India’s Muslim Soldiers

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India has made significant progress since its inception in 1945. The struggle for independence took its toll in the form of partition, with a religious animosity that continues to this day. Of India’s ballooning population, currently 1.237 billion, 12 percent are practitioners of Islam, meaning that India is home to 10 percent of the world’s Muslims, who form the largest minority in India. Muslims are looked upon with scorn and suspicion by certain other segments of the country. Discrimination in employment, social events, and public places is still quite widespread and commonplace.

In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commissioned the Sachar Committee to prepare a report on the socioeconomic and educational situation of India’s Muslims. The report revealed significant prejudice against Muslims in the employment sector. Muslims made up only 2.5 percent of the bureaucracy, even though they constituted almost 12 percent of the population.

Another area where Muslims are underrepresented is the Indian Army. Then Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. J. J. Singh denied there was a headcount of actively enlisted Muslim soldiers, maintaining that would be a gross violation of the secular nature of the army. The high command was further incensed by the suggestion it increase Muslim representation by introducing quotas. Consequently, there is no official census showing the number of Muslim soldiers enlisted in the Indian Army.

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There is, however, an unofficial number, and it is revealing. According to CNN IBN’s Minority Report, of India’s one million soldiers only 3 percent are Muslims, or roughly 29,000 soldiers in all. And if the troops serving in the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI), are subtracted (50 percent of whom are Muslim troops), that percentage is much lower. With only 29,000 fit for the army out of 150 million Muslims in the country, the ambiguous silence of the government tends to validate the suspicion of discrimination.

But before jumping to any conclusions, it is prudent to consider several facts. The Indian Army conducts recruitment drives, called rallies. Recruitment criteria, although differing from place to place, include a large pro rata quota for regional populations irrespective of religion. The recruiting officers are summoned from all over the country and randomly assigned to different locations, thus eliminating any regional animosity. However, there are no such rules for the officer cadre. And in fact Muslim officers have graduated from the country ‘s three army academies and have gone on to become high ranking officers. The Indian Army has had eight Muslim major generals so far, while the Air Force was once commanded by a Muslim air chief marshal. The Indian Military Academy has had one Muslim commandant, while the National Defense Academy has had two.

True, the representation of Muslim soldiers and officers may seem comparatively lower than those of other religions. Historically, it is believed that pre-independence Muslim recruitment was primarily done from Punjab, North West Frontier and Balochistan, all of which are part of Pakistan today. Thus, with partition, all regiments belonging to those regions went over to Pakistan..

Just as Muslims are under-represented in the army, so are the Bengalis, Biharis, Oriyas, South Indians or Gujaratis. And just as Sikhs are over-represented, so are the Jats, Dogras, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Gurkhas, Marathas and others. The Indian army’s recruitment pattern was set 160 years ago by India’s 1857 uprising. Shocked by the revolt, the British army adopted a recruitment strategy that punished those groups that rebelled against them and rewarded the ones that stayed trustworthy. Because Muslims of Awadh, Bihar and West Bengal led the uprising, the British army stopped hiring soldiers from these areas. Also blacklisted from these places were high-caste Hindus whose regiments in Bengal were also mutineers. The Indian Army follows a regimental system based on region and caste, as seen in many Commonwealth nation armies of today. So there is a Sikh Regiment, the Maratha Light Infantry, Kumaon Rifles, the Gorkhas, and many more. These regiments usually comprise soldiers belonging to a particular caste or region, and were introduced by the British based on their “Martial Races” theory. This is why there is no pure Muslim regiment in the force, save the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry, which does comprise 50 percent Muslim troops. A similar argument can be made for people from the state of Andhra Pradesh or West Bengal, which likewise do not have regiments based on their geographical location.

The Indian Army is one of the only public bodies in India that has not been skewed by politics or religion, which is partly to thank for the strong reputation it commands today. Recruitment should remain on the basis of merit only. Petty notions of religious inequality should not be allowed to tarnish this.

Amit R. Saksena is a postgraduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

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