The Indian Army continues to be in the cross-hairs of ‘Indianisation’ despite being the most national of all institutions. Decades after Independence, and having shed more lives for the country than any other institution, there continue to be misgivings that it is not Indian enough. Over so many years there have been numerous drives to Indianise the Army, but a meeting on 21 September, under the aegis of the Adjutant General scales new boundaries in its attempts at ensuring nativity.
Reducing the Indian Army to a colonial product is an insult to the country’s vast and complex military history. And like all others of that genre, India’s military history is also not all kosher. The current drive forays into institutional territory that has long been held as sacrosanct, and beyond the purview of nativisation.
The in-house discussion in the AG Conference Hall seeks to bring the Army in conformity with the nation’s drive to progress towards a ‘Developed Nation’ and ‘Amrit Kal’ and align to the ‘National Sentiment’, in consonance with ‘Panch Pran’. After the 15 points enunciated in the AG’s Branch note, it further goes on to declare that this list is not ‘exhaustive.’ All that will be left to tamper with as an institution, should this exercise come to some fruition, are the nomenclature of ranks. Everything that currently makes up the structure and ethos of the Army is as thoroughly Indian as it can be, and certainly more than any other institution funded by the Union of India.
Regional memories of the past
The Indian Army is made up of various arms and services that have evolved over centuries as military knowledge and experience have progressed in the country. There are episodes in that history which are not viewed similarly by all sections of society. There are regional variations to understanding and accepting that history too. And many don’t seem to be in sync with the accepted narrative.
Akbar, for example, is not regarded as ‘The Great’ by many in Rajasthan who have inherited memories of his Haldi Ghati and Chittorgarh campaigns. And then there are many in Coorg who have a different take on Tipu Sultan from the conventional story. There are also vast parts of Rajasthan where folklore is that the Scindia and Holkar forces under the Maratha umbrella were essentially looters who pillaged Mewar and Hadoti areas. But the essential fact is that all these episodes occurred and have added to India’s vivid military heritage. As with all military history, it is not pleasant. There is a winner, there is a loser, but what is common to both is that blood is shed, and in those drops, memories are carried over centuries and generations. This is essentially what the British colonial authorities did by tapping into the memories and regulating a certain military structure. They gave a name, a number, and a training regimen to ad-hoc and irregular native forces that were already operational in various parts of the country and under different ensigns. European as well as African mercenaries and slaves were also employed by some of these native forces when the British entered India.
As a result, Abyssinians abounded in the various Deccan armies, even as French artillery specialists saw service with the Marathas and even Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s forces. Military knowledge, structures, and practices are never a single source of pure DNA kind of inheritance, but a process that has occurred over centuries of experience and experiments. No professional military is bereft of such varied knowledge sources, for each episode carries some teaching with it. So, when the AG thinks the following ‘require a review’ and begins with (a) Customs and Traditions – Colonial and Pre-Colonial era, it would be useful to keep certain facts in mind.
Nine Grenadiers, for example, is rooted in Maharana Pratap’s forces that fought Akbar. 24 Mechanised Infantry Regiment claims its origins from a small band of warriors from Kannauj long before any Mughal dreamt of looting India. And there are more such unit examples, all pre-colonial and each with its own unique memory, customs and traditions. Then there is the Special Forces Balidaan badge, a design by late great Brig Bhawani Singh MVC, and clearly inspired by the British Special Air Service (SAS) flaming dagger. Or the Para Brigade crest ‘Shatrujeet’, strikingly similar to its ancient Greek counterpart Pegasus.
Onslaught on Army’s code
So, how does the Army Headquarters know what to cull and what to retain? It is simply a question of understanding the sociology of the Army, and the wonder that it indeed is. Anybody seeking to modify its practices and customs suffers from ignorance, or worse.
If it isn’t ignorance then there is an even graver threat to the functioning of the Army, which is a deliberate attempt at undermining its ethos.
The first onslaught on the Army’s code was through the creation of a second-class category of soldier called ‘Agniveer.’ Now a far deeper thrust is being made with this 15-point programme, to align with a certain ‘national sentiment.’ We are forgetting that the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service, who overall have provided great benefits to the country, are far more colonial in origin, structure and functioning style.
As expected, the Army’s mess etiquette is under review (p) because it is something most civilians don’t seem to understand. But there is no reason for the AG to forget that when he was Second-in-Command, the Mess Havaldar would report to him at the official dinner, salute, and declare in the midst of pin-drop silence, ‘Shriman bhojan tayar hai.’ (Sir, food is ready) Now beat that for Indianness.
Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader, Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert and Chairman, Soldier Welfare Advisory Committee, Rajasthan. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)