The idea of ‘dividing’ the armed forces on communal lines was inspired by a book, Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India by Omar Khalidi, a professor of Hyderabadi origin who teaches architectural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpts from the book were part of IUML president G.M. Banatwala’s memorandum to the Sachar committee. Khalidi had also advocated, in an interview with The Times of India, a reorganisation of the districts in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam to create "compact Muslim zones" where their culture and rights could be "safeguarded". In other words, he’s playing ‘Pied Piper’ Allama Iqbal to a future Jinnah (ironically, he even has a Muslim League president by his side). It’s no surprise then that he suggests increasing the Muslim presence in the forces—it stems from the same mindset of Islamist consolidation.
Our armed forces have always been exemplarily and demonstrably secular. Any further attempt to rub in ‘secularism’ might provoke a psychological backlash. The armed forces, the last bastion of unalloyed nationalism, have remained apolitical and secular through the thick and thin of India’s political and communal crises. Its fatigues have never been sullied by communal accusations. While the Pakistani air force was pounding fellow Muslims in Balochistan with bombs, the IAF was carrying out relief operations in far-flung areas of quake-devastated J&K.
The 1971 Indo-Pak war is assumed to be the apogee of achievement for our armed forces. But it also underscored another fact—the Indian army was headed by a Zoroastrian, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. Lt General J.S. Aurora, commander of the forces in the east, was a Sikh. His lieutenant and the chief architect of India’s victory, Captain J.R.F. Jacob, is a Jew. Some of the memorable flying men in war were Christians. Brigadier L.P. Sen, who described Nehru’s order to halt the counter-offensive against the 1947 Pak-sponsored tribal invasion in J&K as the most unpatriotic order he received in his army career, was a Christian. Apart from Hindus and Sikhs, a Muslim and Christian have also been recipients of the Param Vir Chakra.
The communal composition of the Royal Indian Army (Raj days) was heavily tilted towards Muslims. B.R. Ambedkar, in his book Pakistan or The Partition of India (1940), observes, "Whatever be the explanation, two glaring facts stand out.... One is that the Indian army today is predominantly Muslim in its composition. The other is that the Musalmans who predominate are the Musalmans from the Punjab and the NWFP." (B.R. Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol-8, Pg 95). However, the high recruitment of Hindu youths during World War II, after Veer Savarkar’s whirlwind propaganda, saw the Muslim proportion whittled down to 25 per cent of the whole by 1945.
The Muslims in the British Indian Army mostly migrated to Pakistan after Partition. The recruiting fields of Muslim soldiers viz. the NWFP and Punjab (West) are now in Pakistan. The Muslims who remained in India, say in UP, Bihar, West Bengal or Kerala, have a history of reluctance to serve in the army. This is despite any bias against Muslims or any other community in the forces. It is only a matter of their willingness to join and qualifying in the physical tests. That said, one-tenth of soldiers who laid down their lives in Operation Vijay in Kargil were Muslims.
Although British-era names like the Sikh Regiment and Gorkha Regiment persist, the government stopped raising ethnically named regiments back in the 1950s. The result: almost all regiments are of mixed ethnicity and religion today. The Indian army has its priests, granthis and maulvis to administer the religious schedule. There is no ‘religious indoctrination’ unlike in Pakistan and other Islamic states. All places of worship, be it temple, gurudwara, chaplain or mosque, are known by their generic name ‘dharamsthan’ (religious site). Recruits are groomed in such a rigorous manner that nationalism becomes their only religion. Every soldier participates in all religious functions.
There is some merit in the suspicion that religion can be an emotive issue at times. The Sikhs are model soldiers and patriots. But the ill-advised Operation Bluestar in 1984 did provoke some in army cantonments to rebel, even desert. Similarly, an Akbar Ali of the Indian navy could steal the Niazi pistol from the National Museum naval gallery (July ’03) thinking it a symbol of humiliation of Islamic might. But these are exceptions, not the rule.
Soldiery isn’t just another profession, it’s a service to the motherland. It’s not for nothing that the forces are called "services". But having said all this, may I put out another query—on Muslim share in another patriotic field, the freedom movement. Why is it that, despite comprising a fourth of undivided India’s population, the community produced very few freedom activists? The two provinces that contributed the maximum freedom fighters, Bengal and Punjab, were Muslim-majority states. But can you name a single Muslim freedom fighter of standing from here? Patriotism and nationalism are better kept outside the periphery of religion-based quotas. Suffice to say, we are proud of our Abdul Hamids, Albert Ekkas and J.F.R. Jacobs as much our Somnath Sharmas, Subroto Mukherjees and Padmanabhans.
(The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP and BJP thinktank convenor, can be contacted at email@example.com)