At one level, the punchup in Meerut yesterday between officers pressuring a reluctant trooper to box in an inter-unit competition resembles the constant goading and hazing of the unit bugler Robert Prewitt in the”boxing Company” of the US Army Division at Schonfield Barracks in Hawaii by Staff Sergeant Judson in the 1951 World War Two novel by James Jones –“From Here to Eternity”. Prewitt, an accomplished boxer who has sworn off boxing because in a fight he blinded an opponent, finally blows a fuze and beats Judson to a pulp. Perhaps, some such thing precipitated the fracas between officers and the men they command in the Sikh Light Infantry — constituted, it must be mentioned, of Ramgarhia or lower caste Sikhs.
This officer-jawan fight in Sikh LI was preceded by similar occurrences in elite armoured (16th Cavalry in the last incident) and artillery regiments. So, such things are not restricted to any particular combat arm.
A social analysis may throw some light on the fraying fabric of army order and discipline. The predecessor British Indian Army and the Indian Army right up to the Sixties and even Seventies divided neatly along class lines. The old landed gentry provided officers, and the soldiery came from the sturdy peasant stock. The JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers) were a uniquely subcontinental institution the British invented to provide interface with the local mercenary armies they had recruited to their cause. To start with, the JCOs were from the upper echelons of the landed gentry, minor royalty, and suchlike, who with the underway Indianization in the wake of the 1920 Federick Skeen Committee recommendations (with Motilal Nehru and MA Jinnah as the two Indian members), were enticed with offers of Sandhurst appointments and subsequent service in the officer corps as King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs). The cohesion of the officer corps was provided by the shared values and officer-like qualities the British inculcated in the Indian KCIOs, including loyalty to the British crown. These Indian officers also acted as a social buffer post-World War I during which Indian units served in Field Marshal Lord Haig’s Expeditionary Army in France and the Low Countries and experienced the horrors of the killing fields of Somme, Flanders, and Passchendale. The Indian soldier returned home after the war a lot more politically aware than when he was embarked, and more nationalistic — cognizant of the fact that he was fighting a distant war to protect the interests of a colonial overlord in faroff theatres where he had no intrinsic stake. This was the beginning of the end of the Raj — not Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts and similar stunts in the subsequent years — the rising political consciousness of the Indian jawan meant that the British could not anymore rely on the Indian Army to coerce the Indian people and thus sustain their Raj.
Once the British left, the KCIOs who took over perpetuated the British system of value and officer norms that centrally involved the stark differentiation between the officers and JCOs, and less so between JCOs and ORs (other ranks). This differentiation was not just in the standard of the Messes and living quarters, but even more in terms of the social traits and behaviour that put a premium on socially distancing officers from the men they led. The Colonel Blimp-ish qualities exemplified by the likes of Cariappa, the first Indian C-in-C, were at once a social and physical barrier of sorts. Such a system may have had its uses, but with the social composition of the officer corps changing starting in the 60s, the institutionalized distance between officers and men should have been reduced. It wasn’t and that’s the origins of the problem we have today.
The fact is post-Nehru and that generation the entrant level officers in the military at-large, not just the army, increasingly had fathers who had served as JCOs and who, in the manner of the “khandani pesha” (family occupation), wanted their sons to serve in their own “paltans” as “äfsar”. This process of a transitioning officer corps quickly accelerated until now when it has become virtually the norm. Not sure if the army keeps such records, but a good 60-70 % of the officers in the middle ranks up to senior colonel and brigadier levels are the spawn of former JCOs. This trend is going up.
Here’s what happens by way of social tensions in army units: Officers who were earlier looked up to as social superiors are now perceived as their own chokras, hailing from the same background as the JCOs and ORs, whose officer-like countenance, assiduously promoted in the training stage at NDA and IMA, is dismissed as so much affectation, of people like them putting on airs. So, when junior JCOs and ORs are ordered about, it is more likely they feel put upon, whence the increasing tendency for the jawan to reply with fisticuffs of his own especially if he is physically belaboured in any form. Once an incident is sparked off there is a sudden division between the officers and jawans, and the next thing we hear of is a violent kerfuffle.
Actually, the closing of the social-cultural gap between the officer ranks and ORs is a wonderful thing to happen and reflects the higher education and awareness levels of the average soldiery and thereby greater democratization of the army. The trouble is it cannot coexist with the differentiation aspects within the service, whence is created the problem of loosening cohesion all-round, within the officer ranks and between the officers and ORs. The less cohesive a fighting force the less well it’ll fight.
Compare the Indian army with its Pakistani counterpart where the officers still hail from the well-off sections of society — because there’s not much industry or private sector to absorb the employable youth, in that country. And the ORS still comprise hardy peasantry for whom the paltan is all. In the event, the Pakistan army has no reported incidents of this social kind. Or, peer within the Indian army itself — the regiments with lower educational entrance-level qualifications for the jawans in hill units, such as the Gurkha and Kumaon regiments, have fewer such tensions. Because the mostly near-illiterate trooper is happy to have a livelihood and thinks of the regiment as mai-baap and happy to serve it, rather than upset the applecart and fight with officers and seed problems for himself.
The solution is nowhere easy. A start may be made by eliminating the JCO ranks altogether. There’s really no need for this colonial-era contrivance any longer. It should be followed up by systemic incentivization of the ORs to be given remedial education and training for entry into officer ranks. This avenue is there, but the flow of men to officers via this route is not big. And the differentiation aspects will have to be addressed and speedily tackled, with the class-related distinctions done away with because they are the reasons social frictions fester and, like an unlanced boil, collects pus. This pus desperately needs draining.