The Regimental system is one of the cornerstones of the Indian Army. Regimental spirit is the glue that binds fighting arms together in a unique bond of loyalty, camaraderie and selfless service. The spirit transcends decades, seniority and other barriers to bring all ranks of a regiment together, professionally and personally. In war and under adverse situations of all kinds, it is the thought of keeping the flag of the regiment flying high – “paltan ki izzat” – which makes men go beyond the call of duty, put their lives at peril and perform remarkable feats of valour. It is this spirit that brings aged veterans, barely able to walk, back to the unit to celebrate a ‘Battle Honour Day’ year after year.
However, like everything else, when such a spirit reaches excessive levels, it can be damaging. An example of this is an item in today’s newspaper – “Army Chief favours his regimental officers”. Apparently the Chief has played a role in facilitating all officers of his Regiment – Rajputs – preparing for the Staff College Exam, to be able to go to Infantry School, MHOW, and stay there to prepare.
On the face of it, there seems to be no big deal – no harm done. After all, there is a Rajput Battalion there, which will take care of their officers. As it is, a large number of Infantry officers do go there every year under their own arrangements to prepare for the exam, and the results generally show the wisdom of such a move. However, there’s a catch. At what rank or appointment does an officer stop being merely a regimental officer and start taking a broader perspective – taking ownership of the organization beyond regimental affiliations? After all, isn’t the Chief of Army Staff the Chief of the entire army? Shouldn’t he therefore, be equally concerned about the performance of all officers appearing for the exam? Should he really be seen going out of his way to make such arrangements for ‘his’ officers? What kind of a message does such a narrow focus send to the rest of them?
It is not without reason that the Army has a system of officers beyond the rank of a Colonel no longer wearing the regimental cap badge and shoulder titles. They are not expected to confine their thoughts and actions to regimental level, and are supposed to identify with the Indian Army as a whole. From here on, they command formations where units of all regiments and arms are under their command. They are therefore supposed to rise above regimental loyalties and be fair and impartial in their dealings with all of them.
It is rather sad that in the recent years outright favouritism motivated by a misplaced sense of regimental loyalties has become par for the course for most senior officers. So, a number of important appointments in the key branches at Army Headquarters have been held by officers belonging to the same regiment (or arm, in the case of Artillery) as the incumbent Chief. Similar preferential treatment has been accorded when it comes to the move of units or foreign postings. A statistical analysis of the results of promotion boards and redressal of complaints against ACRs or Non-empanelment is also sure to show an unmistakably skewed pattern in favour of the flavour of the day in terms of regiment.
Unfortunately, this is a self perpetuating trend that gets accentuated as time goes along. And while the ultimate benefit to individuals or to a particular regiment may be short lived, the overall damage being caused to the organisational fabric of the army as a whole is long term. It is up to the sagacity of senior officers to differentiate between healthy regimental spirit and outright parochialism, and chose the former over the latter.