A tale of two land forces: Army and Police
by Surjit Singh on 26 Mar 2009 38 Comments

If India is united and intact today, it is because of its military and in spite of our frenzied polity. I dare you to name a colonel or a general who is either communal or a zealot.

Marching Shoulder to Shoulder

On Republic Day, as they march down the Rajpath, the lay Indian can not tell the difference between the Army and the Police. And there is no need for any dissimilarity, because both these land forces exist for the same purpose; ‘to protect the life and property of our citizens.’

Look further and you find that their swords, rifles and even badges of rank are similar. Their respective cadres have well defined equivalents at each rung and their salary structures are determined by the same pay panels. Indeed, based on these striking similarities, the Sixth Pay Commission recommended that a lot could be achieved if soldiers retiring from the Army could be laterally shifted to the police force.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) rejected the suggestion outright. Its reasons for rejecting this apparently desirable administrative reform will become clear as you read on. To understand this complex issue, it is necessary to know the radical differences in their terms and conditions of service and their leadership patterns.

The Numbers Game

For the purpose of this discussion, all security personnel controlled by the MHA have been grouped together. Thus the State police cadres have been combined with the Para Military outfits such as the CRPF, BSF etc. The macro-level picture is as follows (all figures are approximate and based on averages of the last few years):



Police Services

Strength of the force

11 lakh                                    

23 lakh

Number of officers (sanctioned)     



Deficiency of officers                       



Annual intake of officers                  

1050 (regular)                        

60 (direct IPS)

Officers in grades above PB4                                                         


Over 250

Levels of Entry

In the Army, soldiers are inducted at two levels: as enlisted men and as officers. There is a provision for sepoy entrants to rise to officer ranks, but of the 60,000 soldiers recruited each year, less than 150 end up as officers.

In the Police, the entry is at four levels: (i) as constables (ii) as Inspectors (iii) in the State Police cadres and eligible to enter the IPS and (iv) direct entrants to the IPS. The figures with me suggest that of the 3800 officers, the number of direct entrants into the IPS is a little over 2200.

Promotion Prospects and Terms of Engagement

All police personnel retire at the age of 60. The four levels of entry more or less determine the terminal post of an entrant, within a narrow range. Thus a constable may at best become an Inspector; an Inspector may rise to a middle level officer; a State police officer would rise to be a DIG or IG and indeed, the direct entrant to the IPS would normally retire as a Director General of Police.

In sharp contrast, promotions in the army are extremely difficult to attain. Less than 600 out of the 60,000 men who are recruited retire as Sub-Maj, on an average. Of the 1100 officers granted commission each year, no more than 600 rise to command their battalions regiments. About 125 become Brigadiers, 50 rise to be Maj-General, 15 can see three stars on their car, and a plucky three or four attain the apex grade.

Retirement is also rank related. With every promotion, a soldier earns the right to serve for two additional years. These highly coveted promotions are earned through sheer dint of hard work and commitment to service. Medical fitness and discipline standards are the other two determinants for ascendancy.

In the police service also, standards have been laid down and cops have to undergo courses of instruction and earn good reports to rise in the hierarchy. But the infinitesimal numbers inducted at higher levels of entry enable a very high proportion of entrants to get promoted almost as a matter of course.  This indeed is easy to administer, just promote the man who joined the force early. Seniority is a matter of fact. Merit and performance are based on opinions, which may differ. 

Struggle for existence and survival of the fittest

There is a flip side to this highly ingenious method of ‘cadre management’ devised by the civil servants. Assured promotion tends to lead to complacency. Competition brings the best out of a person. Promotion can be a good motivator for employees to strive for excellence in performance. The dictum enunciated by Darwin applies to all living beings. Seniority teaches through hands on experience, but that is not the sole determinant of performance. I ask, ‘Do you choose a surgeon on the basis of his ‘seniority’ in the job?’

Leader-Led ratio

There are many differences between the Police and the Army. But the ratio of officers to men is perhaps the most striking one. At a party, a Police officer told me that the total number of IPS officers in UP is about 400. Of them more than half are of the level of DIG and above, with as many as twenty DGs of Police.

The number of officers in an Infantry Division is about 450. Of them no more than five are of the one-star rank and there is only one Major General. The result is that on ground, the apex police officers have no young officer to field when the chips are down. It is a time tested fact that soldiers will go into battle, if and only if, they are led from the front. You can not sit in an air conditioned office and ask men to go and face the bullet. The situation is like:
Aasman pe dhoom hai, zamin par koi nahin: Sab to DG hain yahan, halakoo koi nahin! 

The number of star ranks in the Police Service would make no difference to the soldiers if the two land forces were to exist and operate in isolated environments: the military on the borders and the police within the country. But the position on ground is that at every bend in the Ganges, the polity turns to the army for help. Whether it is a riot or terrorist attack or even a child trapped in a pit, the Police rushes to the Army for help. And when that happens, hackles go up. When a DIG with 15 years service tries to throw the weight of his ‘one-star’ status on a Commanding Officer, the soldier’s ego suffers a blow. Similarly, at ceremonial functions, when the General Officer Commanding of an Area is seated next to third rung Police officers, you can not fault him if he feels slighted.

What impels Police to turn to the Army for help?

It is often believed that the Police turns to the military because the Army has better weapons and equipment. This is not entirely true. The difference is not in the kind of arms or ammunition: it is in leadership styles.

The Army has a band of spirited young officers which the Police lacks. The direct entrants into the IPS are all potential Director Generals, and so they think ‘big’ from the day they join the Police Academy. There is also a difference in their selection process. It takes at least three years to prepare for the civil services examination, a considerable cerebral effort. The training at the Police Academy is a bit like military training, but the duration is short and the failure rate negligible. The youthful military officer is selected through outdoor tests and the training is an undiluted ‘grind.’

Let us now take a look at the adversary. The typical terrorist, gangster, brigand or ‘jihadi’ is a young man in his twenties. He is deeply committed to his cause and willing to die. He is agile, swift, ingenuous and frenzied, and armed. You can not reason with him, because he is unwilling to talk. To lock horns with him you need someone to match his prowess, and stake his life for the cause. Your book learning, analytical prowess and debating skills are, in fact, a liability. You cannot beat him by writing cogent papers or through media pressure. The likes of Veerappan can only be tackled by people who can play the game as per rules defined by the bandit - “Loha hi lohe ko kaat sakta hai” (you need an iron tool to cut iron). This kind of ‘tool’ can only be produced by a military academy. Police Academy cannot match that standard.

The Caste and Community factor

A wag said, ‘There are very few Indians in India. The rest are Jats, Marathas, Sikhs, Nagas…’ Politics are caste and community based. Voting is along these lines. Political parties fan communal passions to garner votes. Riots do not occur, they are planned and executed by men who seek power and glory. The Police serves under political bosses.

The Army, on the other hand, is insulated from political influence, ensconced in cantonments. So when communal frenzy bursts, the presence of Police does not deter the rioters. Gujarat was a repeat of the mayhem in Delhi. I visited some of the worst affected areas in November 1984 and every one told the same story: Police either bolted or joined the mob.

Image of Police in India

It is not my intention to comment on the quality of police service we Indians receive in return for our taxes. The traffic is managed reasonably well; free and fair elections are conducted and our religious processions and ‘kumbh melas’ receive due care. The forte of our police service is the protection of national leaders. The posse of armed guards and motor cavalcades that accompany them are an imposing sight. The most threatened are the senior-most police officers themselves. It is not unusual to see a canvas colony near the residence of a senior cop. But for the rest, and in the eyes of the lay Indian, the profile of a policeman is:

• He is pot bellied, betel chewing, barely able to fit into his uniform
• If caught for a traffic offence, you can  bribe the cop and get away
• Police stations are littered with garbage and not much use is made of technology to capture and process information
• If an offence is committed by a VIP’s brat, the cop will turn the Nelson’s eye
• If an accident occurs, the stupid will be caught; the clever need not worry

Para Military Forces and Central Police Organizations (CPOs)

Before independence, Assam Rifles and the Central Reserve Police were the only two forces under the Government of India. The proliferation began thereafter, and today the combined strength of the CPOs now exceeds six lakh. There is a plan to add 1.23 lakh in the near future. We seem to raise a new force whenever a new threat appears. These forces are under the Ministry of Home Affairs and the aggregate ‘culture’ which they imbibe is that of the police.

The Sixth Central Pay Commission recommended lateral absorption of Army personnel into the Police, and went on to suggest that the entrance examination and selection process should be common. The Commission wanted to bridge the gap between the Army and the CPOs. The Ministry of Home Affairs rejected the proposal summarily. The reasons advanced make pathetic reading. It has not been understood that mere numbers will not instill a sense of security amongst our citizens. The need of the hour is to identify root causes. Every time there is a Pay Commission, policemen cry and clamour for more ‘high level’ posts.

Way out of this Quagmire

It is a fact that the military is upset at the treatment meted out to soldiers. If the different land forces were operating in isolation, each could evolve its own cadre structure, wear uniforms of the kind that suits them, display a dozen stars on their cars.

But if they are to operate in the same environment, the norms must have a semblance of uniformity. Military and the Police must complement each other; not compete. Each has to see the viewpoint of the other. The road that divides North Block and South Block needs to be bridged; it must not turn into a moat. Some questions beg answers:

• Soldiers get free rations, but have no pot bellies. Policemen get no free meal; from where do the nutrients come to sustain their enormous waistlines?
• Indians are inherently untidy. Police stations can not be faulted for the litter of garbage. But why do military units give such a tidy appearance?
• Corruption is a universal phenomenon, so if a cop accepts a bribe, why bother? But has anyone seen a soldier seeking protection money when deployed for Internal Security duties?

The reason for the relatively greater responsiveness is just one: in the military, every promotion has to be earned; in the civil services, it is claimed as a matter of right through seniority.

The Bottom Line

Before Independence, the highest ranking police officer was rated lower than Maj-Gen in the table of precedence. This inequity was rightly corrected, and for a long time every State had one Inspector General who ranked at par with a two-star soldier. Then suddenly, a snake bit the soldiers and cops found a ladder. In the wake of this Pay Commission, scores of police officers have been equated with the Army Commander and the numbers who rank above the General Officer Commanding cannot even be counted. The strength of the police forces has risen, and their status is rising. The citizens’ sense of security has diminished in the same proportion. Some recent indicators:

• When a dozen terrorists sneaked into Mumbai, the Army had to be flown in from Delhi to flush them out
• In the current recession when jobs are being slashed, private security industry has zoomed a whopping 25 percent
• Anyone of means wants to hire a guard for his house; corporate firms hire specialists for the purpose
• Some major business houses are toying with the idea of raising their own special forces on the lines of the National Security Guards, just as large condominium complexes install captive power generation plants 

Our 23 lakh security persons ably led by more than 300 Director Generals of Police are unable to guarantee security for a few cricket matches because of elections next month. So the Indian Premier League will be played in South Africa. This has put a big question mark on the Commonwealth Games next year.

Maj. Gen. Surjit Singh, AVSM,VSM, is an army veteran

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