Officer- PBOR semantics: A deeper malaise

It is always intriguing to watch a Hollywood or a British movie and see their sergeants being addressed as officers. It sounds logical as they are Non Commissioned Officers (NCO). In Indian Army, besides the NCOs, there are Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) as well. They are granted the (junior?) commission by the President but the Indian army refers to its JCOs and NCOs as not officers. They are instead classified as PBOR (Personnel below officers rank).

This is another legacy of our colonial past, when “officers” signified British and “other ranks” referred to Indians. VCO, equivalent of the current day JCO, was a separate category by itself. The Indian Army has since gone a step ahead and classified everyone other than commissioned officers in one bracket. What is the basis of such distinction in twenty-first century India?

It seems that the ways to hold on to an elusive social status and perceived “dignity” preoccupies the minds of many commissioned officers, especially at senior ranks. Most of these senior officers, unlike the earlier times, have been upstaked and upgraded by the Army from their lower middle-class roots. The emblems of the perceived “dignity”, euphemistically called the perks of a senior rank, include the bungalows, the red-sashed guards, VIP guest rooms, five-star officers messes, the “modified” gypsies and ambassador cars with red lights, a litany of “sahayaks” and the expected obsequiousness from their subordinates. This social standing is further reinforced by distancing itself from everything tainted by the lack of sophistication of bloody civilians or by ordinary misery and deprivation of its uncouth subordinate soldiers.

In its assertion of this distance lies the self-image of the colonial British officer, and over time this has changed as little as the actual hierarchies and structure of the army itself. Only the gap between rhetoric and reality has widened over the last sixty years. The defence services have hidden behind the guise of national security and have deftly avoided all entities of accountability towards the nation, whether through the parliament or an informed media. This has allowed the sources of power and justice (and corruption) to be concentrated in the hands of the few at the top of the military hierarchy. It also makes it easier for the bureaucracy and the politicians to co-opt these few power-centres.

Is this Officer-PBOR differentiation only a matter of semantics or does it have larger significance? If the prevailing culture and the functioning of the Indian army is anything to go by, this degradation and clubbing of all “other than commissioned” officer ranks has had a huge detrimental effect. An example in case is the Kargil conflict of 1999.

While all of us eulogise and celebrate the bravery of our young officers, the high officer casualty rate points to a deeper malaise [26 officers, 23 JCOs and 473 Other Ranks fatal casualties during Operation Vijay]. When even small section and sub-section level teams in an infantry unit have to be led in operations by officers, rather than NCOs, it displays a complete decimation of the established rank structure at the lower levels in the Indian Army. The JCOs are blamed profusely and the utility of this rank, unique to the sub-continental armies, in the current day Indian army has been repeatedly questioned. Similar questions should be asked about the role and status of NCOs as well. Much tougher questions ought to be asked of Army’s higher leadership and the current system espoused by them, which have degraded all ranks in the Army. The NCOs have become privates, the JCOs are performing the tasks of erstwhile corporals and the senior leadership uses officers (commissioned officers) for every routine and mundane task, that befit an NCO.

The decline in the position of officers and their mundane work content, especially in peace stations, has led to a decline in professional satisfaction for the bulk of the officer cadre. The challenge of a military career can be reinvigorated by empowering the junior ranks at the base of the pyramid– the NCOs and the JCOs. The much-talked about deficiency of officers would then take a nosedive, by higher retention and recruitment rates and bringing down unwanted officer appointments. Such democratisation and empowerment of the rank and file goes against the selfish interests of the current power-centres in the army– the top brass. Thus, there is not even an acknowledgment of the rot setting in or the reform urgently needed in the army. It is easier to hide behind the stories of patriotism, valour, history, tradition, customs and the like to con the common man. The excuse of “national security” is always ready to prevent scrutiny from the media, politicians and so-called defence analysts.

The Acorn has already exhorted –“Don’t leave the Army alone”. Its actually time to make the holy cow meow.


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17 Responses to Officer- PBOR semantics: A deeper malaise

  1. anonymous March 2, 2008 at 2:54 am #

    Keep on writing the truth. Patriots do lurk around even if they don’t comment often. And even if they don’t agree with everything you say, they do gain perspective.


  2. sanjay March 6, 2008 at 10:01 pm #

    As a very holistic veiw army/navy/air force is a source of CHEAP employment in a poor and huge(population) country like ours. Decentralisation will definately leed to army size reduction,and think of loss of employment.

    second, education is the factor as the major chunk of our india’s population( I guess 70% is)from rural areas and finding the educated guy may be a problem and again loss of jobs.

  3. Raja March 8, 2008 at 7:44 pm #

    Your views are like tonic.
    Carry on!

  4. Vineet March 8, 2008 at 9:03 pm #

    The counter view is that people who end up as LAOs/ Sub Inspectors/ Clerks/ Technicians/ Call Centre Executives/ Teachers/ Lab Assistants/ Other Gp ‘C’ posts in civil are welcomed as Officers in the Armed Forces.

    So far so good! Armed Forces is providing them social mobility.

    How about those who took the “Do you have it in you” campaign literally? Can they be spared of the slavery?

  5. PS March 8, 2008 at 9:18 pm #

    Did anyone notice the motorcar inadvertently ‘shot’ in the Ben Hur
    movie ? Slave on.

  6. Pragmatic March 8, 2008 at 11:54 pm #


    I hope your own views provide the Gin (to my tonic). And my only memories of “Carry on” are of the British comedy film series by that name :-)

    More seriously, thanks and I appreciate it.

    Can they be spared of the slavery?
    Educate the media, the public, the politicians and the bureaucrats. Make the top brass accountable. Reduce their discretionary powers. Get better systems and procedures in place. It is not an easy task, but this is the only way. And then hope like hell that it will happen in your lifetime :-(

    Nothing on the Chief Vs Jaswant “Kargil medal” sparring so far!

  7. Raja March 9, 2008 at 11:49 pm #

    All I can say is that we gravitate towards thoughts that echo our true feelings deep down.
    btw, I tried a real world response to a hypothetical Study proposal using the treads of this forum.
    Would anyone be surprised that my suggestions got watered down beyond recognition?
    Would anyone be surprised that suddenly I had a fan club among the rank and file who felt that suddenly someone had spoken the obvious?

  8. Pragmatic March 10, 2008 at 8:01 am #


    The inertia of such a huge system would need a lot of force to make it budge. The military, being a top-driven hierarchical organisation, is too much under the thumb of its top brass. I, for one, thus do not believe in each individual making a change in his “sphere of influence”. That is a surefire way of resisting real change.
    It seems that the only way, however unfortunate, is through interference by government or the judiciary. The first step on that path is to take away the immunity of the services from criticism by the public. There should not be any holy cows.

  9. PS March 10, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    Immunisation Cows Debate.
    Must agree with the top down works as suggested above. Also maybe please -

    [1] Balance Partial Differentials:
    Seems fair that Services & Goods* should be subject to critical analysis / acclaim by the Public. Already are anyhow – makes for good copy – always more fascinating to see a Bank’s Security guard with his hands in the petty cash till rather than boring chartered accountants, bureaucrats, netas wallowing to their armpits in swill. In all fairness the Services could similarly be allowed to critically comment, examine, take to (mil.) court any politician, bureaucrat, journalist, or citizen who wrongly bugs them / the National Interest ?
    *(..personnel policies, acquisition process)

    [2] Holy Cows make news:
    {C-1} Other than those being shipped to Bangladesh from India for wrong reasons.
    {C-2} Also headlined, the VC winner (in India) Sergeant James McGuire 1st Bengal Fusiliers Regiment who stole a cow (not clear whether Irish or Indian.) Subsequently punished till King George V intervened to restore the award 74 years later. Hon. Pres. Patil may note please – order VCs ( Vice Chancellor / Venture Capitalist) to give Mr LP Yadav his Railways turnaround IIM MBA legit. even if he took all those cows for a ride.
    {C-3} Could the nexus between Dairy wallahs / Haftawallas / Local Netas be reported in Sainik Samachar, so help cows off the highways into perhaps Gaushalas and Military Dairy Farms ? Help Military, Religious and Traffic Rites of passage.

    [3] Copy Rights:
    The USA has the Disorderly Conduct Law for Civilians. The IA has AA Sec 63. Similar. Make the latter applicable to the citizens of the largest democracy. See Indian jail populations rise to match US room occupancies. Outsource. Business opportunity too. Cultural Exchanges also. Take Bonne and Clyde types. Send Tyagi and Phoolan.

  10. EIDELON March 10, 2008 at 11:48 am #


  11. Pragmatic March 10, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    @PS/ Eidelon:

    Is India a “state with a military” or like Pakistan and Burma, we are “a military with a state”?
    Unfortunately, and I beg to disagree with both of you here :-) , this immunity from “informed” public scrutiny is doing more harm to the Army than good. Doesn’t US have checks on their military by the senate? Even Caesar had to go to the Roman elders. And, scrutiny & criticism doesn’t always mean political interference.
    “My corruption is less than yours” and “us versus them” slogans are good to raise the emotional pitch. It is about the nation and its armed forces and not the other way around.

  12. PS March 10, 2008 at 2:26 pm #

    Right on:
    Pragmatic has it very right about ‘informed public scrutiny.’ Sadly, however, most of the (esp.) print media today is only interested in a story tamasha to ‘entertain’ readers. Eg the Calcutta Park Street Battle.

    Adverserial – Complement SBI / FBI:
    Restoring a level ‘playing’ field could be say with a ‘~ PLA type’ Fauji Akhbar* to print what they want or need to, responsibly without fear or favour, instead of a shy and starchy Sainik Samachar reporting on family welfare meetings and heavy metal visits. Or an FM station, TV channel, Banks ( The FBI – Fauji Bank of India ? )

    Voting Rights:
    Seems sensible for the military to quietly ask for a tiny say in the selection of their Supreme Commander in R.Bhawan. His ACR’s could be scrutinised or one ends up with guys like Zail Singh willing to sweep the floor for the Leader or former lady managers of banks which went bust.

    *with revenue from Govt ads to sustain it commercially like other newspapers ?

  13. Pragmatic March 11, 2008 at 1:28 pm #

    Voting Rights:
    Seems sensible for the military to quietly ask for a tiny say in the selection of their Supreme Commander in R.Bhawan. His ACR’s could be scrutinised or one ends up with guys like Zail Singh willing to sweep the floor for the Leader or former lady managers of banks which went bust.

    How about a similar right first for the soldiers to decide who their Commanding Officer will be? Or for the officers to decide who their Chief will be? That would make it rather interesting.

    How many heavy metal[-led] guys you know of, who would be “willing to sweep the floors” or “bust a bank” for more metal on their shoulders?

  14. PS March 15, 2008 at 5:25 pm #

    Military El/selections:
    Last time an election for the most suitable guy to lead tps was post Ranjit (19th Cent) the Punjab Gent.

    Seems a tp_gp was squabbling as to who was to lead them in battle. The tp consensus reached was ‘ jeda sab to achhi seva karda ‘ ie ‘whoever serves best.’ Just then the ‘langri’ ie cook who had made a great meal, served it well to the tps. He was promptly ‘detailed to volunteer’ for C in C duties. Legend is that he did pretty well.

    In today’s context no Sir.

  15. db October 10, 2008 at 10:43 am #


  16. jezailchi October 10, 2008 at 7:50 pm #

    Take 2

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