I was recently invited to speak at a very prominent Central University in an important city. It was a two-day convention on Interfaith Dialogue and Harmony.
I immediately accepted the invitation because rarely do I find institutions indulging in such positive activity to sensitise the social environment, especially when there seems to be a dire need for more respect for diversity.
India has been an ideal example of respect for plurality and diversity but must not take this achievement for granted.
It needs positive public interest and support by the intelligentsia and a university undertaking such an initiative obviously deserves accolades.
When asked what I would speak on my hosts seemed initially surprised by my choice of theme. It is something I can speak on for hours on end with no preparation.
The subject I chose was: ‘Role Modelling the Indian Armed Forces for National Inter-Faith Harmony’.
In my perception, there is no greater payback by the Armed Forces than to speak about their strongest quality, diversity. It comes naturally to all warriors and the pride they take in it can be witnessed in their institutions and practices.
A few years ago while we were facing some faith-based communal challenges in some parts of the country, I wrote a media commentary which concluded with this advice: “whenever India has an issue concerning a challenge emerging from its huge demographic diversity, it should only turn to its Armed Forces for inspiration; there nothing changes, and if it does it’s only for the better”.
The commentary went viral on social media drawing huge percentage of positive comments. I focus so much on this subject because I continue to believe that India and its people know this characteristic of their Armed Forces only peripherally.
I never tire of repeating in every talk that a ‘Sarv Dharm Sthal’ (all faiths under one roof’) exists in all units and establishments where there is a diverse mix of troops from different faiths.
A collection of 120 warriors of any one faith authorises a religious teacher (RT) of that faith for the religious and spiritual guidance and inspiration of the warriors. You will find many units with more than one RT.
Units of the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI) and the JAK RIF, two outstanding regiments, have three RTs in many units; a Pandit, Granthi and a Maulvi.
The attestation parade of the Regimental Centres of these regiments is a delight to watch, with religious scriptures of each faith carried ceremonially past the mixed lines forming the parade with each warrior touching them while taking the attestation oath.
It would be good to imagine how sailors of different faiths function together in the enclosed space of a submarine.
A fighter pilot has to have as much faith in his god as in the technician from a different faith who guarantees the technical worthiness of his aircraft.
At a winter cut-off post occupied on the Line of Control (LoC), no one could be bothered about the faith of the cook or of a comrade whose vacated sleeping bag a soldier occupies when he is relieved from duty in minus 35 degrees Celsius.
The warmth left behind by the comrade does not carry a religious stamp. Human bonding without fractured minds takes place the best when adversity stares you in the face.
One of the finest spectacles for an Indian citizen to witness is the carriage of representative religious symbols of all soldiers who form a part of a unit, in the first vehicle of a convoy or the first railway carriage when move is by train.
If you ever get a chance to walk even a small segment of the LoC, you will be surprised to see the number of ‘mazaars’ of Pir Babas of the Sufi strain.
Each one is cared for in a special way by the local unit, which in most circumstances may have no Muslim troops. Units assume responsibility for the upkeep and ‘Thursday routines’ with Thursday are universally declared as Pir Baba day all along the LoC. No one consumes alcohol or non-vegetarian fare that day. The best is usually reserved for occasions when the unit’s Panditji, Granthi or another RT reads out Islamic prayers during visits to mazaars in the unit’s area of responsibility. It’s not unusual to see Id prayers being led by a Granthi in the absence of the Maulvi if the latter is on leave or a Maulvi giving a sermon on Janmashtami announcing the birth of Lord Krishna.
Of course repeated ad nauseam is my story of being the only Muslim in my pure Hindu unit. The mandir (temple) prayers would begin with my entry and the ‘Aarti ki Thaali’ could not pass to anyone without my first handling it. It always makes me proud when I state that my record of Amarnath Yatras may be difficult to beat. But have no doubts that these practices cut across faiths. Pure Muslim sub-units of the Grenadiers, Rajputana Rifles or JAK RIF under command of officers of the Sikh, Hindu or Christian faith will usually find these officers keeping all 30 fasts of Ramzan, the holy month of fasting and reading the namaz with full knowledge and flow. There is a common saying in the Armed Forces, ‘the faith followed by the troops is the faith to be followed by the officer who commands them’. The individual faith of the officer is a faith in privacy, the public faith being what his troops follow.
Without a doubt the way faith is handled in the Armed Forces makes it a national role model. Belief in god is supposed to make humans pious, disciplined and caring. That is the belief of the warriors; it does not matter which god you pray to and how. Can India adopt this model?
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps