Aproposal to grant direct commission in the rank of Junior Commissioned Officer, or JCO is under consideration by the Army. The proposal, according to a report in ThePrint, aims to offset the shortage of 7,399 officers by inducting a fixed percentage of direct-entry JCOs, who can subsequently be promoted up to the rank of Colonel by selection.
This entry would be over and above the current authorisation of JCOs and will be offset against officer vacancies, and hence will not impinge upon the promotion prospects of Non-Commissioned Officers, or NCOs.
On the face of it, this proposal appears to be a major reformatory step to address shortage of officers and improve the quality of JCOs. However, a critical evaluation shows that it fails to address the biggest weakness of the Army, which is directly linked to the shortage of officers — non-empowerment of soldiers and junior leaders.
JCO: A colonial legacy
British officers of the Indian Army were not familiar with the language, socio-economic status, caste, religion, local customs and lifestyle of their Indian soldiers in a region/religion/caste-based army. To bridge this gap, the British Indian Army felt it needed to have junior leaders of similar background as the native soldiers.
As a policy, Indians were not considered worthy enough to be officers and another reason was to proof the empire against a mutiny. Thus, the rank of a Junior Sahib — Viceroy Commission Officer (VCO) — was introduced for management of soldiers.
Also, the number of British officers was never adequate and VCOs catered to this shortage. The designation of VCOs was later changed to JCOs. JCOs rose from the ranks, and loyalty to the crown was a major factor for promotion. They were made Gazetted Officers Class 2 and were given higher pay and privileges like separate messes to enhance their authority. It became a coveted rank for which all soldiers aspired. 1922 onwards, Indians were gradually commissioned as officers, first through Royal Military College Sandhurst and later through Indian Military Academy.
However, even post-Independence the JCO rank was retained because by now it had become an important cog in the system and part of the Army’s traditions.