By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th Oct 15
Theatre director Amir Raza Husain’s open-air extravaganza in 2000, just after the Kargil conflict, titled “The 50 Day War”, had a scene where a young Pakistani soldier in a bunker high above Kargil, hears an azaan (the Muslim call to prayer) drifting up from an Indian army unit across the front lines. Snatching his rifle, the young soldier snaps, “The Hindustanis are mocking our religion”. The grizzled old-timer with him calms the youngster, explaining that India’s military had people from many religions, including Muslims, all of whom worshipped whoever, and however, they liked.
This remains largely true. Yet, the murderous assault on Mohammad Akhlaq on September 28, in Bisara village, near Dadri, on Delhi’s eastern outskirts, after rumours that he had beef in his refrigerator (not a crime under Indian law), highlights the pulls and pressures on Muslim soldiers, sailors and airmen from growing communal polarisation outside the cantonment.
An example is the murdered man’s son, Mohammed Sartaj, who is an Indian Air Force (IAF) corporal, based in Chennai. On Saturday, in New Delhi, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, reacted to Akhlaq’s gory lynching with the promise that Sartaj and his family would get accommodation and refuge in an IAF station.
“We are already in touch… Whatever protection is required, we are giving it to him. We are trying to move (them) to some air force area. We are with him, and our people are there to assist the family,” said Raha.
The IAF chief has displayed unusual political courage, given that the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have downplayed the incident. Party members have leavened their condemnation with the rider that this was an isolated accident.
Echoing the party position, the co-convener of its ex-servicemen’s cell, Group Captain (Retired) Karan Singh Bhati, told Business Standard: “Even earlier there used to be communal riots. Ahmedabad has a history of such disturbances. But this has never had a bad effect inside the services.”
Raha knows he is swimming against the tide. He carefully stated: “Writing to the state government or central government, I think, is superfluous because everybody has understood in the government that such things cannot be accepted. Adequate action is being taken at the government level, both central as well as state.”
The air chief’s public support will help Sartaj and his family in coming to terms with what has happened, says Colonel (Retired) Jaideep Singh, who has commanded army Muslim sub-units for two decades. “The IAF’s support will prove psychologically crucial for Sartaj’s morale, and for easing his family’s trauma”, says Singh.
Sartaj’s own conduct in the face of personal grief and public provocation has so far been statesmanlike. On NDTV, he called for restraint, not political point-scoring, saying: "Because of some people, the atmosphere is being vitiated. I appeal to them for peace and communal harmony. It is not time for politics but for empathy."
Serving military officers say that, given the charged communal temper created by incidents like the Akhlaq murder, it is often difficult to retain a sense of communal well being inside units with Muslims.
“Within the fauj, a Muslim seldom feels different from his fellow soldiers. The army systems cater for religious and regional differences. Muslim soldiers get halal rations in units where there are a significant number of Muslims. They can pray in a unit masjid, which is looked after by a military maulvi”, says a retired Muslim officer.
Diverse units like the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI), which has Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers, worship in common prayer halls called Sarv Dharam Sthal (institution of all religions). In an irreverent professional touch, some JAK LI units have started calling them MMGs --- for ‘mandir, masjid, gurdwara’; but also the widely used military acronym for ‘medium machine gun’.
Compared to this relaxed communal environment that Mohammad Sartaj enjoyed in his duty station in Chennai, many wonder how he adjusted to Dadri’s knife-edge communal tension when he went home on leave.
Senior officers admit the BJP’s revival, and the mainstreaming of the Hindutva narrative that has accompanied this political shift, have complicated communal relations within the army.
A senior officer says: “Hindutva is now equated with nationalism. And it is assumed that those who oppose Hindutva are, somehow, anti-national.” Minorities like Muslims and Christians finds themselves on the wrong side of this divide.
Commanders’ worst nightmare is a communally divided military. The revolt by even small number of Sikh troops after the army’s June 1984 assault on the Golden Temple has left a traumatic imprint.
Compared to Sikhs, there are far fewer Muslim soldiers, sailors and airmen. Recognising the political sensitivity of these numbers, the military has refused to release figures, rebuffing right to information queries after the Sachar Commission report.
Business Standard is aware only of a classified study in the early 1990s, which found the army had less than 450 Muslim officers, just 1.5 per cent of the officer cadre. Informed sources say it is about 750 today, still fewer than 2 per cent, and disproportionately lower than the 13-14 per cent Muslim share of India’s population.
“Every commander wants to insulate his troops from the ills and difficulties of society. This was possible when cantonments were cloistered environments. Today, with soldiers on mobile phones and social media, the cantonments are a part of the world outside. The military’s secular motivation of “naam, namak aur nishan” (reputation, loyalty and flag) rallies troops across the religious divide. But it is getting difficult”, says a recently retired lieutenant general.
Even so, former chief of the Minorities Commission, Wajahat Habibullah, rejects the notion that there is widespread communal disharmony outside the cantonment and complete harmony inside. “Incidents like the assault on Mohammed Akhlaq are not the norm; much of the Hindu and Muslim population co-exists peacefully. But when people start unthinkingly disturbing this delicate balance, they are playing with fire. And the cantonment walls cannot keep out such a fire”, says Habibullah.