Beyond the Bhagwat and Owaisi Rhetoric: Does the ‘secular integrity’ of the Indian Army really exist?

The events and statements that have unfolded in the last few days have made us think, again: If the Army is sacrosanct? Can we doubt the integrity of the Indian Armed Forces? Is the Army above Indian democracy and the constitutional values?

Most of these questions have resurfaced right after the Member of Parliament from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi pointed out that all the five Indian soldiers killed in the latest militant attack in Jammu and Kashmir were Muslims, and the fact that none from the Bihar government went to meet the family members of the slain on duty, Mujahid Khan.

The Army was quick to rebuff that. We don’t communalize martyrs and the Army is beyond religion, said the General Officer Commanding in Chief Northern Command LT. Gen Devraj Abu.

But was Owaisi’s statement really communal in the first place?

I, as a journalist, would rather see Owaisi’s statement as an attempt by a popular Muslim face to ‘prove’ the credentials of himself, and the ‘Muslim Nationalist’. In this case, Owaisi also succumbed to the tremendous pressure from a polarized society where a Muslim is subjected to a patriotism test every time an attack takes place in the country. By calling out the name of the soldiers, the Hyderabad MP was trying to establish that Muslims are also victims of terrorism and among those defending the country are many Muslims, along with their counterparts from different communities.

ALSO READ: Owaisi questions ‘silence’ over killing of Muslim army men in Jammu attack

His assertions were contrary to the popular belief sanctioned by the jingoistic media houses where Islamophobia has reached a point that the stereotyping of the Muslim face is now a synonym of, and a symbol for “Terrorism”.

Nevertheless, the army’s response to this could’ve been quite different from what it was.

The Army could’ve gone ahead and acknowledged that those killed in Jammu attack were Muslim soldiers. By doing so, the Army would’ve sent across a strong message to all the hate-mongers who use this institution to propel their politics and infect the society with nationalistic jingoism.

Had Army acknowledged that the slain soldiers were indeed Muslims, it wouldn’t have only countered politics of hate, but would’ve also instilled a sense of confidence among Indian minorities, especially the Muslims who’re feeling alienated in every public sphere. What was needed was ‘owning’, instead of an indirect ‘othering’.

But unfortunately Army chose to respond in a manner not very different from the present government in the Centre. It resorted to an ‘all is well’ policy when many of us know that communalism is the gravest threat to the social fabric and the security of India.

Now, what’s important here is to understand, is Army free from communalism?

Well, the Indian Army being an outfit that responds to a chain of command, might not exhibit communal tendencies on its face, but there can’t be denying the fact that the Army for long has been accused of the minimal representation of Muslims in the forces.

In fact, back in 1953, Nehru in a letter addressed to the Chief Ministers of different states had expressed his trouble over “almost negligible presence of Muslims in the defense services”.

Seven decades since, the Army was one institution which categorically denied to share data with the Sacchar Committee that was looking into representation of India Muslims in different institutions. Some speculate that the figures would be so low that making data public would’ve brought embarrassment.

The Army has also been accused of practicing discriminating policies with respect to people from different communities. While it’s permissible for Sikhs to wear a turban and sport a beard, a Muslim soldier is prohibited from doing so in practice. In 2016, 34-year-old Makhtum Husen was terminated and termed an undesirable soldier by the army. His dismissal was later upheld by a Kochi bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal for refusing to shave off his beard.

In 2013, a doctor from Haryana, IS Yadav had petitioned the Supreme Court stating that the Indian Army was recruiting people on the basis of caste, region and religion, which was “against the spirit of Indianess”. In fact, the Army had admitted in its affidavit submitted to the court then, that though it didn’t recruit people on the basis of caste and region, but it did group people coming from a certain region for administrative and operational reasons. It also admitted that certain regions and regiments are composed of people from a certain social group. The petitioner had cited the example of Garwal, Dogra, Madras, Sikh regiment, Rajputana rifles among others.

It’s no hidden secret that these regiments have their own religiously-loaded slogans:

Rajputana Rifles: Raja Ramchandra Ki Jai

Rajput Regiment: Bol Bajrang Bali ki Jai

Dogra Regiment: Jwala Mata Ki Jai

Punjab Regiment: Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal

Maratha Light Infantry: Bol Shri Chtrapati Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai

Kumaon Regiment: Kalika Mata Ki Jai

There’s hardly anything secular in these slogans and it alienates different religious communities within these regiments who might not identify with the said slogans.

However, what should be more worrying for people concerned about the secular ethos of this institution is that there has been a time when an ex-officer, Lieutenant Colonel Purohit associated with the Indian Army was found accused in the Mecca Masjid bomb blast case. Senior Army officers and chiefs have joined communal organizations having affiliations with the controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or were associated with it before joining Army, and were still inducted.

Retd Colonel Sabyasachi Bagchi told Outlook in 2008 that it was the RSS training that made him a better officer. It’s difficult to imagine as what’ve been the role of such people as serving army officers during their tenures. If cinema is to be taken as a reflection of the social realities of the time it’s produced in, Hindi film Shaurya released in 2008, was on point in depicting the mindset of such officers operating within the Indian Army quite grotesquely.

Indeed, what takes a common Indian with surprise is that just days before an Asaduddin Owaisi would assert the ‘Muslimness’ of the soldiers, a Mohan Bhagwat would question the capabilities of the Indian Army while speaking at Muzaffarpur in Bihar. However, the army couldn’t muster enough courage to come out with a statement and give a “befitting reply” to Bhagwat or RSS. But it did take a jibe at Owaisi.

If the Indian Army is really secular in nature, it shouldn’t have just come out to condemn “communalization” of killing of its soldiers, but also acknowledged—in an atmosphere of hate against Muslims—that there’re Muslims soldiers sacrificing their lives in the defence of their motherland. The Army without interfering in civil matters could’ve subtly questioned the absence of any official from the Bihar government at the cremation ceremony of one its martyrs Mujahid Khan.

Like India, it’s also time for the Indian Army to introspect, instead of being in denial mode about issues that confront the founding principles of this institution. And as journalists, we must understand that we don’t consider the Army as a Holy Cow and that we must question it as much as we question other institutions.


Asad Ashraf is a free lance journalist based in New Delhi formerly associated with the Tehelka . He regularly contributes for First Post, Al Jazeera among several other leading publications. Asad is vocal about issues concerning Indian Muslims.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir.


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