Secularism and the Army




Secular credentials of the Indian Army have been established beyond doubt in the 68 years since independence. An indicator is that in any communal riot, the arrival of the army immediately instills confidence amongst all parties to the dispute irrespective of their denomination. Whether it was 1984, 1992 or 2002, it was the deployment of the army that brought a swift end to communal riots. To truly understand the nature of secularism in the army, one has only to visit a unit celebrating any festival. All ranks, irrespective of religion, partake equally in the celebrations. Therefore, to anyone who is familiar with the ethos of the Army, the recent article in press “Maulvi in Army censured for saying Jai Hind” sounds obviously discordant. To understand the probable cause and effect behind this report, one has to understand the nature of fighting units in the army.

Traditionally, combat units in the army are organized on a fixed class composition. Either the entire unit, or each of its subunit consists of troops from a particular ‘class’ – Sikhs, Ahirs, Jats, Dogras, Kaimkhanis etc. While those unfamiliar with the advantages of such a system may find it an anachronism in a modern democracy, it is something that has withstood the tests of time and battles. The rationale behind this practice lies in understanding what motivates men to risk their lives and limbs and do their duty in the face of extreme adversity. While it is understood that every soldier is patriotic and serves the nation, that in itself is too hazy a concept. “Naam, Namak aur Nishan” is what soldiers understand and strive to uphold. Very simply put, it means Name (or honour – own and that of the unit), Loyalty, and pride in the flag (regimental colours). The pride in the unit is enhanced when augmented by the immense sense of pride of the soldier’s in his own community. Also, the fact that the soldiers deportment in battle – brave or otherwise – would be common knowledge back at his own village thanks to his comrades hailing from the same area, keeps the men going against the heaviest of odds. The veracity of this is borne out by the reply filed by the army in a PIL in Supreme Court challenging such classification – “Certain regiments of the Army are organised on lines of classification because social, cultural and linguistic homogeneity has been observed to be a force multiplier as a battle winning factor”. The PIL has since been dismissed, upholding the army’s point of view.

Every regiment has it’s own unique traditions and customs, which serve to build it’s identity and pride. These include it’s battle honours, regimental colours, war cry and greeting, things that set it apart from others. So troops from Assam Regiment greet each other and seniors with “Tagra Raho”, Sikh Regiment with “Sat Sri Akal” and so on. The religious teacher in question is from the Rajputana Rifles, where the traditional greeting or salutation is “Ram Ram” or “Jai Mata Di”. All ranks of the unit, including officers, irrespective of their own religion, adhere to such regimental norms. Therefore, the insistence by the commanding officer that the religious teacher in question does so too is not to undermine the latter’s religious beliefs, but to uphold regimental tradition. The issue is NOT about objection to ‘Jai Hind’ being used as a greeting, as the article suggests, but rather demurring from using the regimental greeting on religious grounds. It amounts to viewing regimental traditions through a religious lens, which can not be acceptable in the larger interest of the army.

The army can not allow individual thought or sentiments to take precedence over collective organizational interest. Such a situation would make the maintenance of order or discipline in the organization impossible. Imagine the chaos if every soldier in a unit of 1000 men decides to act as per his own will rather than the laid down norms and orders. It is in recognition of this vital necessity that apart from the law of the land, a special ‘Army Act‘ applies to all ranks of the army. The refusal by the religious teacher to follow regimental orders constitutes an offence under this act. It must be remembered that ours is a volunteer army. By enrolling, a person willingly places himself or herself under the Army Act, and is therefore obliged to adhere to its provisions or face action.

The statement given by the religious teacher to the newspaper speaks volumes – “I had served at Rajputana Rifles centre, Delhi, for 10 years but was transferred to Rajputana Rifles (3 Raj Rif Bikaner) because I had complained against the move to send a junior of mine to Sudan. After my complaint I was sent to Sudan but immediately after my return I was posted to Bikaner, Rajasthan”. He managed to stay on in Delhi for 10 years when the usual tenure is 2 years, managed to get a lucrative foreign mission by complaining against a junior (detailment on foreign missions is based on merit, not seniority), and has now gone to the court against being posted out of Delhi. Incidentally, communication by a serving soldier with media without permission itself constitutes an offence under the Army Act, for which the individual can be separately prosecuted.

He has probably given a religious slant to the case in the hope that the attention attracted helps browbeat the authorities and facilitates his attempts to get posted back to Delhi. While the motives of the individual can be speculated about, the publishing of such stories by leading dailies without an understanding and writing about the nuances (as explained in this post) is deplorable. It serves to accentuate the communal tint sought to be imparted to the incident by the individual, undermines the secular credentials of the army and potentially sows disaffection towards it in the minds of the uniformed readers.

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