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here are different interpretations of the word “secularism? According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, “secularism is sceptical of religious truth or opposed to religious education, etc? A large number of Indians understand secularism as Sarva Dharma Samabhava, meaning all religions are equal. I believe that Sarva Dharma Samabhava is suitable for the Armed Forces, but not for India’s civil society.
THE ARMED FORCES IN BRITISH INDIA
The record of secularism in the Armed Forces has been far better after Independence than before it! Considering the fact that the basic objective of the colonial rulers was to keep control over British India, their strategy was to divide and rule. British imperial interests lay in keeping alive separate identities ?religious, caste or any other. They were bothered, not so much about communal harmony, but about maintaining communal balance. Hence, for example, there were Muslim companies and Sikh companies in the British Indian Army. When the British taught us our own history, they talked of a Hindu period, a Muslim period and then a Modern period. These three periods have been transformed into Bharat, Hindustan and India.
INDIA'S ARMED FORCES AFTER INDEPENDENCE
Since 1947 there have been shining examples of Indian soldiers not allowing religious considerations to interfere in the discharge of their duties. Says a seminar participant: “There is the example of Brigadier Gurdwar Singh who lost every member of his family in Pakistan during the partition riots. He was assigned to the force that was sent for the defence of Junagadh in Saurashtra. His conduct won praise from the Muslims of Junagadh, for his impartiality and his fairness. There was no trace of any bitterness in his heart.
“I have seen within the Army, competition between the Jats and the Rajputs, between the Jats and the Marathas. This makes for healthy competition. This need not be frowned upon, just because they happen to encourage some kind of identity of their own, for their ethnic upbringing and the particular sect to which they belong.?/font>
The Armed Forces have, by and large, given a very good account of themselves whenever required by the civil authorities. Recalls a participant: “After the Babri Masjid demolition, my regiment was in Ayodhya, where we were being sought after by all communities. The reason was clear. The local population felt that as long as we were around they were safe and their needs would be attended to; that the commanding officer would listen to their grievances; ensure the smooth operation of the public distribution system, ensure the availability of food grains, milk, vegetables, etc. This made a difference to the morale of the affected population. This was the result of the training received by the soldiers in their units. In my regiment Jats, Rajputs and Dogras constituted nearly 75 per cent, and the balance comprised of Khemkahnis, Muslims, Kutchis, Saurashtrians, Ahirs, Gujars and Minas. Eight battalions of the regiment have 25 per cent Khemkahnis and Muslims and it was this regiment which did extremely well in operations right after Independence. It is the highest decorated regiment ?the regiment to which CPMH Abdul Hamid, who died a soldier’s death in the war of 1965, belonged. That’s the kind of cohesiveness that has developed in the Armed Forces. How did it come about? It came about because of the physical and attitudinal conditioning of these troops.?/font>
On the other hand the story of people in other uniforms, such as the police, is not good. Instead of carrying out their duty to the uniform, they have been tilting towards political parties and majority communities.
LEADERSHIP AND DISCIPLINE
Cohesiveness of Army units can only happen if the leadership of the Armed Forces is capable. In 1984 during the Punjab agitation triggered by the demand for a separate state of Khalistan leading to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, certain units of the Sikh Regiment mutinied because of weak leadership.
On the other hand when some Sikh soldiers in Bihar revolted, looted the armoury and drove away in stolen Army vehicles, the Army was able to contain the revolt with commendable speed because of a strong sense of discipline among those who remained loyal to their regiment.
Wherever officers have identified themselves with the men they command, loyalty and discipline have been outstanding. A participant remarks: “We had a Maneckshaw, we had an Arjun Singh, we had a Latif, we had a Rodrigues, heading our Armed Forces. And the soldiers gave them their total loyalty irrespective of the religion which Maneckshaw, Arjun Singh, Latif or Rodrigues professed. So long as we give the men the leadership they deserve and this leadership is not restricted to any particular part of society, we can be sure that we will continue to have an Armed Force that would do what they are told to do as they have been trained to do.?/font>
INFLUENCE OF THE CIVIL ENVIRONMENT
The soldier does not live in a cocoon. The influence of television, the press, political parties and agitations cannot be underestimated much less ignored.
It is not realistic to talk of the Armed Forces in isolation from civil society for the simple reason that the men of the Armed Forces come from civil society, and the values and attitudes imbibed from such a society are carried by the soldier when he joins the Army. For instance, take the communal strife in Gujarat. To what extent would a recruit carry with him the kind of intolerance that is surfacing in civil society? This is a matter for concern.
The problem is not one of the Armed Forces alone, but of society as a whole where values are fast deteriorating. It begins in families with lots of double standards; our failure to inculcate discipline in our children and our own undisciplined and unruly behaviour often displayed publicly on television. The way our parliamentarians and legislators behave in parliament and state assemblies is a shame. Sadly, educational institutions, instead of being centres for correction of evils in society, are getting commercialised and infected by such societal ills. The education system has to be reformed to be able once again to inculcate strength of character and courage of conviction in our youth, many of whom end up as officers and soldiers in the Armed Forces.
There is much that we as individuals, professionals, members of a civil society can do to inculcate such values in the youth of this country. Unless we do this, we cannot change the environment around us.
Even while initiating a recruit into a secular institution like the Armed Forces he must be assured that his religion is his personal affair; that he will be given full freedom to practise his religion privately but that there can be no question of religious issues intruding into his conduct and actions as a member of the Armed Forces. If this becomes a norm, we can rest assured that the character of our Armed Forces will remain truly secular.
Our soldiers are a product of society. Let us consider recruitment and the class composition when they join the Armed Forces, or, say, when they get commissioned. So far as officers are concerned, it is purely on merit. Recruits are assessed for their intelligence, organising and reasoning abilities, power of expression, ability to adjust socially, self-confidence, speed in decision-making, determination, courage and stamina. At no stage is a recruit’s religion an issue whether the selection is for an officer or a jawan. It does not matter if he is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or an atheist. He is just a candidate with a number on his chest.
If, despite these objective criteria there is a noticeable deterioration in the quality of some of our soldiers, it is because in the earlier days Indians joined the Army with the intent of having position, power and prestige. With growing unemployment, with literacy levels going up, with an exploding population, a job in the Armed Forces has now become yet another option to earn a livelihood.
ENSURING SECULARISM IN THE ARMED FORCES
To ensure secularism in the Armed Forces, it is necessary to insulate them from the communal forces active in civil society. This is ensured by training and with sensible leadership. Therefore, while recognising that the recruits do have sympathies with their own faiths and backgrounds, training must overcome that and make them a willing instrument of the Armed Forces.
One way of ensuring that religion does not play a part in the functioning of the Armed Forces, and even in civil society, would be if forms and questionnaires do not require us to state our religion, and, even if asked, the person filling in the form or report should have the right to refuse to answer the question on the ground that his religion is his “private affair? Or, for instance, if a journalist or a politician visiting a naval ship were to ask how many officers of a particular community were on board that ship, the person being questioned must have the authority to reply that he does not know as it is not relevant.
There are no temples, mosques or chapels inside a naval establishment. There may be religious places created by the sailors outside the campus, but never inside. This is true of the Air Force as well because the bulk of the Air Force men are educated. The same thing cannot be said of the Army, where the bulk of the force comes from the peasantry who are not so well educated and are deeply rooted in their religious practices. Because of the class and religious composition of the soldiers there are temples, mosques and churches cheek by jowl within the campuses of many regiments. But this has not in any way affected the training or the secular values of the regiments concerned. In March, Muslims observe Shahadat (Mohurrum). Christians have Good Friday, Hindus, Holi; the Sikhs observe Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and the Buddhists observe Buddha Purnima. By allowing these, the Army seeks to underline the commonality that binds men together ?that we belong to the same human stock even as we worship different gods.
Also underlying this policy is the awareness that the self-esteem of each individual in the Army has to be held high so that his consciousness to preserve the nation’s honour and make the supreme sacrifice in the course of duty will be much higher.
On the other hand there have been some disturbing developments in recent times. For now these have been the exception rather than the rule. A Commander at an Artillery Centre belonging to a particular religion used the regiment’s resources to build a beautiful religious place of worship for members of his faith. He has set a dangerous precedent because when he is succeeded by a Commander belonging to another religion he too could decide to build another equally beautiful place of worship for the faith to which he belongs. This needs to be sternly kept under check.
Another dangerous development that could affect the secularism of the Army and which was reported widely in the press was when members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) visited military hospitals where soldiers wounded in the Kargil War were treated and distributed religious books and prasad. The Army has its own priests belonging to various religions and does not need politically motivated religious propagandists interfering.
Why do the local police fail more than the military forces in controlling communal conflagrations? If tomorrow they’re asked to control an outbreak of violence and if a political party asks them not to do so, how would they respond? The nature of such a “request?depends on the character of the ruling party or coalition in power. The problem here is that the Army is being used as evidence of State power. They have to show the strength of the State and to participate in the actual controlling of this or that group. But State power should not use the Army particularly when it is used against our own people. Apart from the fact that the Army’s primary role is to defend the country’s borders and its integrity, frequent use of the Army to quell internal disturbances could lead to a situation when the Army could well say, “If we are needed so often to ensure law and order in the governance of the country, we might as well take over governance itself!? Therefore, the less the Army is used for this purpose, the better for democracy. Use the local police and paramilitary forces instead. The Army should be used to display force and then get out. Or, be visible but do not be actively involved unless the situation becomes so serious that the police and paramilitary forces are unable to cope or are seen to be reluctant to act for whatever reason. This will prevent both the communalisation and the politicisation of the Armed Forces.
One can understand utilising the services of the Army during cyclones or earthquakes, where no contentious issues are involved. Today, the only force which commands the confidence of the people is the Army, not the paramilitary forces and certainly not the police. And herein lies the dilemma.
We have to be very careful that we don’t go the way of Pakistan, Indonesia and Myanmar. Do we want an Army takeover? Surely we do not want to give the Armed Forces the autonomy to do what they want. If so we must ensure that they continue to retain their secular character and to be subservient to civil authority. The moment we give up this position and the Armed Forces become totally autonomous, then we could have another Musharraf. If a Turkey is to be repeated in India because the Armed Forces are the custodians of secularism in India, then perhaps it may not be such a bad thing as any party or group or formation which tries any funny business is checked in its tracks as the Army has been doing in Turkey from the time of Kemal Ataturk. Unfortunately, neither India nor Pakistan has an Ataturk.
It is clear that the connotation of secularism vis-?vis the Armed Forces and vis-?vis civil society is not the same. The concept of Sarva Dharma Samabhava is both feasible and acceptable in a controlled and disciplined environment as in the Armed Forces. But this concept will do (as it has already been doing) considerable harm to civil society. Experience after fifty years of freedom tells us that what is needed is a wall separating religion from the State. We need an Indian version of the First Amendment.
The writer is the Editor of Freedom First, a Liberal Quarterly, and President of the Indian Liberal Group.