Sunday, 5 October 2014

The maulvi protests too much

Wearing religion on their uniform sleeves
4 October 2014, New Delhi, Ali Ahmed
The Indian Army cannot afford a controversy where its secular credentials get questioned in the open.
If a recent newspaper report is to be believed, a Maulvi in the army has been censured for using the salutation ‘Jai Hind’. Reading the rest of the news story reveals that he declined to use the regimental salutations, Jai Mata Di and Ram Ram, in vogue within his regiment, the Rajputana Rifles. He preferred using Jai Hind instead, citing religious reasons. Media reports have it that the Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) has alleged in his court submission that the army has denigrated Jai Hind as a greeting.

This is far from the truth since the salutation between officers in the army is Jai Hind. However, by not following the traditions in the battalion, the JCO is indirectly calling these into question. He not only thereby detracts from the entire edifice of regimental traditions but in his public challenge to this particular one brings a major issue to the fore, that of relationship of an orthodox version of religion with the military.

Regimentation is part of the course for members of fighting units which all frontline infantry units are, including 3 Raj Rif, the JCO’s current outfit. This is the difference between norms, ethics and the law. Norms go beyond the written word. Compliance is necessary since these units are not tasked for ‘normal’ activity. They are to go into battle, the daunting sounds and sights of which are familiar to all across the country post Kargil. This requires a bonding between members of the units and a horizontal cohesion in sub-units that will enable them to go the last hundred yards under fire.

While this can come about by shared dangers and privations of war as conscript armies have demonstrated in military history, our army has chosen the regimental system to keep the regimental spirit alive and well. This owes to undemarcated borders, unresolved disputes with neighbours and live insurgencies sometimes compelling sudden deployment in operations. In such situations, pre-existing bonds can sustain the fighting man. Such bonds are created in peace times through practices that go back three centuries such as eating the same food, speaking the same language, wearing the same uniform and sharing the same greeting.

His challenge to the salutation in his present place of posting has critical morale sapping connotations. A religious teacher (RT) is usually authorised where there is a company worth of troops from a particular religion. He has in his challenge adversely impacted the practices that the Muslim jawans are used to. In case they see their religious teacher not following traditions, they can begin to doubt these. This will bring about an avoidable divide between them and their Hindu comrades.

At one remove, Muslim soldiers who have gained immortality in fighting for the country, ranging from Brigadier Usman to Haneefuddin, are icons for their co-religionists. A commanding officer in Kargil swears by their role there. Such inspiring feats have wider repercussions, leading, for instance, to the politician Azam Khan in a display of patriotic fervour claiming the Kargil victory as a Muslim contribution to the nation! The prime minister was right in his observation that Muslims both live and die for the country. Such sacrifice is generated by the identification of soldiers with their comrades, sub-units and units, a sentiment that traditions help foster. The RT JCO in questioning traditions and practices is disrupting the harmony that gives rise to martial exploits. These are important not only in themselves but also serve as a building block for the the wider mosaic of Indian Muslim communities across India to identify with and be proud of their army and their country.

The RT JCO cites his religious convictions as standing in the way. Several Muslims, some of whom have been staunch believers and avid practitioners, have gone through service without having their religion come in way of their regimental duties. Aligarh Muslim University Vice Chancellor Zameeruddin Shah has acknowledged as much in a recent interview. At least one such Muslim with an unmatched reputation of never having missed a fast in the month of Ramzan, even when in exercises or operations, or his five-times prayer is Lt Gen Zaki, former vice chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia. He was from a regiment that continues to use Ram-Ram as its salutation.

Nevertheless, since India allows freedom to profess religion and followers of all faiths have the right to contribute to the country’s defence, the question is how can the RT JCO’s rights be preserved? He could well have been transferred out of his unit to another where the traditional greeting is Jai Hind. This would have preserved his religious convictions and prevented the cohesion from being threatened in his unit. Since he has chosen instead to go to the press, military justice must now take its own course.

However, the more significant point from this episode is of the relationship of extreme forms of religion with the military. In this case, it is possible that the RT JCO subscribes to an orthodox version of Islam that is seemingly less tolerant of the traditional face of subcontinental Islam. The eclipse of the greeting ‘Khuda-hafez’ by ‘Allah-hafez’ is symbolic and symptomatic of this version. He has perhaps been a victim of taking a particular trend in Islam as the correct and the only version of Islam. As a result his ultra-orthodox religious convictions have got better of his score years of military service and his sensitivity to the injunctions in Islam of service to the country.

The trend bears watching since in both majority’s religion, Hinduism, and Islam are each witnessing a tussle within, in which less tolerant forms are vying to be the dominant version of respective religion. The army cannot afford to serve as a site for such tryst. It cannot afford controversy in which its secular credentials are questioned. It is clear that the agenda of its Institute for National Integration in Pune that graduates religious teachers has suddenly got heavier.