Militaries across the globe share the tradition of granting “Commission to Officers”. Officers of the Indian Armed forces take pride in the fact that they have been commissioned - a unique distinction that sets them apart from all other “Officers” in the Government service. Since as far back as I can remember I had cherished a dream of becoming a Commissioned Officer.
Missing my dream by a whisker has left a wound in my heart that just refuses to heal ever after a relatively successful corporate career. For something so cherished, I find the absolute lack of understanding of the meaning or relevance of “Commissioning” intriguing.
When asked, most Officers stated with pride that as commissioned officers they were appointed by the President and had the document signed by the President to prove the point. This indeed is a treasured document unique to them but does not imply that other officers are not appointed by the President.
In fact, the President, the De Facto Sovereign Executive of India appoints all Officers or for that matter all Government employees either directly or through powers delegated by him. I have extensively researched the subject over the years to find the answer to the meaning and relevance of commissioning!
Before I dwell on Commissioning, it is imperative to understand the role or significance of a “Sovereign”. Derived from the Latin superanus through the French souveraineté, the term was originally understood to mean the equivalent of supreme power.
In 1651 Thomas Hobbes the English Philosopher concluded that Law is what sovereigns command, and it cannot limit their power: sovereign power is absolute to treat their own resources and subjects in any way that suits them. Lassa Oppenheim, the renowned German Jurist, and an authority on international law had famously opined in the 19th century that there exists perhaps no conception the meaning of which is more controversial than that of sovereignty.
It is an indisputable fact that this conception, from the moment when it was introduced into political science until the present day, has never had a meaning which was universally agreed upon. Despite this the UN Charter stated that the UN is “based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its Members.”
The Webster Dictionary defines Sovereign as one possessing or held to possess supreme political power or sovereignty or one that exercises supreme authority within a limited sphere or an acknowledged leader. Simply put a Sovereign is one who cannot be ordered by anyone else in the realm of his Sovereignty.
"Companies of “cadets” which literally translated to mean younger scions of noble houses, were first formed in France in 1682, to teach young noblemen the duties of an officer."
In ancient times the Monarchs were sovereigns and wielded absolute authority and were a law unto themselves. This authority got delegated to their immediate family and nobility by the sovereign. The key to power was the command of the military.
The Sovereign granted the right to lead troops on his behalf to his most trusted and able affiliates. The right to lead troops was restricted to the aristocracy and the blue blooded. With the advancement in warfare and growing territorial ambitions the requirement for military leaders outdid the number of young princes in the royal families.
The solution to this was presented automatically when there were an increasing number of soldiers from the peasantry who proved themselves as able military leaders in battle.
Such soldiers were selected to lead troops on behalf of the sovereigns. Since they did not have the right to lead men by virtue of their birth, they were granted commission by the sovereign. In Subsequent times commissions were also granted or bought by individuals to maintain a body of troops on behalf of the sovereign.
The commission signified the delegated authority of the sovereign. In the absence of the sovereign or any other commissioned officer senior to him every commission holder had the absolute power of the sovereign.
Every word of command he uttered was assumed to be coming straight from the sovereign and failure to obey would constitute treason. He had the authority to attack, subjugate and sign treaties with other sovereigns.
In addition to Military Officers the tradition of Commissioning is shared by Naval Ships. A commissioned ship becomes an extension of the sovereign territory of the nation that has commissioned it. The customs, rules and regulations followed on board are in line with those. Any attack on the ship is taken as an assault on the sovereignty of the nation.
Historically military skills were acquired by actual practice and performance under supervision in simulated or actual battle. In 1604, Henry IV of France found a military school at La Fleche for the sons of nobles and the officers. The focus was on general education and moral instruction for boys and functioned as a preparatory school or junior college rather than a modern military academy.
Companies of “cadets” which literally translated to mean younger scions of noble houses, were first formed in France in 1682, to teach young noblemen the duties of an officer.
Cadets were very young-in their early teens were taught the duties of an Officer and general education played a large part in the syllabus. The standard of education in modern subjects such as geography, mathematics, and science, was higher than in the most prestigious civilian institutions.
Ritter-Akademies, and 'Cadet Houses' such as Liegnitz Ritter Akademie and Wolfenbüttel Ritter-Akademie were established in Germany and the Habsburg dominions from the late 16th century or early 17th century onwards to instill military ethos in Cadets.
Initially the training in these academies emphasized the handling of weapons, the drilling and management of men, tactics and strategy, and ceremonial. Scientific and technical, got included to accommodate the increasing part played by science, technology, and organization in warfare.
The British Army’s Royal Military Academy was the earliest military academy in Britain. It was established in 1741 to train gentlemen cadets for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. Cole. Gaspard Le Marchant proposed the establishment of a "college" to train cadets to be Infantry and Cavalry officers.
"The first commission granted to Indians was the “Viceroys Commission” and these officers were known as Viceroy's Commissioned Officer or VCO."
In 1801 the Royal Military College (RMC) was established with a Senior Department at Marlow to train staff officers and Junior Department at High Wycombe to educate cadets for commissions into the infantry and cavalry regiments of the British Army and for the presidency armies of British India.
The first commission granted to Indians was the “Viceroys Commission” and these officers were known as Viceroy's Commissioned Officer or VCO. The soldiers who were promoted to VCO rank had a long and good service record, were fluent in English, and acted as a liaison point between officers and men and as advisers to the British officers on Indian affairs.
They VCOs were senior in rank to warrant officers in the British Army, and held a commission issued by the viceroy and had authority only over Indian troops and were subordinate to all the British King's commissioned officers and King's commissioned Indian officers.
The exceptional performance of Indian Officers in World War I, led to the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms and in 1918 the King's Commission was opened to Indians for becoming officers of the Indian Army and ten places in the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, UK, were reserved for them. The King’s Commissioned Indian Officers or KCIO had the same status as that of their British colleagues.
The first Round Table Conference in 1930 saw the Indian Leaders and the British Government of India agree to the establishment of an Indian officer training college. The Indian Military College Committee, set up under the chairmanship of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode, in 1931 recommended the establishment of an Indian Military Academy in Dehradun to produce forty commissioned officers twice a year following two and a half years of training.
The first batch of 40 gentleman cadets (GC) began their training on 1 October 1932 and the Academy was formally inaugurated on 10 December 1932.
The first Course of IMA Passed out in December 1934 and was Granted Commission in the Royal Indian Army by the Viceroy. The “Indian Commission” or IC replaced the King's Commission. This was the first step in degradation of the “Commission”. The Indian Commission Officers though higher in status to the VCOs did not have parity with the King's Commission or King's Commissioned Indian Officers.
The Indian Commission Officers served in Native regiments and could not be posted to regular units of the British Army. The Second World war provided an opportunity to the Indian Commission officers to prove their mettle. Capt MY Khan was awarded the Military Cross in 1937 making him the first Indian Commission officer to win a gallantry award.
In 1941, 2Lt P S Bhagat received the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award of the British Army; Capt MA Ansari and Capt Sartaj Singh were awarded the George Medal by the end of World War II 71 Military Crosses had been conferred on Indian Commission officers. Their Valour and Leadership propelled them to parity with Commissioned officers of the leading militaries of the era.
Post-Independence, India became a Democratic Republic where the Sovereignty lies with the people or Citizens of India. The Citizens elect their representatives to parliament which has the Legislative Sovereignty. However, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India.
This implies that while the parliament has rights to amend the constitution, the modifications are subject to be valid under the framework of the constitution itself and all amendments to the constitution are open to a Judicial Review.
Any ordinary Citizen of India can challenge any amendment to the constitution in the High Court and Supreme Court. While it is the Sovereign parliamentary privilege to amend the constitution, the constitution itself remains supreme.
The government in India is composed of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, in which all powers are vested by the constitution in the prime minister, parliament and the supreme court.
"Commissioned officers of the Royal Indian Army like any other professional Army were treated as a class separate from civilian officers or Bureaucrats who were categorised as “Government Servants”.
The president of India is the head of state and the elected prime minister acts as the head of the executive, and is responsible for running the Union government. Article 53(1) of the constitution vests all the constitutional powers in the President of India.
The president is bound to exercise them directly or through subordinate officers in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister of India, who leads the Council of Ministers of the Republic of India as described in Article 74 of the Constitution. The council of ministers remains in power during the 'pleasure' of the president. However, the Council of Ministers cannot be dismissed as long as it enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha.
The President in his official capacity appoints the governors of the states; the chief justice; other judges of the supreme court and high courts; the attorney general; the comptroller and auditor general; the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners; the chairman and members of the Union Public Service Commission; the officers of the All India Services (IAS, IFoS and IPS) and Central Civil Services in group 'A'; and the ambassadors and high commissioners to other countries.
The President is also the de jure commander-in-chief of the Indian Armed Forces and Grants Commission to the Officers of the Indian Army. While the officers of the All India Services (IAS, IFoS and IPS) and Central Civil Services are “appointed” by the President, the Officers of the Armed Forces of the Union of India are “Granted a Commission”.
This implies that while an IAS of Group A Central Civil Services officer is a servant of the state a Commissioned Officer of the Union of India is a representative of his nation.
Under British rule the Chief of the Indian Army was number two in the order of precedence; number one being the Viceroy. Commissioned officers of the Royal Indian Army like any other professional Army were treated as a class separate from civilian officers or Bureaucrats who were categorised as “Government Servants”.
Post Independence, while it was logical to put the elected representatives higher in the order of precedence, the bureaucracy in India with the tacit support or ignorance of the elected Government progressively reduced the status of Commissioned Officers.
"It is often said in the services that after every war, the status of the defence forces has plummeted to a new low. Today, the service chiefs are shown at 13th position in the warrant of precedence."
After the 1947-1948 war, service chiefs were made junior to judges of the Supreme Court. They were made junior to cabinet secretary after the 1962 war and junior to Attorney-General after the 1965 war. After the 1971 war, they were made junior to Comptroller and Auditor General.
Though the decorative rank of Field Marshal was created after the 1971 war, no special status was conferred on it. It is often said in the services that after every war, the status of the defence forces has plummeted to a new low. Today, the service chiefs are shown at 13th position in the warrant of precedence.
The Grade pay of a government servant determines his position in the order of precedence. The bureaucracy in India has deceitfully applied the same yardstick to determine the status of Commissioned officer vis-a-vis the civilian public servants. Things have come to such a pass today that Central Civil Services in group 'A' are being considered superior to the Commissioned Officers of the Union of India.
The recent case demanding NFU in the Supreme court has seen the Commissioned officers pleading that they are a group 'A' “Service”.
While there can be no denying the fact that our gallant Commissioned Officers deserve a pay and perks higher than any other “Service” they still need to retain the pride in being holders of a commission, the delegated authority of our sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. Jai Hind!
The author is a keen scholar of Indian Military and contemporary issues and solicits comments and feedback on twitter @ChatyTheCheetah