Bottomline | Leave the Army Alone

Religious headcount can lead to dangerous conseqeunces

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

It would have been an easy decision for the army chief, General J.J Singh to refuse information on how many Muslims are serving the army to the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee which has been set up by the government to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims. Not a single serving or retired army officer has disagreed with the army chief’s judgement. People who have never worn uniform are the ones who have fanned this controversy. Their arguments are based on research. Most have called this an innocuous exercise meant to create a databank for the government to improve the lot of Muslims who suffer from illiteracy and backwardness. If all other government organisation can give this information, then why not the armed forces, especially the army, they ask? To answer this question, it is necessary to first understand the ethos of the Indian Army.

Let us start with the May 1999 Kargil war that is fresh in memory. During the first few days of the war, there was little intelligence; the general staff was clueless about the scale of operations needed to evict the intruders; the defence minister had prematurely announced that the intruders would be thrown out in 48 hours; and the army chief, General V.P. Malik did not cut short his official visit to Poland because his staff assured him that a localised action would restore the sanctity of the Line of Control.

Once more intelligence was available, panic gripped the army’s higher command. Instead of an objective appreciation about the enemy, orders were given to units to charge up the mountains to throw out the well-entrenched intruders. What followed was reminiscent of the famous poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Lord Alfred Tennyson. Much like his immortal verse, ‘It is not to reason why, it is but to do and die’, the army lost more officers and men in the first few days than it did in the remaining four weeks of war. Few asked why these young and brave men died in vain when they knew well that the orders were panic-driven. It was obvious that a few generals had lost their heads to please the political masters. The truth is that these boys did not die for the nation or religion, caste or creed. They cared much less about the correctness of the orders given to them. They died for the honour of their units. The young officers and men work and play together for the glory of their unit into which they completely subsume their identity. They died to uphold that glory. Such a level of commitment is possible only in the army where there is complete regimentation; even prayer time is called a parade, and a unit depending upon its religious composition has a temple, mosque, church and so on at the same place.

Unfortunately, regimentation remains only till a unit level where officers and men directly interact with one another. Once officers rise above the colonel rank, they get removed from their men. Hence extraneous factors and personal ambitions determine their decisions to a large extent. For instance, the only time that the army appeared dangerously divided on religious lines was in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star in 1984 when the army entered the Golden Temple in Amritsar to evict terrorists from the holy shrine. At that time, it was not uncommon to find Sikh officers and men huddled together in units. Fortunately, this situation did not last long and the army once again regained its secular credentials. Perhaps, it was the lesson of Operation Blue Star that the army chief at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 refused to send troops to maintain peace in Ayodhya. In recent times, there has been an army chief who shared public platform with the Hindu hardliners of the RSS.

Therefore, personal opinions of service chiefs and other retired senior officers, that researchers draw to make their point, are no justification for the identification of armed forces personnel on the basis of religion. The army leadership has more to worry about this than the air force and the navy for two reasons. One, force levels in the army is structured around manpower and not weapon platforms as in the other services. This means that the need to remain away from religious sensitivity is much more in the army. And two, considering that the army is heavily involved in stability operations in the Muslim-majority border state of Jammu and Kashmir all out efforts need to be made to keep the army insulated from religious proclivities.

Army is a secular organisation and must remain so if it is to remain a professional outfit. Unlike Pakistan which is an Islamic state and most of its personnel come from one religion and one state (Punjab), the Indian Army is multi-religious and multi-regional. The buzzwords are regimentation, professionalism and equality. Conducting a religious head count in the army will be hazardous, as this will encourage personnel to view things through tainted religious glasses. Moreover, after the Sachar Committee submits its report and the government decides to do things for the upliftment of the Muslim community in other sectors, won’t voices within the army then ask for the same benefits? This will demolish all that the army is about. For this reason, the army chief has refused to give the Muslim headcount.


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