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The Indian Army Regimental System


Lieutenant General Ghanshyam Singh Katoch writes:

The speed with which the Afghan National Army (ANA) collapsed, started off intense discussions investigating the debacle. Very pertinent and at times very obvious reasons came up for the collapse. Among the reasons was a lack of cohesiveness in the ANA units.

The Afghan society splintered as it is in a number of ethnicities, clans and Sunni and Shia variants of Islam made cohesiveness into an inclusive ANA a difficult proposal. India too has such a social structure. In spite of a majority Hindu religion the country is ethnically even more diverse than Afghanistan. In religious terms it has large minorities.  While Afghanistan has two major languages Pashto and Dari ─ India has 23 Including English. India also had the pernicious caste system which still exists in a diluted form because of the positive discrimination. If in spite of such divisive differences the Indian armed forces and especially the Indian Army has maintained cohesiveness and fighting spirit it is because of the regimental system.

Indian soldiers fought for the British not because the Indian army was integrated with colonial society, and not because of superior British military expertise, but because of British managerial skill. Particularly after 1857, the British succeeded in incorporating Indians into a professional army by constructing ethnic and military identities for groups and then amalgamating these constructed groups into a regimental system that reinforced pride of organisation and race while providing an institutional identity. Different titles, badges, headgear, ceremonial uniforms, mottos and war cries made the Indian army (and later the Pakistani army) an organisation with such strong bonds within the primary group that it could withstand immense hardship and stress in combat.

These distinctions can be divisive but up to the battalion level it brings in the sort of cohesiveness, team spirit and loyalty to the unit which become battle winning factors in a multi ethnic society. In such a system soldiers will fight for the honour of their colleagues, unit and regiment as much as for the love of the motherland or the cause.

In the long period of absence of major conventional war since 1971, the issue of breaking down Regimental affiliations in the Indian army and especially in the Infantry comes up time and again. The divisive differences that the Regimental system brings are most prominent in context of promotions and postings of the officer corps in peacetime. It leads to accusations of favouritism and lanyard loyalty. At other times it brings accusations of trying to hide misdemeanour and failure due to the same loyalty.

However, in operations, the same differences have a proven history of strengthening group cohesion. There is no instance of Regimentation being detrimental in war. The Rashtriya Rifle (an army counter-insurgency force) is one example. Composed entirely of personnel on a two year rotational assignment, the force in its formative years was found lacking in team spirit and élan. The performance of these units increased noticeably after every battalion was affiliated to an Infantry Regiment and one Arm (major Arms being Armoured Corps, Mechanised Infantry, Artillery, Engineers and Air Defence Artillery).

Therefore, the lesson #2 from the Afghan war is that we must continue and strengthen our regimental system up to the battalion and unit level. The advantages of distinctive military identity transcending the primeval lines of division such as clan, ethnicity and religion have great value and we should not dilute it. The peacetime officer cadre demerit given above should not be the reason to undo Regimentation.

Regimentation is a battle winning factor. It builds loyalty to the primary group The Taliban too seem to have realised ( or taught by the Pakistanis) the importance of regimentation as its Badri 313 Unit and the Red Unit show.



Lieutenant General Ghanshyam Singh Katoch,  PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is a former Director General Strategic Planning.

Article uploaded on: 06-09-2021

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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