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.