The Indian Army is arguably one of the most diverse, versatile and inclusive fighting forces in the world
There is an interesting history of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Pakistani President General Ayub Khan had attended Sandhurst Military Academy in England before the partition of India in 1947. Among his bandmates were officers who later joined the Indian Army, including the army chief during the 1965 war – General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri – Ayub’s company mate at Sandhurst.
A lover of whiskey and horses, the anglicized, urban Ayub wore pinstriped suits and smoked a pipe. Yet his own prejudices and the communal leanings of his minister Zulfiqar Bhutto colored Ayub’s thinking, leading him to remark sadly before the war that “the Hindu had no stomach to fight” and could be silenced with a few good shots. Ayub Khan and Bhutto believed in the wizard of “civilizational supremacy”. Although he served in pre-independence India, Ayub believed that the Indian army was an army of Hindu soldiers.
A mindless Ayub and his belief in religious supremacy had to be denied. At the end of the 1965 war, the Indian army moved closer to Lahore, pushing Pakistan on its back. Captain (later Lieutenant General) Ranjit Singh Dayal, who led the famous capture of Haji Pir Pass, was a Sikh, as was Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, who led the army during the war. General JN Chaudhuri, the leader, was Hindu.
A shining war star, Havildar Abdul Hamid, was a Muslim who worked as a tailor before joining the army. As quartermaster of the havildar company, Hamid’s job was to secure supplies for the troops. In a single action unprecedented in the history of warfare, Hamid single-handedly destroyed seven Pakistani tanks.
The Keelor brothers, the first siblings to earn Vir Chakras for their heroism in using Gnat fighters to shoot down superior Saber jets, were Christians. Colonel Adi Tarapore was a Parsi officer whose exploits, before he died fighting for his armored regiment, so touched the Pakistani forces that they ceased shelling during his cremation as a mark of respect.
Brigadier Desmond Hayde, who was born to English parents but stayed after 1947 and joined the Indian Army, was called the bawra Jat (the crazy Jat) who led his unit through the difficult Ichhogil Channel and repelled the enemy. Ayub Khan’s army had been thwarted by the combined strength of a secular India.
The Indian Army is arguably one of the most diverse, versatile and inclusive fighting forces in the world. Infantry regiments were based on regional affiliations – Marathas, Sikhs, Dogras, Madras, Kumaon and other regiments were named after their soldiers’ regions. There are mixed infantry and artillery regiments which have Muslim and Hindu Rajput companies. Despite the fact that the Indian and Pakistani armies are descended from the British military, it is this aspect of collective secular vigor that over the decades has separated the coherence and effectiveness of the Indian army from the questionable unpredictability of the Pakistani military and thus shaped its legacy.
Religious inclusivity has helped bring together the best in the past. When the country was partitioned in 1947, Brigadier Mohammad Usman, one of India’s brilliant officers, was invited by Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Jinnah to join the Pakistani army. Usman refused and chose the Indian Army instead. After independence, Usman gave his life fighting for India against Pakistani invaders and was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra in 1948.
One of the examples of inclusive leadership remembered was 1971 – General Sam Manekshaw the army chief was a Parsi, Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora – the eastern army commander was a Sikh , Major General JFR Jacob – the Chief of Staff – was a Jew while Lieutenant General Jagjit Aurora General Sagat Singh – the Corps Commander, who was the architect of the capture of Dhaka and thus ensured India’s victory – was a Hindu Rajput.
During national emergencies, radical religious influences within the armed forces can provoke a crisis. In the 1980s, the Punjab crisis caused unrest and mutinies among the regiments. At the Sikh Regimental Center at Ramgarh in Bihar, Commander Brig Puri was shot dead by some mutinous soldiers while a few officers were injured. Sepoy Gurnam Singh led a group of rebels and moved towards Amritsar. They were intercepted and 35 people were killed in clashes between the mutineers and the soldiers manning the roadblocks, according to a newspaper report. There have been other instances of violent dissent which have been skillfully handled by the military. Commanders at all levels handled the crisis admirably and safeguarded the impeccable credentials of the Indian Army.
On the other hand, the experience of radical religion has left the Pakistani military in tatters. Until 1971, Muslim soldiers and officers in the Pakistan Army followed their religious beliefs, but the organization kept religion largely outside of professional duties and functions. However, after its defeat in 1971, the Pakistani military turned into a more politicized and religious instrument. After General Zia ul Haq took office as president, he further accelerated the policy of Islamization of the armed forces. The Pakistan Army’s embrace of radical Islamic practices in the military was to develop alongside Zia’s scheme of using religion as a tool of execution in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistani army officers who were appointed in the early 1970s had, under Zia’s policy, become senior commanders who pursued the Islamic agenda within the army. In the 1990s, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, as head of the ISI, led a hydra-headed monster in which many officers actively supported Islamist terrorist groups.
On the other hand, religion in the Indian army is guided by a simple and powerful principle: “an officer’s religion is that of the troops he commands”. There is, however, a degree of ignorance about tradition-bound and regimented organization that results in ridiculous assumptions as happened in a recent case.
A few months ago, the military held an iftar function in Jammu and Kashmir which included officers, jawans and locals. The feature was misinterpreted by a far-right TV channel. In response, the Army PRO deleted the photos from social media, which was a mistake. Thankfully, the Army PRO gaffe was corrected and the Army affirmed its inclusive culture by posting a tweet from the Kashmir Corps Commander during Eid prayers at Mandir Masjid Gurudwara (known as MMG ) of the JAK Li Centre. The MMG is a unique institution in the Indian Army which has a mandir, a masjid and a gurudwara in the same complex and is a sarv dharam sthal – a prayer space for all.
There are many splendid examples of this kind in history and current practice. However, one reason for writing this article on the role of secularism as an irrefutable non-negotiable in the armed forces is to highlight the disturbing emergence of toxic half-truths on religious and other divisive issues. Many of these stories can be found in social media groups of serving soldiers and veterans.
Discussions of religious issues that lead to discomfort, discord and discord can have a long-lasting impact on the concept of pluralism in the armed forces. It would be unfortunate if classmates or bandmates lost an essential article of trust that binds them together. Some of the young military leaders would be tomorrow’s senior commanders and given that they would lead formations of mixed religious and regional denominations, their current remarks on social media on sensitive issues are sure to have an impact on the strength of cohesion of units in the future, unless a course correction is made. An exercise of restraint and discretion in judgment would go a long way to preserving the sanctity of the ethos of the organization and its leadership.
Rampant and uninformed social media does not serve to build unity between men united in uniform and the units they serve. In the past, there was an unequivocal rule of thumb: politics were never to be discussed in army messes, clubs and public gatherings. However, the military is a subset of society at large and it is unrealistic to expect it to be unaffected by the ongoing narrative of public discussions. The risk lies in letting radical propaganda continue to play a divisive role in the social media groups of a truly secular organization in India.
In an army where leaders command men of different religious persuasions, including minorities of many kinds, it is precarious to let discussions descend down the slippery slope of resentment. Although instances of aggressive and divisive discussions of religion are not numerous, the emergence of such occurrences should be discouraged. The army, for its part, has taken note of this and has issued instructions on the use of social networks by its personnel in service. However, the armed forces cannot make social media invisible.
One of the reasons the Principles and Code of Conduct have held together is that the uniformed organization has stood apart from the external ecosystem. Increasingly, forces are likely to be influenced by different external elements. However, one need only look at history to reaffirm the inclusivity celebrated in the organization.