Patiala Peg | Threats to the Army’s unique secularism 

When Lt Gen Devraj Anbu took on MIM’s Owaisi, it was perhaps the first time a uniformed senior officer was fielded to rebut a prominent politician opposed to the Sangh’s idea of India and Muslims

Within the Army fraternity serving and retired, any talk of communalising the organisation by ‘the dhotiwala politician’ is generally met with amusement. It’s almost laughable for those who have been groomed in a culture so secular that religion is confined to a sarv dharma sthal in the regiment or the cantonment where everyone worships together.

So when Lt Gen Devraj Anbu, GOC Northern Command, crossed swords with the Majis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi, almost reprimanding him for “communalising martyrs” few could fault his stout defence of the secular traditions of the Army. The General did not name Owaisi, but the provocation for his press conference and the attack on the Hyderabad MP was clearly the latter singling out the martyrdom of five Muslim soldiers from Kashmir in the terrorist attack on Sunjuwan cantonment near Jammu on February 10 to stress that those questioning the patriotism of Muslims are wrong. It is unlikely that the General took on the Opposition politico without getting a green signal from the ruling establishment. It is also perhaps the first time that a uniformed senior officer was fielded to take on a prominent politician who does not subscribe to the Sangh Parivar’s idea of India and Muslims. There is decided unease within the fraternity at this unprecedented face-off.

For one, the Army’s unique way of dealing with religious differences have stood it in good stead for more than a century without the need to broadcast it ever. It’s also true that most politicians “don’t know the army well” as the General rightly pointed out. But did he need to join issue on the subject at all? Because by doing so he has stepped into a space which the men in uniform avoid. They have a far more important job to do than get into slanging matches with politicos. Political statements particularly of the communal variety are best left to be countered by politicians themselves. It is for good reason that discussions on politics and religion are forbidden among troops and officers not just in official spaces but even in their messes and langars.

But these are times when the defence forces have become an unwitting force multiplier for the ruling party’s uber nationalistic politics. From building railway over bridges, organising yoga jamborees to cleaning trash in the mountains, it has all become the Army’s job. Can we now expect that countering Opposition propaganda on defence will also be its job? For, who knows this better than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that when the Army speaks everyone stops to listen. It is one of the few institutions that has maintained its ethos, culture and traditions despite attempts by the political class to tinker with it.

Owaisi was quite obviously trying to differentiate between a Hindu and Muslim soldier. Though the Army is overwhelmingly Hindu, it has never been a Hindu Army. And though its soldiers, be they Muslim, Christian or Sikh, are deeply religious as they come from villages and small towns, a strong spirit of secularism as opposed to religiosity pervades the spaces of worship and spiritual communion in Army formations. An officer is expected to understand and adapt to the religion of his troops and whichever religion is followed by the majority of the troops in a battalion becomes its preferred form of worship. So a Sikh battalion will have a gurudwara but there will be space for a temple or church also within the premises if some soldiers from other religions happen to be posted there. The regiment mandir can be managed by a Muslim or a Sikh, if a Hindu priest is unavailable and the stand-in is usually quite adept at reciting the scriptures of whichever religion the soldier in front of him believes in. There is no exemption from mandir or gurudwara parade and soldiers of all religions participate in the ‘parade’ held on major festivals of the dominant religion in a regiment.

The Army has trained religious teachers who are taught the basic practices and rituals of all major religions. So, when a soldier dies in combat and if a religious teacher of his faith is not available, a teacher from another faith is usually commandeered to perform the rituals.

As someone who was born and brought up in the Army and also married Army officer, weekly prayers have always been at the sarv dharma sthal in the cantonment. The one in Chandimandir cantonment has a strong Buddhist presence due to the presence of a Ladakhi battalion. If during one month Buddhist chants are played on the speakers, the next month Hindu bhajans can be heard. I have always seen Lt Col Eftikhar Khan, a devout Muslim reverentially bowing his head to receive a tilak at the mandir parades in our unit. And everyone irrespective of their faith troops into the regimental gurudwara on gurpurab for ardas and the delicious karah prasad. If that sounds like an idyllic secular environment, it is.

But it is also evident that this unique secularism is under threat due to an overarching communalisation of our politics in recent times. Press conferences by generals are not going to help.

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