Few days ago, a tweet critical of Iftar gathering with local population that one of the Army units organised in Doda, J&K caught my attention. At the outset, let me clarify that such activities are regularly carried out by the Army as part of its counter-insurgency campaign; more on it, later. The said critical tweet was in form of a comment, describing the event as, ‘a kind of disease that has crept in the Army too’, or words to that effect. This tweet by a journalist who seemingly has a considerable following was distasteful and insensitive, to say the least.
Being a cantonment kid or an Army brat, as we are known as colloquially, I felt it pertinent to pen down my opinion on the matter by providing the context in terms of elucidating the nature of socio-religious fabric that prevail in the military. I very proudly, have grown up amidst the second family that Army has provided me with; my father being a serving officer from the Infantry for last three decades. My views of course are based on what I have seen, experienced and inferred from rich interactions with my father.
Given progressive family background of ours and my father being a student of history prior to his induction into the Army, his motivation to join came from the secular ethos that armed forces. And mentioning of secularism, I hint at the ‘audible secularism’ of ours wherein all religions and faith are accepted beyond merely tolerated. This is contrary to the western hue of ‘aggressive secularism’ that recognises no religion and rubs on the wrong side of community’s sentiments via bans and embargo. He opted for a honourable service, for this very secularism.
A secularism where soldiering was the prime mover and stakeholders as part of an outfit adopt each other’s religion, without any ulterior motive.
The battalion that my father was commissioned to and I was born in, comprised ten percent Muslim men. As a routine, each Monday evening was 'Mandir parade' and each Friday noon was marked by ‘Masjid parade’. During the peace postings of the unit, we too used to attend such gatherings wherein participation was irrespective of one’s faith and a healthy turnout was taken to be an indicator of levels of morale of the unit. A Muslim soldier participating in Bhajans and a Hindu soldier enjoying sewaiyan after dhuhr (noon prayer) was something very natural and attracted no particular attention. It was no different for festivals like Eid, Dussera, Deepawali, Ganesha Chaturthi etc.
With Muslim minority in the battalion, it was a given that non-vegetarian cooked in the cook houses (langars as referred to by soldiers) was ‘halal’ since Hindus had no inhibitions in consuming the same. Most importantly, as part of the regimental practice, broader shouldered majority accepts and respects the sentiments of minority without being tutored upon to do so.
The infrastructure that is constructed as per laid down standard to house mandir, masjid, gurudwara, church etc depending upon the composition of the unit is a common building called ‘Sarva Dharma Sthal’.
A military unit cannot afford to have divisions of any sorts, be it social or religious. The uniform that the soldiers’ dons and the flag that they salute to, gives them the requisite commonality of purpose to enable them overcome the trying service conditions of all sorts. I am told that in combat, deepest possible bondings are mandatory, after all they cover each other in face of enemy bullets.
In the context of Iftar that drew the unfortunate tweet, army units organise such events in conjunction with civil populace in the areas of deployment to counter insurgencies. Being a people’s army operating in such environment, local population is considered to be the centre of gravity and bonding with them is imperative for normalcy. This culture of inclusivity and sensitivity that fructifies in events like Iftars has its genesis in the intrinsic thought process vis a vis religion that the soldiers hold.
At the cost of sounding alarmist, such insensitive comment on social media and traction that it acquired thereafter, has the potential of damaging the intro-organizational social fibre of military units with grave consequences. I hope and pray that I am wrong.