During Partition in 1947, a curious pattern emerged in the districts with larger concentrations of combat veterans from the Second World War. In these districts veterans were heavily involved in campaigns to persuade members of the other religious communities to leave, in organising the mass flight of their own community in areas where they were outnumbered, and in encouraging co-religionists to move into a district where their dominant position seemed tenuous. The most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community had gained combat experience as soldiers and the minority community was unorganised. An additional month of combat experience was associated with 1.1 percentage greater reduction in the minority population due to killing, conversion or migration—equivalent to 17,000 people per district. These were the findings of a research paper titled Does Combat experience foster Organizational Skill? Evidence from Ethnic Cleansing during the Partition of India by Steven Wilkinson and Saumitra Jha, published in 2012. They clarified that this does not automatically mean that all veterans were involved in such violence. Regardless, the research does point to worrying implications for the government’s newly proposed plan for the Tour of Duty system in army recruitment.
The TOD system proposes short-term contracts for three to five years. The organising principles of the Indian Army are steeped in its colonial tradition, and its operating ethos has not changed since the Second World War. The details of the TOD proposal have not been officially released so far, though the idea first appeared in media reports in May 2020. The late chief of defence staff general Bipin Rawat told journalists that the concept was at a nascent stage and under the army chief’s consideration. He sounded sceptical about the proposal, arguing that its viability needed to be studied. “It will require a year of training,” Rawat had said. “The tour of duty will be in Kashmir and the northeast… One year of training cost… equipping him and doing everything for him and then losing him after four years. Is it going to balance out?”
A retired defence ministry official told me that the proposal had emanated from neither the defence services nor the defence ministry. He said that these “brainwaves” emerge “from somewhere else, from a group of two or three people,” which are then to be implemented by the service headquarters. A former service chief told me that the services were not enthusiastic about the proposal, with the army particularly opposed to it. Rawat was not enamoured by the idea either, but the official said, “he had become the harbinger of bad news from the government” for the defence services by then. A compromise of recruiting only 5,000 soldiers through the TOD model—out of the 50,000 to 80,000 soldiers recruited every year—was proposed by the services but rejected by the authorities.