The four studies that the army chief had ordered in the run up to the army commanders’ conference are reportedly already on his desk. Of these, one study was on the cadre review of army officers. While there is no begrudging the promotional prospects and self-esteem needs of officers, a cadre review cannot confine itself to morale and operational efficiency along. It is an opportunity to tackle wider issues germane to the officer corps.

One such is the increasingly narrowing recruitment base, leading to a concentration on a few ethnicities.

Ever since the dilution in officer intake that succeeded the scramble to populate the army’s junior ranks in short order in the wake of the Kargil war, there has been a progressive narrowing of the officer corps recruitment base to a few north Indian states.

The representativeness of the army officer corps – as to whether it is reflective of India’s diversity – needs calling out.

While the army is an ‘all volunteer’ force and can only rely on the numbers various social groups serve up to compete for membership, it needs being wary of the underside of its officer corps’ increasing inability to reflect India’s diversity.

This is not good either for the army’s internal social complexion and subculture, nor in the long run for civil-military relations in a democratic polity.

Statistics from the December iteration of the passing out parade at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun have it that of the 347 gentlemen cadets (GC) passing out, 53 were from Uttar Pradesh followed by 51 from Haryana, 36 from Bihar, 26 from Uttarakhand, 25 from Delhi, 15 from Himachal Pradesh and 14 from Punjab.

In contrast, of the other states, 20 were from Maharashtra, 10 from Madhya Pradesh and 8 from West Bengal, while Andhra Pradesh had 4, Gujarat 4 and Chattisgarh and Jharkhand 2 each. Of the 12 from Jammu and Kashmir, most were quite likely from the Jammu belt.

As usual the numbers from the north east did not find mention, presumably since these were negligible and were not released by the army public relations officer.

A pattern is visible from the usual statistics put out at the biannual passing out parade. Of the 383 GCs passing out in June this year, 63 were from UP, 49 from Haryana, 33 from Uttarakhand, 35 from Bihar, 29 from Punjab and 22 from Himachal.

Of the other states, Maharashtra had 22, Gujarat 1, Andhra Pradesh 3, Telangana 4, Chhattisgarh 4 and Jharkhand 8. For the heartland the figures are:

There are no studies that indicate the effect of this on professionalism, the hallmark of the army. However, from the fact of some ethnic groups not signing up it can be inferred that the capable youth from these communities are finding an outlet elsewhere for their energies.

In that case the army would be filling its numbers from the relatively less capable youth from a narrow set of communities offering up their sons.

On entry, while its training systems would kick in and mould the youth volunteering for a life in uniform, the social culture and predispositions of these groups will persist and on account of their predominance in terms of numbers, set the internal subculture of the army.

While the existing organisational culture and regimental grooming can be expected to contribute to acculturation into military mores, this is increasingly limited. The pressures of operational deployments, pace of cantonment life, the hectic round of professional courses and early deputations outside such as to the Rashtriya Rifles have constricted the scope for the organisation to influence values, relationships and outlook.

The carryover from the social backgrounds into the army therefore looms larger, and the army’s subculture is threatened by appropriation by the norms of the cow-dust belt.

This has operational consequence.

Much of the army is deployed in insurgency affected areas. An army that does not reflect India’s diversity would, firstly, appear alien in such areas. Recall the composition of the soldiery, especially in the infantry, too is regiment based, a holdover of the colonial-era martial race theory. Episodes such as the killing of seven Kashmiri civilians protesting a military operation in their village in Pulwama last week can be expected to become less frequent.

Secondly, a homogeneous army will itself be less able to understand and empathise with the alienation that afflicts such areas. Willy-nilly, a gap that breeds suspicion can affect counter insurgency operations, making these more kinetic than necessary.

Witness the recent plea to the Supreme Court by some 350 officers calling for continuing impunity in insurgency affected areas. Problematic othering such as this, based on an ‘Us vs Them’ perception, is easier arrived at.

As for the conventional sphere, threat perceptions are likely to be pegged higher in respect of the traditional adversary, Pakistan, owing to the prevalent societal attitudes in the catchment areas of the officer corps. It is well said in the strategic community that the further one travels from Delhi, the less odious Pakistan appears and the threat it poses, less existential and urgent. An institutional lens coloured by societal bias can potentially condition the image and corresponding response.

Last and perhaps more importantly, civil-military relations are liable to be affected. Narrowly, an illustration is the unsavoury community and caste underpinnings of the sorry episodes in the civil-military story of the United Progressive Alliance decade. The proverbial ‘line of succession’ theory was triggered by its rumoured bias in favour of Sikhs. And one of the unspoken facets of the age controversy of a former chief, was internal caste equations in the Jat community.

Broadly, the political and social orientation of the Hindi heartland – currently beset with an inclination for Hindutva – may figure prominently as an army subculture, appropriating the internal agenda and discourse of the officer corps.

The danger is if this ends up sometime in future placing the army – which may end up subscribing to a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan version of India – at odds with India’s liberal democratic ethos and the diversity that pervades its social and political spaces.

A plausible case can also be made for the lack of inclusiveness, and of the army being found wanting as an equal opportunity employer, based on social community profiles such as the abject under-representation of Muslims in it. The over-representation of Sikhs in the officer ranks has since the mid-eighties been balanced out, but it appears that the slots that opened up have been appropriated by Hindus of the Hindi belt.

The army chief in a visit this month to Pune to interact with disabled soldiers warned youth not to look at the army as an employment generating institution, such as the railways. One of the four studies mentioned also looks at right sizing, reducing the army’s numbers by one lakh.

Such a decline in numbers would accentuate the problem of non-representativeness, with over-represented ethnic groups exerting to keep their foot in the door.

This is not the lookout of the army alone. Officer representativeness is an additional stake for all groups in a united India and the institutions that keep it so.

State governments need to exert to gain for their youth an avenue into the officer cadre, not only by taking up their absence with the ministry, but also to encourage youth to sign up.

Disadvantaged social communities need likewise to look inwards and emulate those who are over-represented.

The net gain will be in a balance within the officer cadre, balance being a virtue in itself.