The decision of the Armed Forces Tribunal last month invalidating the 2009 promotion policy for army officers and the subsequent stay by the Supreme Court on a special leave petition filed by the government has touched off anxieties within the army. By initiating a new Command Exit Model, the 2009 policy, it is being said, benefited infantry and artillery officers in promotions to colonel at the cost of other arms and services. Before 2009, the army followed the pro-rata model, where the number of colonels was in proportion to the junior officers in the arm. The 2009 policy also affected the higher ranks, as the number of brigadiers and generals is proportional to the colonels held by each arm.
The army is structured as a steep pyramid where, unlike the civil services, only a limited number of officers get promoted beyond the rank of lieutenant colonel. Due to stiff competition for limited ranks, any policy affecting promotions is bound to cause heartache among officers. In this context, the increasing age of battalion commanders led the Kargil Review Committee to recommend younger commanders. A subsequent defence ministry committee gave a set of recommendations to reduce the army’s age profile but barring the increase in higher ranks, no other recommendation — such as lateral absorption of officers in the police and paramilitary or an increased number of short service officers — has been implemented by the government. That would have meant better promotion chances for permanent army officers.
What is most worrying, however, is the internal tensions this case threatens to trigger within the army. Only five officers had initially approached the tribunal, but their number in the Supreme Court has now swelled beyond 250. Infantry and artillery officers and veterans argue that considering their risk profile and hardships, they deserve a higher share of senior ranks.
The other side contends that every arm and service contributes to a robust force and discrimination will lead to a fractured and demotivated army. A judicial pronouncement, whichever way it goes, will bring cheer to one side and gloom to the other. The top army leadership needs to look beyond legal measures and take steps to assuage the concerns of both sides. If it fails to do so, the political leadership must take on the task of ensuring that the army stays cohesive and united.