Learning from the Army's ways

Topics Indian Army

Policies and procedures relating to the economy get a lot of attention, even if they are often bypassed. An aspect that is either taken for granted or simply ignored is social harmony and cohesion. The truth is, good policies need coherent implementation based on social consensus and luck for results.

Yet, when it comes to social organisation, we are admittedly slack. By contrast, our armed forces manage the same disorderly inclinations very effectively. While everyone admires their valour, they would be better served by emulating the armed forces’ proven ways for organising and functioning competently. Could elements of their principles and practices be applicable to social organisation and to civil administration?

The Indian Army mirrors Indian society in its regional, ethnic and cultural variations. Yet, it differs significantly from civil society in that it is highly organised, cohesive, disciplined, and purposeful. While on the surface, the focus appears to stem from homogeneity in army units, further scrutiny reveals other complex factors.

Homogeneity begins with recruitment in old line infantry regiments such as the Dogra, Garhwal, Gurkha, Jat, Kumaon, and Sikh regiments from these ethno-religious groups (“single-class” units1), although their officers are from all over the country. This “cultural coherence” has been extended to regional units, such as the Assam, Bihar, or Madras Regiments, for recruits from respective regions. There are “fixed class” units, with regiments or battalions with two or three subunits of single classes; “mixed fixed class” as in the Punjab Regiment, with Punjabis and Dogras in mixed sub units; and the “All India All Class” units with troops from anywhere in the country, such as the Guards. The latter holds for Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Army Service Corps, Medical Corps, Ordnance Corps, and so on. In practice, units with mixed recruits have proven to be equally cohesive and competent, regardless of diversity.

Officers are from all over India, and are expected to familiarise themselves with the language and culture of their troops, and to bond with them at a personal level. This includes the unique practice of shared worship of all religions, with religious teachers in its battalions, on which more later.  

Illustration by Binay Sinha

So, what are the Indian Army’s organising principles, and to what extent can they be replicated in civil society? A study between 2009 and 2011 of religion in the Indian Army by Amit Ahuja, associate professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, provides some insights.2  The Indian Army is a multifaith organisation (as are our other armed forces), largely comprising believers in various creeds, that consciously accommodates religiosity. This involves faith and culturally embedded religious practices, while maintaining the primacy of institutional authority over religious authority. The backdrop is a society that is religious, has many faiths, yet is a constitutionally secular state.

The army employs two noteworthy principles.  First, it instills a sense of community through loyalty to the regiment, the army, and to the country, while functioning at the level of one’s unit. Second, it “goes to great lengths to accommodate religion and uses it instrumentally to motivate its ranks”2 to harness the benefits of religion, while limiting its pernicious effects. This is achieved through developing the primacy of honour around regimental identity (community) and national identity, and subordinating religious identity. 

Thus, there are two principles. The first is allegiance built up around regimental and national identity, and the second is religious beliefs and practices that are respectful of all religions. There are institutional mechanisms to internalise the practise of interfaith respect, apolitical orientation, organisation around ethnicity, and elite control and management.

The overarching identity and allegiance is national and to the regiment (community), the sense that “the honor of our regiments and our fellow men is at stake”2. Here, the valorous experience in the Indian Army of regimental lore, traditions, honour and awards combined with shared experience in postings provide an immersive crucible, which is not comparable to civilian living. Such creation of a sense of community and commitment to fellow members and to the nation in civil society deserves consideration, for induction in education and training from early school through later life. Activities such as the National Cadet Corps, or the Scouts and Guides, are practised in varying ways at educational institutions, often desultorily. These need to be radically enhanced, and augmented with ideas such as from the Institute of National Integration (more below), and given early and wide dissemination through digital platforms.  A stint of compulsory military service for young adults deserves consideration.

After allegiance comes interfaith respect, and the armed forces are trained in this practise. Various religious holidays and regional festivals are celebrated, and officers are required to participate. Religious teachers of all major faiths are recruited to units based on their constituents, and trained by the Institute of National Integration.3  Conceived by General O P Malhotra in 1980 and begun in 1985, the Institute’s courses focus on religious harmony and fostering a spirit of cooperation and unit cohesion. Selected personnel are also trained in behavioural and social sciences.  

Are such principles practicable in our democratic society? Such convergence requires a thorough cleansing of sectarian practices, which presupposes leadership and collective will. If it were possible with strong leadership, there could be substantial benefits from sustained exposure and training.

For our economic and social well-being, we need to take steps such as emulating the Indian Army’s ethos. Rediscovering the reality of Bill Clinton’s campaign statement is necessary for India’s revival in the years ahead: “It’s the economy, stupid!” If our leaders grasp this, they may be less hyperbolic and more pragmatic in coming to terms with reality.

Acceptance of ground realities in addressing the economy is a first step. The next is to figure out ways to organise and rebuild. The Indian Army has some pointers.

1. The recruitment and organization of army units has a complicated legacy.  A brief description is given in this article by Lt. General Ata Hasnain (Retd):


2. “Chapter 7, Religion in the Indian Army,” Religion in the Military Worldwide, ed. Ron E. Hassner, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

http://ahuja.faculty.polsci.ucsb.edu/aa/Research_files/Amit%20Ahuja%20-%20India%20 %20Religion%20in%20the%20Military%20Worldwide-2013.pdf

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel