, only nine were Muslims, making a percentage of 1.9 per cent.

The figure is by counting Muslim names amongst the list of GCs passing out. This reinforces my findings from a similar exercise involving perusal of journals covering five IMA terms over the turn of the decade. I counted about 45 Muslim names from the passing out courses. Discounting the foreign GCs being trained at IMA from friendly foreign countries, about 40 Muslim GCs got commissioned in two and half years from IMA. Since officer commissions are also from the OTA, while the absolute figure would go up, it is unlikely that the relative presence of Muslim officer increases by much. It can thus be said that about two per cent of army officers are Muslim.  

These figures by themselves do not spell discrimination. The figure for Muslims completing graduation is about six per cent, below that of Scheduled Castes advantaged by reservations. Consequently, they are unable to compete for a position at the IMA and OTA, the eligibility requirement of which is a bachelors’ degree. Muslim graduates, in particular from South India, are also finding avenues elsewhere such as in the Gulf. There are no Muslim “martial races” that traditionally contribute to the military. Such ethnic groups predating Partition have ended up in Pakistan. So that Muslim numbers are down is easy to explain.

Nevertheless, there is cause for concern. The under-representation of Muslims in the police and Central police forces was remarked on in the aftermath of the Sachar Committee findings and steps taken since have led to an increase in Muslims in these organisations to six per cent. This increase does not owe to positive discrimination - which is neither possible nor recommended - but to other measures that can only be taken once a problem is acknowledged. By not admitting to the numbers, the army denies itself an opportunity to take the measures to burnish its credentials as an equal-opportunity employer.

Simple measures can do the trick. One significant intake into the officer corps is from Sainik Schools and military schools across the country. A higher number of Muslim cadets in these schools will lead to a higher number of Muslim candidates for the National Defence Academy (NDA). Since these schools are under state governments, the states must increase advertising of entrance exams in Muslim areas and by upping the numbers of examination centers in such areas.

Successful candidates are usually products of coaching centres. This explains the higher numbers of army officers from Uttarkhand, UP and Haryana, making up at a rough estimate over a third of army officers. Setting up such coaching centres through community initiative in Muslim concentrations - such as in Jamia Nagar, Delhi, Azamgarh, Murshidabad and Kottayam - can result in increasing candidate numbers and their competence levels. Members of parliament from Muslim-populated areas and Muslim MPs can take the lead on this.

Since Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Hamdard and Jamia Millia Islamia organise successful coaching for the administrative services entrance exams, they could use the same model for upping the armed forces’ Muslim intake, too. Both levels of entry - one to the NDA and other services academies and the second targeting the UPSC’s combined services exams for graduate entry - can be resorted to. The AMU initiative of starting schools with a public school ethos in Muslim-majority areas, can serve to send Muslim youth to NDA.

Sophia Qureshi, who commanded a training component in a multi-country military exercise, and Waheedah Prizm, the first Kashmiri naval officer, are inspiring figures but cannot compensate for concerted community action aimed at increasing women officer candidate numbers. This might require a cultural change, but with avenues in the armed forces opening up, the change can be reinforced with such measures.

With the current focus, the community manages to put in 30 odd candidates into the Central Services yearly, of which about two-three per cent make it to the glamourous trio - IAS, IFS and IPS. This figure can be improved by increasing its tally in the armed forces UPSC merit lists taken out twice yearly.

Measures for catching them young will also serve to elevate quality. A perusal of IMA journal reveals that, Muslims are absent from the list of achievers. Amongst the GC appointments of the passing out course, there was only one Muslim, and a relatively modest Cadet Sargent Major at that. None figured in the list of end-of-term prizes and sporting achievements. It appears this lack of achievement carries over into service, with not a single Muslim officer figuring in the IMA faculty. There are only four Muslim instructors below officer rank, three of whom are outside the military mainstream serving in the physical training and equitation sections. Scarce numbers and limited capability on entry can only translate into absence up the hierarchy in the future. A Muslim figures among the army commanders for the first time after a gap of two decades, with Lt Gen Hariz taking over Southern Command only this month.

The benefits for the community of increasing Muslim numbers in the officer ranks in terms of heightened socio-economic indices are self-evident. For the nation, such gains imply a better endowed minority and its mainstreaming. For the army, it would be in dispelling stereotypes of the minority amongst its prospective officers. Training alongside Muslims would negate negative images they may carry over from society, which has been increasingly exposed to Islam-sceptical narratives over the past two decades. This could have useful operational spin off in case of military operations in areas of minority concentrations such as in Kashmir and in conventional war within Pakistan.  

Clearly, the onus for increasing Muslim officer intake is not on the army. However, the army can help with taking measures such as targeting Muslim areas with its recruiting publicity and setting up exam centres in such areas. To make such initiatives palatable, this can be done in conjunction with similarly targeting other thinly represented ethnic communities, such as in the North East and South India.

When I joined the NDA in the early eighties, I was one of five Muslims in my course of some 300 cadets. Little appears to have changed since. So, looking towards the government - least of all the current government - may not be wise. The onus of offering up its youth for military service lies with the Muslim community itself. Enabling their signing up is also the community’s own lookout.

The writer is a former infantry colonel.
He may be reached at 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 October 2016 on page no. 11

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