In preventing Nawazuddin Siddiqui from acting in a Ramlila in Muzaffarnagar, the Shiv Sena’s local leader probably thought he would score some popularity. The exact opposite occurred. To a short tweet put out by me recounting the fact that as Muslims, both my spouse and i invariably led the puja of our army unit in its temple every other Sunday, i received over 10,000 responses welcoming our action, suggesting that the country stands essentially secular, with people who supported my tweet being from all faiths and all walks of life and representing a fairly good sample of India.
But very few Indians know how faith is handled within the armed forces, the one institution where Indian secularism is feted and followed to the tee, something to emulate.
Faith is extremely important for soldiers. In a profession where life hangs by a thread people tend to repose greater trust in God than almost any other profession. I have witnessed troops being launched into major operations and hours before that a personal temple comes up among stones, brush wood or ice. Families of servicemen have to repose even greater trust in religion and connect with God as the breadwinner’s life is at stake.
There is an implicit convention that the faith of the troops becomes the faith of the officer. He may follow any belief at home but with troops and in field areas the unit’s faith is his faith. In peace stations the spouse follows her husband as a part of the bonding exercise so important in the profession. Men who fight together must pray together.
There are units of the army which are single class and single faith. For example in the Sikh Regiment, a gurdwara is authorised to each unit and a granthi too forms a part of the unit. There may be a few non-Sikhs among clerks or tradesmen and many officers may be from other faiths. These personnel will all follow the Sikh tradition in faith but equally a good Sikh unit will place symbols of other faiths alongside their own – photos of Mecca and Medina, of Lord Siva or Lord Krishna, a cross or a Bible.
There are pure Hindu units and in fact majority are that; all the above would equally apply to them. There are mixed units too. A unit could have a Muslim company, all other companies being Hindu with a sprinkling of Christians and Buddhists along with more Sikhs. Such a unit is bound to have a formal Sarv Dharam Sthal or a place for worship for each faith but all under one roof with a display of flags of all four faiths.
The Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry which has its training centre at Srinagar comprises Dogras, Sikhs and Muslims in near equal segments. It follows the unique Mandir Masjid Gurdwara (MMG) concept, all under one roof, and is extremely proud of that.
Personally, i come from a regiment which is purely Hindu and has a regimental deity in Lord Badri Vishal, the personification of Lord Vishnu at the Badrinath shrine. As the head of the regiment i have invoked the blessings of Lord Badri Vishal by personally travelling to the shrine many times for the opening puja of the season after winter. As a senior commander in Kashmir some of my most satisfying moments were those when i did a round robin of all gurdwaras of the units on Guru Purab, ending with langar with the unit usually deployed in the most difficult area.
Once in a Muslim Grenadiers unit, its Hindu company commander put me to shame when i saw that he was keeping all 30 rozas with his men and even reading all five namaz which he knew perfectly.
And when my fauji (army) father was questioned during Partition about his choice of armies, he said: “While the nation formed on basis of faith will celebrate now but won’t last forever, the nation formed on basis of respect for every faith will have a difficult beginning but will always celebrate.” He remained with the Indian Army and rose to be its first Muslim GOC. When India has doubts about itself and the future course of inter faith relations it should just turn to its army for inspiration; there nothing changes, it only becomes better.
(This article was originally published on October 6th, 2016, in The Times OF India. It has been re-published here with permission from the author. Read the original piece here)