Sitharaman Restores ‘Sheen’ to Military Ranks after 2016 Uproar 

On 5 January, a disparity in military-civilian ranking was resolved. The Quint had reported on it in November 2017.

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(In light of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman ordering the withdrawal of a controversial order that appeared to downgrade the ranks of military officers as compared to their civilian counterparts, The Quint is republishing this article from its archives. On 5 January 2017, The Print reported that the “supremacy of military officers over civilian counterparts in the armed forces headquarters” has been maintained in a fresh order by the Defence Ministry, thus, resolving a sensitive issue that had sparked outrage in 2016.)

A point-to-point equation of military ranks and civil grades has always been the subject of controversy. However, things have taken an unpleasant turn in the recent past.

While it is true that a sense of entitlement on the part of both military and civil staff must not be allowed to prevail, it is equally valid that undue advantage of proximity to the decision-making process must not become the order of the day. The political executive thus, must reach a fair solution without any favour to either side.

Many military veterans have adopted the route of heavy emotional rhetoric in articulating their views on this subject. I sincerely feel, with all due respect to the said thought process, that a solution, if any, would only be possible in an environment of mutual trust, discussion and logic, irrespective of who is in power, and not by sharp statements against other services or professions or expressing a persecution complex.

It is true that the military has been put at a disadvantage in the past in various aspects, but it is equally correct that many anomalies have been resolved, some fully, some partially.

Besides, most of these positive movements took place by means of dialogue and processes of law, and by personalities who mostly remained behind the curtains, sometimes unsung.

  • The controversy began with the 4th Pay Commission, with different systems for Defence services and Civil services
  • The 6th CPC brought the problem into the open in clear words, throwing the entire equation into disarray
  • A Group of Ministers (GoM) was formed by the government, and their recommendations were accepted by the Cabinet
  • The current controversy was triggered in October 2016 when the Chief Administrative Officer of the MoD issued a one-sided memo de-ranking the already depressed military ranks
  • Over the years, the sheen of the military rank has suffered by default, if not by design
  • While civil posts have moved up and merged with higher grades, military ranks have stagnated and been clubbed and bunched with lower grades
  • However, while the slide of the sheen of the military rank is more than evident, it is not that the military has not contributed to it

The Historical Perspective

Traditionally, there was always a broad parity of pay progression between Class-I civil services (now known as Group A) and the commissioned cadre of the defence services.

There was also a broad parity between the career progression of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the defence services, except at higher ranks. Moreover, there was established relativity between Lieutenant Colonels, conservators of forests and superintending engineers.

Till the 3rd Central Pay Commission (CPC), there was not much of a problem in equivalence and it was broadly accepted that the Junior Time Scale (the starting grade of directly appointed Class I Officers) was equal to a Lieutenant, the Senior Time Scale (Under Secretary to Govt of India) was equal to a Captain, the Junior Administrative Grade (Deputy Secretary to Govt of India/Joint Director) was at par with a Major, and the Selection Grade (now Director to Govt of India) was equivalent to a Lieutenant Colonel.

The 4th CPC introduced a separate form of pay system for the defence services with a running pay scale with separate component of ‘rank pay’ being introduced for defence officers while civil officers were to maintain distinct pay scales for each rank as per the earlier system.

This was the starting point of the controversy with no “scale-to-scale” rough comparison now available for each analogous rank.

On 5 January, a disparity in military-civilian ranking  was resolved. The Quint had reported on it in November 2017.

Skewed Equation by 6th CPC

The 6th CPC, for the first time, brought the problem out in the open. On Page 73 of the 6th CPC Report, the commission reproduced a chart of analogous military and civil grades, wherein it pegged the Group A Junior Time Scale with a Lieutenant as well as a Capt, the Senior Time Scale (STS) with a Major, the Junior Administrative Grade with a Lt Col, the Selection Grade with a Colonel and a DIG with a Brig.

There were, however, many infirmities in the chart. For example, while only one of the civil selection grade scales (that of a director) was reproduced and shown against a Colonel, the other civil selection grade scales (For example the IPS Selection Grade of Rs 1650-1800) were not reproduced at all and also did not reflect on similar scales as that of its closest military counterpart of Lt Col (Rs 1750-1950).

The rank of Captain was shown equivalent to Senior Time Scale (Under Secretary to Govt of India) in the 3rd CPC table but had suddenly been reduced below STS in the 4th CPC table and clubbed with a Lieutenant and Junior Time Scale. Needless to say, there was no government order downgrading a Captain from the earlier level.

There were other infirmities too, for example, the scale of a DIG wrongly shown analogous to a Brigadier in the 3rd CPC chart was actually that of the then existing grade of Additional IG which was later merged with IG, and so on. The data, hence, was cherry-picked and projected to throw the entire equation into disarray.

On 5 January, a disparity in military-civilian ranking  was resolved. The Quint had reported on it in November 2017.
Nirmala Sitharaman being sworn-in as defence minister. Image used for representational purposes.
(Photo: PTI)

Formation of a Group of Ministers

Due to the downgradation of military ranks by the 6th CPC, the government decided to form a Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into the issue. The GoM ultimately recorded that the pay of a Lt Col should be hiked to denote his/her position above a Deputy Secretary to Govt of India/Joint Director but below a Director and a Colonel. The recommendations were accepted by the Cabinet.

The controversy was hence settled to an extent, though not to the complete satisfaction of the defence services, who had wanted the restoration of status of Lt Col to director-level officers since both had similar attributes of pay and length of service.

The GoM also endorsed the formation of a High Level Committee to further resolve the issue. To be honest, even the demands of the military before the GoM were not justified at a few levels.

For example, the defence services had demanded the pre-4th CPC restoration of the rank of Capt to Senior Time Scale and that of Major to Junior Administrative Grade, forgetting in the bargain, that by this time there was a difference in promotion timelines on account of a change in rules.

While a defence officer was promoted to the rank of Captain in 2 years, a Group A civil officer took 4 years to reach Senior Time Scale, ditto for Major at 6 years and Junior Administrative Grade at 9 years, and such an equation would have led to an undue advantage to the defence services.

The Current Controversy

The current controversy was triggered in October 2016 when the chief administrative officer of the MoD, the controlling officer for the cadre of the Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service (AFHQCS), issued a one-sided memo, downgrading the status of military ranks even below the already depressed levels articulated by the 6th CPC.

The memo equated a Colonel with a Joint Director of the AFHQCS (a Joint Director was otherwise equated with a Lt Col by the 6th CPC and later a Joint Director was placed in-between a Major and a Lt Col by the GoM).

Further, the memo equated a Director with a Brigadier, though a Director had clearly been equated with a Colonel both by the 6th CPC as well as the GoM and approved as such by the Cabinet.

On 5 January, a disparity in military-civilian ranking  was resolved. The Quint had reported on it in November 2017.
Ex-army men protest over One Rank One Pension at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.
(Photo: PTI)

Of Hierarchies & Misnomers

Over the years, if not by design, the sheen of the military rank has suffered by default. Major General (today with 32 years of service) has traditionally been pegged at par with Joint Secretary to Govt of India (currently 19 years of service) but it is unfortunate how this has come about.

The genesis of this incorrect equation emanates from the fact that pre-independence, the Secretarial hierarchy was in the order of Assistant Secretary to Govt of India (Stage 1), Under Secretary (Stage 2), Additional Deputy Secretary (Stage 3), Deputy Secretary (Stage 4), Joint Secretary (Stage 5), Additional Secretary (Stage 6) and Secretary (Stage 7).

A Major General was equated with Joint Secretary, which was a Stage 5 position in the hierarchy and even the length of service was similar. However, over the years, the nomenclatures in the Central Secretariat setup/Central Staffing Scheme were altered and appointments re-designated as Under Secretary (Stage 1), Deputy Secretary (Stage 2), Director (Stage 3), Joint Secretary (Stage 4), Additional Secretary (Stage 5), Secretary (Stage 6) and Cabinet Secretary (Stage 7).

Hence, while the “Maj Gen = Joint Secretary” equation was cleverly maintained on paper as before, it was not realised that the erstwhile Stage 5 of the secretarial hierarchy was now Additional Secretary and hence Maj Gen should have retained his 5th position, that is, Additional Secretary of date.

Also, the equation of Joint Secretaries to Government of India and Major General was not with regard to all officers in the pay of Joint Secretary, but only with those officers who were currently holding the appointment of Joint Secretary to the Govt of India on being empanelled as such in the Centre. Similar has been the case if compared with other services.

For example, the highest Police Rank in a State, the IG, was equated with a Brigadier/Major General. Today, there are four pay grades in the Police above a Brigadier and three above a Major General.

This is not to say that other cadres should stagnate, but is simply to put across that when such upward mobility occurs, there should be a parallel mobility or merger of scales on the military side too.

On 5 January, a disparity in military-civilian ranking  was resolved. The Quint had reported on it in November 2017.
An Indian army officer inspects a US rifle during Indo-US joint exercise in Chaubattia, in the northern Indian state of Uttaranchal, on 26 January 2006. Image used for representational purposes.
(Photo: Reuters) 

Slide Over the Times on Cadre Revisions

While a Lt Col, Conservator of Forests and Superintending Engineer of the Central Engineering Services (SE) were historically at par, today, after the 7th Central Pay Commission, a Lt Col in Pay Level 12A is a step below an SE in pay (Pay Level 13), and two steps below a Conservator (Pay Level 13A). The slide has been inexplicable over the times with status being gently nibbled over the years.

Moreover, as explained above, whenever there has been any cadre improvement, while civil posts have moved up and merged with higher grades due to better cadre mobility and upgradations, military ranks have stagnated and have been clubbed and bunched with lower grades.

Many examples come to the fore. The erstwhile police rank of Additional IG which was roughly equal to a Brig now stands merged with an IG and enjoys the pay of a Maj Gen and that of Additional DIG in the Central Armed Police Forces which was equal (in fact slightly lower) in pay to a Col now stands clubbed with a DIG, today drawing the pay of a Brig. In the Military Engineering Services, the rank of Additional Chief Engineer on the civil side was equated with a Colonel and held interchangeable appointments.

Later, in the 2000s, the said rank was merged in the grade of Chief Engineer and is today enjoying Pay Level 14 which is the pay granted to a Maj Gen.

The Senior Administrative Grade-II roughly equated with a Brigadier was merged with Senior Administrative Grade-I and today both are known as ‘Senior Administrative Grade’ (SAG) simpliciter and are in the pay of a Maj Gen.

While logically, both Brigadiers and Major Generals should have hence been equated with SAG, today the rank of Brig stands relegated below SAG.


The Military Also Needs to Readjust

While the slide of the sheen of the military rank is more than evident, it is not that the military has not contributed to it.

Over the years, the military establishment has believed in placing senior officers on junior appointments and used military staff in a manner not befitting the rank held, thereby itself projecting a wrong equation to the world at large.

It also needs to be empathetically iterated that civilians who have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the military in mixed organisations have also at times not been given due respect and regard to their experience, age, seniority and maturity. Such mistrust and friction militates against organisational fabric and national ethos.

If the officers of the defence services expect respect and sensitivity towards their standing in society, similar should be their own attitude towards civilian peers in mixed organisations and indeed towards other civil officers who are also serving the same nation and the same flag with utmost sincerity.

Any sense of entitlement or superiority on part of the military in this regard, is therefore, highly incongruous and misplaced.

The Role of the Political Executive

While no entity, including the military, should be allowed to steal a march over other counterparts, the political executive and higher bureaucracy must insulate itself from any advantage sought to be achieved by key appointments due to functional proximity with power centres.

Ironically, and contrary to popular belief, most of these problems have not arisen between the military vis-a-vis the IAS or other Group A services but with support cadres which were meant to assist the military in their secretarial requirements to enable the defence services in focussing upon their core areas. Crudely put, it is a case of the grass eating the hedge.

Though I am not very sure if and when this vexed issue can be resolved to the complete satisfaction of all, I am sanguine that with political maturity and deftness, the abrasion between various cadres can be brought down to minimal levels and though a point-to-point comparison may never be possible, the solution perhaps lies in evolving an approach with an approximate pay and status progression keeping in view the historical parities and length of service between the Commissioned Cadre and other Group A services of the Government of India.

And here is where I differ with some of my esteemed veteran friends; I strongly believe that the key to this is the creation of an environment of mutual trust and convincing the political executive that while the final decision is that of the elected leadership, all that needs to be ensured is a say of all stakeholders in the decision-making process, leading to justice and equity to all sides.

This can only be achieved by logical presentation and not by shouting down or ascribing motives or antagonising every entity who might have a difference of opinion or a divergent view on a recommended solution, and in the bargain losing all friends by burning bridges with emotional rhetoric to a point of no return, without any semblance of balance.

(Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing lawyer at the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the founder President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association, at Chandigarh. He can be reached @SinghNavdeep. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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