A friend sent me a link to an article in the Indian Express and asked me to write a rebuttal. Here was my response:
The Indian Army, in general, must be lauded. I offer pure admiration and no rebuttal, and we need more stories like this. Of course, there are exceptions, what the rogues in our army, the US Army did in Iraq, is shameful, and what the rogues in the Indian Army are doing in Kashmir is disgraceful. My late brother in law served in the Indian Army and saw what the rogues in the Pakistani Army did to Bangladeshis in 1971 was shameful. We have rogues in all groups, but in general, the Army people are beyond reproach.
The Army is a role model for interfaith work. Here are three pieces that came to me and am pleased to share, I am sure there are more. All three speakers have used nearly the same language.
1. Diversity is the New Nationality
2. Role Models of Interfaith Harmony
3. Indian Army should be relieved from Internal security
Center for Pluralism
Diversity is the new Nationality
Role Models of Interfaith Harmony
Courtesy of the Indian Express
Role models of interfaith harmony
India has been an ideal example of respect for plurality and diversity but must not take this achievement for granted.
Published: 10th November 2019 05:00 AM | Last Updated: 09th November 2019 02:25 PM
I was recently invited to speak at a very prominent Central University in an important city. It was a two-day convention on Interfaith Dialogue and Harmony.
I immediately accepted the invitation because rarely do I find institutions indulging in such positive activity to sensitise the social environment, especially when there seems to be a dire need for more respect for diversity.
India has been an ideal example of respect for plurality and diversity but must not take this achievement for granted.
It needs positive public interest and support by the intelligentsia and a university undertaking such an initiative obviously deserves accolades.
When asked what I would speak on my hosts seemed initially surprised by my choice of theme. It is something I can speak on for hours on end with no preparation.
The subject I chose was: ‘Role Modelling the Indian Armed Forces for National Inter-Faith Harmony’.
In my perception, there is no greater payback by the Armed Forces than to speak about their strongest quality, diversity. It comes naturally to all warriors and the pride they take in it can be witnessed in their institutions and practices.
A few years ago while we were facing some faith-based communal challenges in some parts of the country, I wrote a media commentary which concluded with this advice: “whenever India has an issue concerning a challenge emerging from its huge demographic diversity, it should only turn to its Armed Forces for inspiration; there nothing changes, and if it does it’s only for the better”.
The commentary went viral on social media drawing huge percentage of positive comments. I focus so much on this subject because I continue to believe that India and its people know this characteristic of their Armed Forces only peripherally.
I never tire of repeating in every talk that a ‘Sarv Dharm Sthal’ (all faiths under one roof’) exists in all units and establishments where there is a diverse mix of troops from different faiths.
A collection of 120 warriors of any one faith authorises a religious teacher (RT) of that faith for the religious and spiritual guidance and inspiration of the warriors. You will find many units with more than one RT.
Units of the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI) and the JAK RIF, two outstanding regiments, have three RTs in many units; a Pandit, Granthi and a Maulvi.
The attestation parade of the Regimental Centres of these regiments is a delight to watch, with religious scriptures of each faith carried ceremonially past the mixed lines forming the parade with each warrior touching them while taking the attestation oath.
It would be good to imagine how sailors of different faiths function together in the enclosed space of a submarine.
A fighter pilot has to have as much faith in his god as in the technician from a different faith who guarantees the technical worthiness of his aircraft.
At a winter cut-off post occupied on the Line of Control (LoC), no one could be bothered about the faith of the cook or of a comrade whose vacated sleeping bag a soldier occupies when he is relieved from duty in minus 35 degrees Celsius.
The warmth left behind by the comrade does not carry a religious stamp. Human bonding without fractured minds takes place the best when adversity stares you in the face.
One of the finest spectacles for an Indian citizen to witness is the carriage of representative religious symbols of all soldiers who form a part of a unit, in the first vehicle of a convoy or the first railway carriage when move is by train.
If you ever get a chance to walk even a small segment of the LoC, you will be surprised to see the number of ‘mazaars’ of Pir Babas of the Sufi strain.
Each one is cared for in a special way by the local unit, which in most circumstances may have no Muslim troops. Units assume responsibility for the upkeep and ‘Thursday routines’ with Thursday are universally declared as Pir Baba day all along the LoC. No one consumes alcohol or non-vegetarian fare that day. The best is usually reserved for occasions when the unit’s Panditji, Granthi or another RT reads out Islamic prayers during visits to mazaars in the unit’s area of responsibility. It’s not unusual to see Id prayers being led by a Granthi in the absence of the Maulvi if the latter is on leave or a Maulvi giving a sermon on Janmashtami announcing the birth of Lord Krishna.
Of course repeated ad nauseam is my story of being the only Muslim in my pure Hindu unit. The mandir (temple) prayers would begin with my entry and the ‘Aarti ki Thaali’ could not pass to anyone without my first handling it. It always makes me proud when I state that my record of Amarnath Yatras may be difficult to beat. But have no doubts that these practices cut across faiths. Pure Muslim sub-units of the Grenadiers, Rajputana Rifles or JAK RIF under command of officers of the Sikh, Hindu or Christian faith will usually find these officers keeping all 30 fasts of Ramzan, the holy month of fasting and reading the namaz with full knowledge and flow. There is a common saying in the Armed Forces, ‘the faith followed by the troops is the faith to be followed by the officer who commands them’. The individual faith of the officer is a faith in privacy, the public faith being what his troops follow.
Without a doubt the way faith is handled in the Armed Forces makes it a national role model. Belief in god is supposed to make humans pious, disciplined and caring. That is the belief of the warriors; it does not matter which god you pray to and how. Can India adopt this model?
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps
Indian Army should be relieved from internal security in J&K. It goes against the secular ethos
Indian Army must be kept insulated from prolonged exposure to internal disorder so that it doesn’t become communalised like the police forces.
The Indian Army’s greeting of ‘Jai Hind’ best describes the ethos, spirit and secular credentials of the country’s armed forces. The greeting does not have a religious or regional connotation. It rightly conveys the deep bond between India and its armed forces, the weapon of the last resort. This does not mean that religion is not important in the life of soldiers. It is a vital motivating and bonding factor.
There are battalions or regiments with ‘one class’ (personnel of only one religious group) and ‘fixed class’ (subunits of several religious groups in one unit). The officers are posted to units without considering religious affiliations because their religion is the uniform they wear. Interestingly, most officers have a nickname completely disassociated with religion but linked to some characteristic or oddity of behaviour. Throughout my service in the Army, I was known as ‘Zoom’. I still carry this sobriquet.
No religious wedge
In 1968, I was commissioned into a camel pack artillery regiment, which had two batteries of Rajputs and one battery of Ahirs. The officers came from diverse backgrounds, reflective of the inclusive and all-encompassing nature of India – there were 10 Hindus, two Sikhs and Muslims each, one Christian and a Jew. The unit had a regimental mandir where all religious groups worshipped. There was a photo of the Golden Temple, the Kaaba, and a Crucifix in the complex. Religion was our private business and never a matter of discussion. Our bonds were far too strong for any religious wedge to be driven between us.
One night, during the 1971 India-Pakistan War, we provided artillery fire to a raiding party, which had attacked a village fort called Islamgarh in Sindh, Pakistan. The raid was a complete surprise on the Pakistan Army and we overran the fort. In the morning, the Junior Commissioned Officer, who was part of the raiding party, handed me a cloth-bound Quran, which he had retrieved from the village mosque. He felt it might get desecrated and believed it would be safer in my custody. I still have it and will return it to its rightful place at the opportune time.
Mandir, Masjid, Gurdwara parade
There are units with a combination of three religious groups. In one battalion of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, in my brigade, there were two companies of Dogras, one company of Muslims, and one company of Sikhs. One couldn’t have multiple places of worship so the unit had one ‘hall of worship’ with the western portion allotted to Muslims and the other corners housing Dogra deities and a ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.
I once attended an Eid celebration. Officers belonging to all three faiths were present. The Maulvi gave a sermon, which was followed by discourses by a Pandit and a Granthi. All three sermons centred on amity and interfaith unity. This was followed by the Eid namaz, which was attended by the Commanding Officer, a non-Muslim. It was not an act of worship but a purely notional gesture to bolster the morale of his troops. We all ate Eid sewain (sweet vermicelli), a relishing finish to a moving function. Attendance, during a religious function, was compulsory – after all, it was always a Mandir, Masjid, Gurdwara Parade or MMG.
I again saw religious harmony when I was called to the Army Headquarters for an interview for the post of Defence Attaché to our missions abroad. In contention were three countries, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Myanmar. I felt elated that I was in the august company of 30-odd ‘cat’s whisker’ contemporaries. The most sought-after assignment for a military officer is a posting abroad. It is a recognition of competence and a just reward for the trials and tribulations one has been through.
I sat apprehensively before the selection committee comprising the top brass of Army HQ. I was grilled for about 30 minutes with questions on all the three countries in contention. During the interview, I saw the presiding officer scribbling a note and passing it to the secretary, who was a Colonel of the Military Secretary’s Branch. He moved out and returned after about 10 minutes and passed the note back to the ‘Chair’. The subsequent questions centred only on the Gulf. It was only a decade later that I learnt what the note contained. It was a query: ‘Is Shah a Sunni or a Shia Muslim?’. The secretary didn’t know the answer since the Army does not do such profiling. Fortunately, he had served with my cousin at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. He rang him up and got the answer, and I was selected for Saudi Arabia.
Army should only protect India externally
While attending a course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, we had some Iraqi officers in our classes. This was during the 1980 Iraq-Iran conflict. On the day of Eid that year, we invited them home for lunch where I made a cardinal blunder of inquiring whether they were Sunni or Shia. They appeared disconcerted and replied, “We are Iraqis”. This was entirely in line with the concept of ‘Hubbul Watani’ (patriotism or one where country’s interests are paramount), which was ingrained in me by my upbringing and experience in uniform. Indians should emulate the inclusive and non-communal nature of the armed forces.
The Indian Army has occasionally been requisitioned to quell communal riots and all communities have reposed full faith and confidence in the fair behaviour and impartiality of the armed force personnel. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about the police forces, which have become totally communalised. Why is there a difference in outlook and response? The police officers become communalised because of prolonged exposure to communal trouble. It is essential that the armed forces are kept insulated from prolonged exposure to internal disorder. It was for the ultimate good that the Army did not get embroiled in resolving the Naxal insurgency. They should also, at the earliest, be relieved from internal security in Jammu and Kashmir.
The paramilitary forces are adequately trained for this onerous task. The Army should be unburdened for its primary task of protecting India from external aggression.
Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah PVSM, SM, VSM (retired) is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and the former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Views are personal.