Regimental Colours or flag occupy a pride of place in any army unit, bordering on reverence. They are housed in the unit quarter guard, and ‘paraded’ on special occasions, always carried by an officer, and escorted by a guard. In formal parades, the spectators are expected to rise and those in uniform salute when the colours march past them. These symbols of regimental identity originated in the yesteryear, when they served a very practical purpose. Back when wars were fought face to face between armies assembled on a battlefield, the colours depicted the location of the commander and served as a rallying point for the units in the fog of war. Military history records numerous instances of brave soldiers fighting to the finish to prevent the colours from being captured by the enemy.
The digital battlefield of 21st century is a lot different from ancient Egypt of 5000 years ago when the practice of regimental colours is supposed to have originated. The geo-tagged soldiers and commanders can locate each other without the need of a visual symbol like the flag, which isn’t even carried into battle anymore. Yet, the archaic customs and traditions linked to this ‘Moth eaten rag’ are scrupulously followed. And there is a method in this madness.
This adherence to anachronous practices is common to armed forces across the world, for a reason. As per a former Chief of Singapore Armed Forces, “These customs and traditions provide an anchor to the past. They are constant reminders of where we have been, and how we have arrived here. They are the very elements of the military profession that distinguish us and convey the richness of our Army’s tapestry, embroidered with the history and experience of our units and formations. This connection with the past will lend our soldiers a sense of meaning and purpose, even as they journey into the future.”
It is in this light that recent objections by Ms Maneka Gandhi to animal sacrifice in Gurkha regiments must be viewed. In a letter to the defence minister, Ms Gandhi feels this amounts to cruelty to animals, and must be stopped forthwith. Although she is the progeny of an army officer herself, her rejection of established traditions is hardly surprising when a senior retired general from Gurkhas himself seems to agree with her.
Logically, what Ms Gandhi and the general are saying would make a lot of sense but for a few things. Firstly, the total number of animals slaughtered in the traditional sacrifices by all the units of the army put together would probably amount to a few hundred per year – not even .0001% of the animals slaughtered across the country. So putting an end to this practice would not make a substantial difference in the overall scheme of things regarding cruelty to animals. Certainly not enough to justify meddling in the regimental affairs of units to ban ancient traditions.
Yet Ms Gandhi has chosen to take up this as a cause because the army is a soft, easy target vis a vis other religious or cultural groups that traditionally celebrate festivals with animal sacrifice resulting in a much larger scale of slaughter.
Whether Ms Gandhi and her advocates like it or not, the profession of soldiering involves a certain amount of ruthlessness. It is for this reason that young officers are traditionally expected to be amongst those who carry out the ritual sacrifice during such festivals. We may be the non-violent adherents of Gandhian values, as long as we choose to maintain an army, ‘There will be blood’.
Ms Gandhi would therefore do well to refocus here energies elsewhere and leave military affairs to those charged with them.