Last week, two events in quick succession on 15 and 17 September once again put a question mark on the secular and political credentials of the armed forces.
A video was found in circulation on military WhatsApp groups and social media on 15 September, showing young soldiers dressed in ceremonial regalia performing the Hindu religious ritual of ‘aarti’ to the accompaniment of a military band on the Drill Square — a tarmac ground for ceremonial parades and drill training. This, by all yardsticks, was a gross violation of the military’s secular ethos. The video went viral on social media, leading to an acrimonious debate between the Right-wing supporters defending the ceremony, citing traditions/religion, and the critics led by veterans condemning the same for violating the secular ethos.
On 17 September, Headquarters 15 Corps, responsible for operations in the Kashmir Valley, under its Twitter handle — Chinar Corps — tweeted to felicitate Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 71st birthday. The laudatory language, complete with three images of the Prime Minister in military combat dress, was no different from the servility that is common among political subordinates deferring to their leader. The tweet was quickly deleted but the screenshot has certainly dented the apolitical status of the armed forces.
I analyse these two events to highlight the steady erosion of the secular and political ethos of the armed forces.
Aarti on Drill Square
The British Indian Army post-1857 was organised along the lines of religion, caste and region. Allegiance to the crown was alien to the native troops, hence, the British cleverly introduced religion and regimentation as the primary motivating factors. Much was made of religious places within units with weekly organised parades. Most battle cries were based on religious slogans. Post-Independence, this organisational structure has been retained for regimented cohesion — the most important factor for winning battles. All the new regiments, however, were raised as all-India mix units.
While religion continues to act as a motivator, its overriding importance has been progressively reduced. The concept of Sarva Dharma Sthal incorporating all religions was introduced in multi-religious units. A distinct separation was made between the off and on-parade displays of religiosity. The only time religious books were brought on parade was during the attestation parade or passing-out parade of young recruits.
The soldiers during attestation take an oath on the Constitution, however, at that time the holy book/books are also on parade next to the Adjutant, who administers the oath. Earlier, the holy books were moved through the columns and soldiers made a mechanical drill gesture of touching the holy book without actually touching it, with one hand. Off late, this practice has also been stopped. Apart from this, no religious ritual ever takes place on the Drill Square. Some marching tunes have been made based on religious hymns — aarti (Hinduism), deh shiva var mohe (Sikhism) and abide with me (Christianity).
The video in question is, without doubt, on the Drill Square, and seems to be linked to the attestation parade/passing-out parade of recruits of the Regiment of Artillery, probably at their regimental centre at Nasik. The parade is standing in a hollow square with award winners in front of the saluting base. The parade commander, wearing a sword, is rotating the ‘dhoop’ and in front of him is a coconut on a stone with “Om” written on it. All the soldiers are wearing masks, indicating that the video date is after the outbreak of Covid-19. The soldiers are seen clapping while holding their rifles between their knees. The pipes and drums band is playing the aarti.
The defenders of the practice, including the Army spokesperson, have highlighted that the event was held in front of the unit temple before the parade and is a tradition. A video from the Indian Military Academy’s Drill Square has been cited as an example. To the best of my knowledge, no such tradition exists. This unauthorised practice is contrary to the rules and regulations of the Army, and the policy issued by the Adjutant General’s Branch wherein all religious ceremonies are restricted to authorised religious places with the exception of the attestation parade as mentioned above.
From the original video under reference, it cannot be said with certainty if it is a part of the attestation parade or a part of full-dress rehearsal, or whether it is an event before or after the ceremonial parade. However, there is no doubt that it is taking place on the Drill Square. The justification that it was before the parade offers no mitigation. The Regiment of Artillery is an all-India mix of soldiers of all faiths. To perform the ritual of only one religion is discriminatory, and is likely to create communal divisions and contrary to rules, regulations and military law.
Controversial birthday felicitations
There is no custom or tradition in the armed forces wherein any formation or its commander extends public felicitations of any kind to the Prime Minister or any other political leader. The Service Chiefs or the Chief of Defence Staff may do so as a courteous gesture if they meet the dignitary in person on the day or, at best, formally send cryptic felicitations in military language.
The government selects and appoints Army Commanders/Service Chief/Chief of Defence Staff at its discretion. The Narendra Modi government has, at times, given priority to merit amongst equals and is well within its right to do so. In an earlier move, the Chief of Defence Staff had ordered a study to evolve such a system for deep selection based on merit for the ranks of Lt Gen and above. Such a system would give longer tenures to future theatre commanders.
The tweet in question was written in a servile language and put in the public domain. The intent, if not by design but certainly by default, seems to be with an ulterior motive to endear the formation and, by implication, its commander, to the powers that be, with the hope to influence future selection on “merit” or for a post-retirement appointment. That the tweet was hurriedly deleted after initial criticism tells the tale.
Need for course correction
The above two incidents are out of sync with the military’s secular and apolitical ethos that has served the nation well for 74 years. There have been numerous other incidents wherein the military hierarchy itself has made political statements and given the impression of swaying with the political winds.
The poor example set by the hierarchy in compromising the apolitical status of the armed forces is now permeating down to the lower echelons. With every soldier having a mobile, the vitiated religious discourse on social media and television channels is also taking its toll. The unilateral actions by subordinate commanders in triggering the two incidents prove this point.
It is time for the armed forces to make a course correction. Fresh policy directions must be issued and strictly applied by the Chief of Defence Staff and the Service Chiefs to address this dangerous trend that strikes at its core constitutional values.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)