Muslim Census in Armed Forces:

Endandering Secular Democracy or Promoting It?

The request by the High Level Committee headed by Justice Sachar for statistics of Muslim representation in the Armed Forces has generated an outcry - by the Army authorities as well as by the BJP-NDA. The hue and cry is that the request amounts to an attempt to communalise the nationalist institution of the Army. Will a census of Muslim/SC-ST/women in the armed forces foster divisive and anti-national sentiment? Or will such records ensure that the nation remains alert about preventing and correcting discriminatory practices in our national institutions?

Let us consider the issues and facts:

The Chief of Army Staff claimed, self-righteously, that the Army recruits purely on merit and does not seek or keep information on the religious origins of soldiers. Is this true? Not quite. The Army does, in fact, collect such information: on the application forms published and issued in the press by the Armed Forces, there is a column entitled ‘Religion', which means that the Army does know and possess records of the religious profile of its soldiers.

Further, the Army continues to maintain certain colonial traditions of regiments based on ‘traditional', ‘martial' communities: Gorkha Regiment, Sikh Regiment, Rajputana Regiment, etc... Why is this practice not considered ‘anti-national' and against the ‘nationalist spirit'? The Army itself has often approvingly provided the information that Gorkhas from Nepal constitute 5% of the entire Army. If such information can be maintained and made public about the Gorkhas, who are paradoxically, not even Indian citizens, what is so dangerous about providing information about Muslim representation, of that of SC/STs and women?

Reports about racial discrimination against African-American blacks as well as gender discrimination against women in the US Army abound. Is there evidence that there is similar discrimination on communal lines in the Indian armed forces?

Sheikh Abdullah, the first post-Independence CM of Kashmir, wrote: “I was taken aback when a secret circular came to my attention that directed recruitment officers not to enlist Muslims in the Army...I asked Gen. K.M. Cariappa why Kargil Muslims were not recruited, to which he replied that their loyalty to India was suspect!” ( Atish e Chinar , Sheikh Abdullah, 1986, cited in Omar Khaledi, Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India , Three Essays Collective, 2003). Cariappa, a former Army Commander-in-Chief, writing in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser on Independence Day, 1964, justified ill-feeling by ‘a large percentage of the majority' as being “understandable” since Muslim “loyalty seems to be primarily to Pakistan.” These prejudices were aired despite ample evidence that Muslim soldiers had fought in large numbers and died in wars against Pakistan .

Did the prejudice against Muslims, and the tendency to suspect their loyalty change after 50 years? Not much. Many Kashmiri Muslims died fighting in the Indian Army, and many Muslim porters too died giving support to the Indian Army in difficult terrain, during the Kargil war of 1999. Despite this, one senior Army officer, Maj. Gen. V. N. Budhwar, “wanted Muslim villagers evicted from the Turtok area along the LOC” in Kargil. (Praveen Swami on the Kargil Conflict, Frontline , 31 July-13 August 1999, cited in Khaledi). A handout issued by the Army in Jammu on April 2001 declared: ‘No vacancy for Muslims and tradesmen'!

A former Adjutant General, Lt. Gen. M. L. Chhibber, also declared that Muslims themselves are responsible for the low levels of Muslim recruitment, since “Muslims would rather fight for Allah and not for the country”. (Khaledi, p 13) This stereotypical allegation is belied by the fact that according to Army sources themselves, “thousands of Kashmiris” participated in an Army recruitment drive ( HT , April 4, 2002 , Khaledi).

Former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat stated that “There are hardly any Muslim officers in the Navy and none of them hold posts of any consequence.” Don't we recall how, in 1998, Bhagwat himself was dismissed from his post after his subordinate alleged that his wife Niloufer was “half-Muslim”?

Cariappa's tradition of strong Hindutva links in the Army also continues.

The Army forbids Friday prayers and forbids Muslim soldiers from keeping beards, but Sikh soldiers are permitted to retain their beards and turbans! Gen. B. C. Joshi, Chief of Army Staff, exhorted his troops to “follow the Path of Dharma” and the principles “enshrined in the Vedas”. ( India News , 15 July, 1993). Rear Admiral Vijay Shankar announced that new naval cadets would be supplied with the Ramayana for classroom exercises. ( Indian Express , April 13, 2001 ) Former Chief Gen. V. P. Malik encouraged the practice of inviting Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and editor of RSS' Organiser , Tarun Vijay, to attend military events. VHP is also in the habit of distributing rakhis as well as anti-Christian, anti-Muslim hate literature to the Armed Forces. (Khaledi, p 28). In August 1998, Lt. Gen. Budhwar provided logistical support to the RSS-sponsored Sindhu Darshan festival in Leh. And on 31 May, 1999 , Defence Minister George Fernandes took Army Officers to brief the BJP National Executive! On 14 December 1999 , Minister of State for Defence, Bachi Singh Rawat declared that soldiers would be indoctrinated with RSS philosophy and RSS swayamsevaks could be recruited into the Army! (Khaledi, p 39).

Clearly, the above facts reveal an unfortunately high degree of anti-Muslim prejudice amongst Army personnel. Further there is the fact that Muslims are shockingly under-represented in most institutions – their educational and employment statistics are close to that of Dalits. For the UPA Government to buckle down before RSS-BJP jingoism and withdraw the move to get statistics on Muslim representation in the Armed forces is highly unfortunate. Evidence of Army discrimination against women was revealed in the way in which the Army court-martialled and witch-hunted a woman soldier who complained of sexual harassment. We need to monitor the representation, not just of Muslims, but of all marginalised groups, including women, in all institutions; the Armed Forces cannot claim to be above such public scrutiny. Only such scrutiny can ensure that our Army is capable of remaining truly just when it intervenes in a situation of communal riots and genocide.