Muslims in the forces

24 Oct, 2003 00:00 IST
Updated:24 Oct, 2003 00:00 IST

Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India: Army, Police and Paramilitary Forces during communal riots by Omar Khalidi; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi; pages 126, Rs.350 hardback, Rs.150 paperback.

THE presence, absence rather, of Muslims in India's public services and also in the private sector has been the subject of much comment. Even over half a century after Partition, communal prejudice continues to blight their hopes of economic advancement. Not that the community's "leaders", such as they are, have not been at fault. Their efforts for communal mobilisation in politics are aimed at personal advancement, even if it be at the expense of the community's welfare. If in some respects its conditions show signs of improvement, in others it has deteriorated markedly.

The enormity of the Gujarat pogrom has, in a sense, affected sensitivity about the continued post-pogrom programme of the Narendra Modi government (vide the reports in Frontline, August 29, 2003). The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre looks on as if it is none of its concern. It is vain to expect any redress at its hands. Fortunately, there is growing empathy and concern about the lot of Muslims in the media and in institutes of repute like the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in Delhi. A working paper, which the NCAER will soon publish, puts forth ably "A case for Empowerment of Muslims" by Azra Razzack and Anil Gumber. Another study by Abusaleh Sharif is in draft. It is entitled "State strategy for development and welfare of Muslims in India: Focus on Education, Employment, Credit Flow and Empowerment". It has also reprinted his article in Economic and Political Weekly (November 18, 1995) on "Socio-economic and demographic differentials between Hindus and Muslims in India".

There remains a neglected subject rather like a dark family secret known to all but which is seldom mentioned - Muslims in the Indian Army. This was unwise and unjust to the Army, a great institution of which every Indian should be proud. Like other institutions, it has inherited a past that needs to be shaken off.

Omar Khalidi has written two scholarly and excellently researched essays on this and a related theme. They are entitled "Ethnic Composition of the Indian Armed Forces and its Impact on Performance During Riots and Pogroms" and "Ethnic Composition of the Indian Police and Central Paramilitary forces and its Impact on Performance During Riots and Pogroms."

Born in Hyderabad, he is on the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), author of Indian Muslims since Independence (1996) and a good few scholarly writings. He edited a collection of essays entitled Hyderabad After the Fall. The highly respected journal Pacific Affairs published in early 2002 his article entitled "Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army; the Contrasting Cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and others". This book covers the wider theme of the religious composition of the armed forces, the paramilitary and the police in six States - Uttar Pradesh, including its notorious provincial armed constabulary, Delhi and Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The author poses these questions: "Does the composition of the military personnel mirror the religious and ethnic diversity of the Indian national population? If so, to what extent over time? If not, why not and to what extent? What has been the impact on the Army of the increasing communalisation of Indian society and the religious divide between Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs, particularly in the last two decades?" He attempts to answer these questions based on conversations with and writings of military officers, published accounts of Defence Ministers, politicians, and informed journalists. Every factual statement is backed by a full reference. Khalidi interviewed, among others, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the late Gen.K. Sundarji, Lt.Gen. M.L. Chibber and Maj Gen. Indarjit Rikhye. He also interacted with R.K. Raghavan, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Julio Ribeiro the "super cop", and two former Directors of the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad, Aftab Ahmad Ali and Mahmoob B. Mahammad.

This is not a denunciatory tract. While exposing the grim realities that few care to discuss, it also shows the way out, acknowledging readily whatever ameliorative steps that have been taken. Muslims' backwardness in education is not overlooked.

The Indian Army comprised 30-36 per cent Muslims at the time of Partition. Since then, it came down to 2 per cent. Only two Muslims rose to the rank of Lieutenant Generals; only six became Major Generals. The Armed Forces Reconstitution committee, which divided them at the time of Partition, "assumed' that Muslims would opt for Pakistan. "But as many as 215 Muslim commissioned officers and 339 VCOs (Viceroy's Commissioned Officers, later called Junior Commissioned Officers) chose India, according to the Ministry of Defence. Notable among those who decided to remain in India were officers like Brigadiers Muhammad Usman and Muhammad Anis Ahmad Khan, and Lt.Col. Enayat Habibullah."

General K.M. Cariappa , the first Indian Army Chief, wrote an article, significantly in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece Organiser (August 15, 1964), 17 years after Partition alleging that "(Muslim) loyalty seems to be primarily to Pakistan. This is a crime unpardonable. This is also the impression of a large percentage of non-Muslim intellectuals in India. Here is the root cause for there being a none-too-happy feeling towards Muslims by a large percentage of the majority... . This is understandable." The author reminds us that Cariappa contested an election to the Lok Sabha from the Bombay Northwest Constituency with Shiv Sena support and lost. What needs to be added is that he was supported also by some business houses and, indeed advocated military rule in India.

Raju Thomas, an India-born American academic, who has written able studies, interviewed Army officers. He found that: "When the (India-Pakistan) war began in September 1965, a Muslim majority battalion of the Rajput Regiment stationed in the crucial Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir, far from being hastily withdrawn was allowed to play its part in the execution of the Army's forward actions. According to several high-ranking Indian Army officers, the fact that the battalion did not flinch and carried out its assigned role with considerable credit, sufficiently dispelled worry at least within the military - about the loyalty of Indian Muslim soldiers."

In a letter to Chief Ministers dated September 20, 1953, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru noted that the "position relating to minority groups in India is deteriorating". It bears quotation in extenso: "Our Constitution is good and we do not make any distinction in our rules and regulations or laws. But, in effect, changes creep in because of administrative practices or officers. Often these changes are not deliberate, sometimes they are so.

"In the Services, generally speaking, the representation of the minority communities is lessening. In some cases, it is very poor indeed. It is true that some of the highest offices in the land are occupied by members of these minority communities. They occupy high places also in our foreign missions. But in looking through Central government figures, as well as some others, I am distressed to find that the position is very disadvantageous to them, chiefly to Muslims and sometimes others also.

"In our Defence Services, there are hardly any Muslims left. In the vast Central Secretariat of Delhi, there are very few Muslims. Probably the position is somewhat better in the province, but not much more so. What concerns me most is that there is no effort being made to improve this situation, which is likely to grow worse unless checked" (Jawaharlal Nehru; Letters to Chief Ministers 1947-1964; vol. 3 1952-54; pages 375-376). The prophecy came true. His Minister of State for Defence, Mahavir Tyagi, disclosed that in 1953, "the percentage of Muslims in the Armed Forces which was 32 per cent at the time of Partition has come down to two. To correct this state of affairs, I have instructed that due regard should be paid to their recruitment."

The situation was little better in the erstwhile Indian States. Both in the Army and in the police, the Nizam's government in Hyderabad discriminated studiously in favour of Muslims. In Kashmir Muslims were excluded altogether from the state force. What Sheikh Abdullah wrote in his memoirs Atish-e-Chinar reveals the rot.

Khalidi translated the passage from Urdu text: "As a result of Kashmir's accession to India, I had hoped that previous restriction on the recruitment of Kashmir Muslims would be lifted and they will be given adequate representation in the Army. I was taken aback when a secret circular came to my attention that directed recruitment officers not to enlist Muslims in the Army. Word about this circular spread among the young men who took out a procession to Mujahid Manzil (the Sheikh's headquarters). When the Defence Minister Gopalaswami Ayyangar came to Jammu, I took up the matter with him. He vehemently denied any such circular could have been issued in the first place. I asked Gen. K.M. Cariappa why Kargil Muslims were not recruited, to which he replied that their loyalty to India was suspect."

The author adds, "shockingly, a handout issued by the army through the defence wing of the Press Information Bureau in Jammu on 1 April 2001, reads: `No vacancy for Muslims and tradesmen.' Despite protests in the Kashmir Legislative Assembly, and by the then Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, the Army did not deny its statement."

Decades later, in 1985 George Fernandes, now Defence Minister, admitted "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." Whether he has done anything in redress remains one of his better kept secrets. The situation is no better in the Air Force or the Navy. The former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, a man of integrity, noted: "There are hardly any Muslim officers in the Navy and none of them holds posts of any consequence."

Readers of this journal need not be reminded of attempts by the Sangh Parivar to suborn the loyalty of the armed forces. They have failed. The heart of our forces is in the right place. The author does an honest job of candid exposure. His comments on improving the situation are constructive: "The ability to develop an Army culture through common celebration of religious and cultural festivals, and respect for diverse beliefs, certainly serves as ethnic cross pressure, preventing stereotyping and prejudice among the troops. But this necessarily implies recruitment of all ethnic and religious groups in India into the armed forces, as absence of particular groups from its rank and file may lead to biases based on ignorance. The Army's goals in this regard are worthy of civilian emulation. If the different ethnic and religious groups in India and elsewhere can be integrated within schools, trade unions, sports, NGOs, and the like, the likelihood of negative socialisation through prejudice may decrease."It must be recognised that, whether in the Army or the police force, such a situation fosters the "them" and "us" feeling.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad recorded in his memoirs, how alike in India and Pakistan, members of the armed forces participated in the killings. He added: "We therefore took measures to bring more soldiers from the south. They had not been affected by the Partition of the country and retained their sense of soldierly discipline. The soldiers of the south played a great part in bringing the situation under control and restoring order in the capital."

It is to the credit of the Army that its help is sought consistently to quell communal riots. "The Army's role has been particularly welcomed by the Muslim leadership, who contrast the Army's neutral role to that of the police and the paramilitary's partisanship (and sometimes actual initiation of aggression) against them. The Army's neutrality and professionalism in inter-communal riots is consistent with its historical record even outside India."

However, Ayodhya imposed a severe strain. "According to the press, during the campaign against the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, the `army signalled its unwillingness to step in and take drastic action', against Hindu gangs determined to harm the mosque. In fact, the then Chief of the Army Staff Gen. S.F. Rodrigues, `refused government pleas to take over security arrangements at the Babri mosque'." Reports by journalists of repute are cited. Jaswant Singh, now Union Finance Minister, told India Abroad (March 5, 1993) that "a Hindu confrontation with the government could affect India's largely Hindu Army. Religion is a key element in a soldier's mental make up... I dread to think of a Hindu confrontation with the government over an emotive issue."

The author cannot be faulted for commenting that "the government's willingness to use the Army in the case of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984 and the Charar-e-Sharif in Kashmir in 1995, but not against the Ayodhya mob in 1992 bent on the destruction of the mosque, appears inexplicable."

Manekshaw told the author that two Defence Ministers "Swaran Singh and Babu Jagjivan Ram opposed the cases of two Muslim officers whom he wanted promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General."

What is sad is that, as the Opposition to Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat showed, some members of the armed forces began seeking political support for their promotion. The Akali Dal has been, reportedly, a serial offender.

Such an exclusion of one minority is bound to foster unhealthy feelings. "The Indian political leadership's successful subordination of the military to civilian control is one of the exceptional achievements of the country, in shining contrast to neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the like. As long as politicians share the vision of India as a multi-religious and secular state, the minorities have nothing to fear from a military composed of any one or more ethnic or caste groups. After all, there is practically no country in the world where the armed forces completely mirror society. However, if groups representing extreme views of homogeneity come to power - even through democratic means they can pose a clear and manifest danger to the physical security of the minorities." This has come to pass. India's most powerful hate group, the RSS, is in power through its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The behaviour of the police in communal riots has been appalling. (vide the reviewer's essay "Communal riots and the police in Communal Riots, the State and Law in India"; ed. Iqbal A. Ansari, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, 1997, pages 3-13, based on Reports of Commissions of Inquiry 1961-1989.) The author's survey of the police force in six States reveals a distressing state of affairs, especially in U.P.

A deep feeling of hostile discrimination is a crippling depressant, it demoralises the victim. "The lack of role models and few Muslims in the IPS may lead to a self-perpetuating cycle in which Muslims are dissuaded from qualifying/entering the UPSC examinations. It is now being increasingly recognised by some Muslim educators that the community should improve its educational standards in order to compete with others, rather than blame the State or the larger society. Some of the successful Muslim IPS officers point to their own careers as examples for others to emulate, such as the cases of T.T.P. Abdullah in Tamil Nadu and Mahmood B. Muhammad in Andhra Pradesh, both of whom rose to be India's Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia."

By 1958 the proportion of Muslims among senior police officers dropped from 40 per cent before Partition to 7 per cent.

Two serving police officers in U.P. explained: "While it is true that Muslim educational standard is low, it is not so low that they cannot be selected even as constables. Nepotism, casteism, and corruption explain the absence of Muslims from the U.P. police, augmented by Muslims' loss of faith in the fairness of the state system. Even meritorious Muslims are hesitant to apply. They have a strong feeling that even if they apply, they will be discriminated against and not selected."

However, while exclusion of Muslims from the police force explains its communal behaviour during the riots, it is not the sole factor. The Left Front government in West Bengal is a contrast to the B.C. Roy regime's behaviour during communal riots. Jyoti Basu saw to it that the vice was eradicated. So did Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar. The author draws interesting lessons from this.

Aftab Ahmad Ali, former Director of the SVPN Police Academy, explained: "The security of the minorities during communal disturbances depends largely on the attitude of the political party in power in the State. The police chief - the Director-General - has to act according to the dictates of the Chief Minister, being entirely at the latter's mercy for the position in the force. If the direction to him, explicitly or implicitly, is not to interfere with rioters, the DGP cannot but comply because to do so otherwise will entail instant removal - by transfer - to an equal but inconsequential position. No protection is provided under the law or procedure to arbitrary removal by way of transfer. In the IPS, the police have a corps of officers who are, with very few exceptions, by the very manner of their selection from the educational elite, liberal in their values and free of caste or creed biases. If allowed to perform their duties as enjoined by the law and (there is) the removal of political interferences as suggested by the National Police Commission, the IPS have the capability to make the police under their command provide security to all."

In this there is a lesson for Muslims. Improvement of their lot is part of a wider secular agenda for reform.

Diversification of the armed forces and the police is imperative. But it will be of little avail if those in power are hostile to the minorities. A communal mobilisation will only exacerbate the situation. Muslims must join hands with secular forces against the hate groups and Muslim intellectuals must concern themselves with yet greater efforts to devising solutions to the community's pressing problems. Muslim leaders who act as "sarkari Musalmans", the Uncle Toms of India, and beat their breasts pledging loyalty to India, and fulsome support to India's case on Kashmir as if it is a test of loyalty and denouncing Pakistan ritually.

The distinguished filmstar Farooq Sheikh rendered high service when at a meeting of Muslims in Mumbai on August 26 to condemn the blasts, he angrily questioned the need to convene such meetings as if Muslims were made accountable for the conduct of any of their co-religionists.

Neglect of the "Muslim problem" will be a betrayal of the secular ideal. But exclusive concentration on it will be harmful. It must be treated urgently and seriously as one of the national problems. Discrimination against Muslims has been a blot on India's record as a democracy. That blot must be erased with determination and speed by all Indians who cherish the Great Indian Ideal.

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