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Indian military’s multiculturalism always faced strains. Army iftaar tweet row is a warning

Field Marshal Kodandera Madappa Cariappa was incandescent with rage. “I make a fervent appeal to all my Muslim brothers and sisters in India to please come out in the open soon and declare, at least to their own conscience, whether their loyalty is to India or Pakistan,” wrote Independent India’s first Army commander on 15 August 1964 in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh journal Organiser. “If to Pakistan, they must pack up, lock, stock, and barrel from India and go to Pakistan.”

The old Marshal’s anger remains hard to understand. He had, after all, commanded Brigadier Mohammad Usman, who won the Maha Vir Chakra for his role in the 1947-1948 Battle of Jhangar.

It was largely Muslim troops from the Rajput Regiment that beat the Pakistan army at Poonch in 1965. Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid won the Param Vir Chakra for his epic role in the Battle of Asal Uttar.

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Defence spokesperson in Jammu deleted a tweet documenting an iftaar function organised by the Indian Army. The tweet was deleted after Hindu nationalist broadcaster Suresh Chavanke complained that “this illness” — presumably, multiculturalism — “has entered the Indian Army as well.” The Army has, to its credit, continued its iftaar programmes — but without releasing images in public. There’s been no official explanation of why the iftaar tweet was deleted.

Ever since its colonial-era origins, the Indian Army has prided itself on respecting the varied cultural and religious traditions of its troops. Indeed, officers are encouraged to adopt the practices of the troops under their command. The deleted tweets show how threatened these traditions are now.

Field Marshal Cariappa’s article points us in the direction of the deeper story of the tensions around military multiculturalism. Like India itself, the story of the Army’s culture of tolerance is full of dirty family secrets — hatred, resentments and prejudices that everyone knows about but are never allowed in public discussion.

The Army’s changing zeitgeist

From the late 1980s, as arguments over religious identity sharpened in India’s popular culture, communal issues also penetrated the military. Hanuman temples, sometimes built with State funds, assumed a greater role in the civic life of cantonment towns. In some cases, officers began to wear religious symbols such as vibhuti and tilak, even though rules bar the display of ostentatious religious symbols in uniform. Large numbers of military vehicles began bearing religious iconography.

Even as this reshaping of the military’s cultural milieu unfolded, there were ugly debates: Permission for the construction of mosques in cantonments at Kanpur and Pune was denied, while another was demolished at Danapur in 2005 to make way for a stadium.

These developments came amid an unfolding controversy over rules that forbade Muslim soldiers and Air Force personnel to grow beards, while Sikhs were exempt from this requirement. These tensions would explode, in unprecedented ways, when Navy chief Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked in 1998 — his detractors publicly claiming, among other things, that his wife was “half-Muslim.”

General B.C. Joshi, who served as the Chief of Army Staff until his death in 1994, exhorted his troops to the moral obligations “enshrined in the two Vedas Rigveda and Arthaveda”, scholar Omar Khalidi has recorded. In 2001, Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar announced that new cadets would be given copies of the Ramayana for classroom exercises; religious education from the Quran and the Bible was also introduced.

An Army Training Command manual on leadership, published in 2006, generously quoted the Hindu religious leader Sathya Sai Baba.

In a 2016 article published in the Centre for Land Warfare Studies journal, Devesh Agnihotri made the case for the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita to be included in the officer training curriculum. Rama’s campaign to liberate Sita, he argued, helped understand the idea of plans and strategies, since it involved “sending search parties, building overseas bridge, etc.”

“Vedic leadership concepts and principles,” Agnihotri concluded, “have relevance in the Indian Military Leadership, wherein the study of Arthashastra and Mahabharata form part of the curriculum in the higher echelon training.”

Elements of the Indian Army seemed inching towards the bizarre intellectual world that military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq created in Pakistan — a world where the clerics acquired the status of ideological commissars and entire books were authored seeking military inspiration from seventh-century tribal wars.

Also read: India’s turned a blind Right eye to Hindutva violence, but it can be a threat to State itself

The wages of partition?

Like most stories, the history of bigotry in the Indian military doesn’t have a neat beginning or end. It is possible that Field Marshal Cariappa internalised his attitudes in the colonial-era Army, where suspicions towards Muslims — especially ethnic Pashtuns — ran deep. Even though there was precious little evidence to bear out the proposition, historian Philip Stigger has noted that Muslim soldiers were easily seduced by the idea of jihad. British-Indian Army Muslims had, in fact, fought other Muslims on a regular basis, and the idea that they might engage in a religion-inspired war against the Empire proved unfounded.

There’s no doubt that Partition — when units of both the new Indian and Pakistani armies disgraced themselves by massacring civilians — deepened these fissures. Even though ethnic Kashmiri volunteers had fought Pakistani insurgents in the war of 1947-1948, circulars were issued banning the recruitment of Muslims into the Army.

In 1985, former Defence Minister George Fernandes bleakly noted: “The Muslim is not wanted in the Armed Forces because he is always suspect — whether we want to admit it or not. Most Indians consider Muslims a fifth column for Pakistan.” Estimates suggest that less than 2 per cent of India’s officer corps is Muslim — numbers that ought to provoke some serious introspection.

“Deep-seated prejudice against Muslims,” retired US army colonel David O. Smith recorded of his experience at India’s military academies, “is not unique to the Indian Armed Forces.” He further said, “It also pervades India’s paramilitary and police forces, intelligence apparatus, and many parts of the federal and state government bureaucracies.”

Also read: Quality of India’s military leadership under test. Moral fibre can overcome political bias

Dangerous liaisons

Ever since 1998, efforts to tie the military with Hindu nationalist politics became more explicit. Five hundred RSS workers were hosted by the 3rd Infantry Division in Leh for the Sindhu Darshan festival in the late ’90s when the National Democratic Alliance came to power. Leading figures of the Hindutva movement, from the Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray to Tarun Vijay, began to be invited to military events. The Vishva Hindu Parishad was allowed to distribute denominational gifts to soldiers, like rakhis.

Following the Kargil War, when pictures of the three service chiefs began to be used in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign, then-Army Chief Ved Malik protested. “The Armed Forces were anguished because they were getting sucked into electoral politics as a result of the blatant effort to politicise the war for immediate electoral benefit,” he later wrote. “Leave us alone.”

The years since, however, have seen an intensification of such practices. In 2016, the Army sent the first of over 1,000 yoga instructors for training at the Ram Kishan ‘Ramdev’ Yadav’s Yoga Centre — a choice of obvious significance, given the religious leaders’ long history of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his controversial anti-science postures.

“This is not politicisation in the usual sense of the term,” scholar Ali Ahmed has noted in an essay, but “a convergence of  institutional and political interest of the military, leading to the displacing of government as happened in Pakistan.” He further added, “This is better described as the incidence of subjective civilian control, in which the civilian ruling dispensation connects with the military by ensuring that the military shares its world view — in this case, Hindutva.”

For all the effort, though, India’s military hasn’t degenerated into an ideological extension of the Hindu nationalist movement. Although bias and prejudice exist, like in the society around it, the Army has seen no internal conflict on communal lines. Even the kind of casual communal jokes and slurs that form part of India’s everyday culture are severely discouraged.

In spite of the ideological proclivities of figures like Field Marshal Cariappa and others, the Indian military has successfully defended its multicultural heritage—understanding that its end threatens the foundations of a plural, culturally-diverse military. The deletion of the iftaar tweet is a warning things might be set to change.

Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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