Indian Army | Representational image | PTI
Indian Army (representational image) | PTI
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The Indian Army’s greeting of ‘Jai Hind’ best describes the ethos, spirit and secular credentials of the country’s armed forces. The greeting does not have a religious or regional connotation. It rightly conveys the deep bond between India and its armed forces, the weapon of the last resort. This does not mean that religion is not important in the life of soldiers. It is a vital motivating and bonding factor.

There are battalions or regiments with ‘one class’ (personnel of only one religious group) and ‘fixed class’ (subunits of several religious groups in one unit). The officers are posted to units without considering religious affiliations because their religion is the uniform they wear. Interestingly, most officers have a nickname completely disassociated with religion but linked to some characteristic or oddity of behaviour. Throughout my service in the Army, I was known as ‘Zoom’. I still carry this sobriquet.

No religious wedge

In 1968, I was commissioned into a camel pack artillery regiment, which had two batteries of Rajputs and one battery of Ahirs. The officers came from diverse backgrounds, reflective of the inclusive and all-encompassing nature of India – there were 10 Hindus, two Sikhs and Muslims each, one Christian and a Jew. The unit had a regimental mandir where all religious groups worshipped. There was a photo of the Golden Temple, the Kaaba, and a Crucifix in the complex. Religion was our private business and never a matter of discussion. Our bonds were far too strong for any religious wedge to be driven between us.

One night, during the 1971 India-Pakistan War, we provided artillery fire to a raiding party, which had attacked a village fort called Islamgarh in Sindh, Pakistan. The raid was a complete surprise on the Pakistan Army and we overran the fort. In the morning, the Junior Commissioned Officer, who was part of the raiding party, handed me a cloth-bound Quran, which he had retrieved from the village mosque. He felt it might get desecrated and believed it would be safer in my custody. I still have it and will return it to its rightful place at the opportune time.

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Mandir, Masjid, Gurdwara parade

There are units with a combination of three religious groups. In one battalion of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, in my brigade, there were two companies of Dogras, one company of Muslims, and one company of Sikhs. One couldn’t have multiple places of worship so the unit had one ‘hall of worship’ with the western portion allotted to Muslims and the other corners housing Dogra deities and a ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.

I once attended an Eid celebration. Officers belonging to all three faiths were present. The Maulvi gave a sermon, which was followed by discourses by a Pandit and a Granthi. All three sermons centred on amity and interfaith unity. This was followed by the Eid namaz, which was attended by the Commanding Officer, a non-Muslim. It was not an act of worship but a purely notional gesture to bolster the morale of his troops. We all ate Eid sewain (sweet vermicelli), a relishing finish to a moving function. Attendance, during a religious function, was compulsory – after all, it was always a Mandir, Masjid, Gurdwara Parade or MMG.

I again saw religious harmony when I was called to the Army Headquarters for an interview for the post of Defence Attaché to our missions abroad. In contention were three countries, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Myanmar. I felt elated that I was in the august company of 30-odd ‘cat’s whisker’ contemporaries. The most sought-after assignment for a military officer is a posting abroad. It is a recognition of competence and a just reward for the trials and tribulations one has been through.

I sat apprehensively before the selection committee comprising the top brass of Army HQ. I was grilled for about 30 minutes with questions on all the three countries in contention. During the interview, I saw the presiding officer scribbling a note and passing it to the secretary, who was a Colonel of the Military Secretary’s Branch. He moved out and returned after about 10 minutes and passed the note back to the ‘Chair’. The subsequent questions centred only on the Gulf. It was only a decade later that I learnt what the note contained. It was a query: ‘Is Shah a Sunni or a Shia Muslim?’. The secretary didn’t know the answer since the Army does not do such profiling. Fortunately, he had served with my cousin at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. He rang him up and got the answer, and I was selected for Saudi Arabia.

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Army should only protect India externally

While attending a course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, we had some Iraqi officers in our classes. This was during the 1980 Iraq-Iran conflict. On the day of Eid that year, we invited them home for lunch where I made a cardinal blunder of inquiring whether they were Sunni or Shia. They appeared disconcerted and replied, “We are Iraqis”. This was entirely in line with the concept of ‘Hubbul Watani’ (patriotism or one where country’s interests are paramount), which was ingrained in me by my upbringing and experience in uniform. Indians should emulate the inclusive and non-communal nature of the armed forces.

The Indian Army has occasionally been requisitioned to quell communal riots and all communities have reposed full faith and confidence in the fair behaviour and impartiality of the armed force personnel. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about the police forces, which have become totally communalised. Why is there a difference in outlook and response? The police officers become communalised because of prolonged exposure to communal trouble. It is essential that the armed forces are kept insulated from prolonged exposure to internal disorder. It was for the ultimate good that the Army did not get embroiled in resolving the Naxal insurgency. They should also, at the earliest, be relieved from internal security in Jammu and Kashmir.

The paramilitary forces are adequately trained for this onerous task. The Army should be unburdened for its primary task of protecting India from external aggression.

Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah PVSM, SM, VSM (retired) is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and the former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Views are personal.

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21 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Why don’t you approach lt.general syed ata hasnain for his opinion ?He has served a lot in jammu and kashmir during his tenure.I know you are not going to do this because his views don’t suit your agenda.

  2. Indian Army should be relieved from internal security in J&K. It goes against secular ethos.
    The forces are and have remained secular, because of the insulation from politicians. So when ones comes out of the services, one believes that the country beyond the services is same being oblivious the to reality of how the secularism has been used and misused by the rulers. Isn’t the Army protecting the borders ? With a hostile neighbour having declared policy of 1000 cuts to bleed you, how can you imagine that a force trained to handle the law and order will withstand those cuts.
    Indian Army insulated or not from prolonged exposure to internal disorder will not become communalised. The police forces have different reasons because of the political interference which the Army remains insulated from, on the contrary the Army’s influence should work against the communalising process of the Police.

  3. A very distinguished man, a patriot, whose motives are above reproach, has written a very reasonable piece.
    I hope the situation improves in Kashmir soon, so that the army plays only the border security role.

  4. Cultural context of India must always remain Hindu, as 80% of population is Hindu and a few % hinduism derived religions. Other religions are free to exist minus conversions. There are many countries with official religions , Sri Lanka-Buddhist , China -Communist, Pak/Bangladesh -Islam , Burma – Buddhist , Mexico -Catholic , Almost all south American countries are official catholic , All middle east countries are official Islamic , Where is a Official Hindu Country on this planet ? Declare India an Official Hindu country and the pesky issues with cultural context will be over.

    • The general brought out a point that goes without telling the environment. Indian Armed Forces are epitome of secularism as long as articles like these don’t appear in newspapers and media.
      After 32 years in Indian Army, I am yet to witness the indicators of fears the general has mentioned. So far so good.
      But keeping in CI Ops role is not likely to make any difference despite of the religiously charged environment of J&K. Soldiers from all over the country irrespective of religious backgrounds, continue to perform without bias religious baggages.
      I am sorry that someone from my fraternity and senior to me had to write this on whatever compulsions or directions known to him.

  5. This learned General is speaking out of his immense experience & wisdom. The forces in uniform must perform their primary task for which they have been raised. Deploying Army for internal security, at every opportunity, is not advisable. If internal civil admn is found wanting in their job then they must be dealt with accordingly. They must be accountable. They are not getting paid for nothing.

  6. Indian librandus has reduced secularism to mean opposing non-Muslims and appeasing Muslims. They use secularism to justify the most unjustifiable anti Hindu propagandas. The situation has come to the stage that anything involving secularism must be rejected.

  7. No need to bring in that much abused word secularism into every analysis as the author has done. The army is needed for protection against external aggression. For all internal disturbances the go to agency should be the police. Time that. the Indians state brings in much needed police reforms. Increase the budget of the police, improve it’s training and equipment, insulate it from political interference and see the results..

  8. ”The Army should be unburdened for its primary task of protecting India from external aggression.”
    In case the learned author did not realise, most Indians feel Kashmir insurgency is an external aggression and Indian army should be there to defend the country against those terrorists.

    • The General during his service would have called it a ‘proxy war’ by Pakistan. And wars are fought by the Armed not the Police forces.

  9. India is a secular country because Indian Hindus, who constitute the majority, and therefore have a proportional impact upon the political ethos, have created and defended a Constitution that is a remarkable triumph of reason over the temptations of sectarian passion. India is secular not because Muslims need it, but because Hindus want it. MJAKBAR

  10. Police can’t fight with highly trained terrorists, so we need Army with modern equipment and Highly trained Personnel. As far as secularism, if Our Kashmir brothers and Sisters are feeling tortured by Hindu/Sikh Army, then better send same religion troops to control.

  11. While writer has a point, but he himself knows there is a difference between attacks in jk backed by external enemies and issues in forest belt of chhattisgarh.

  12. Apart from the security related issues, there are reports in credible media of young people being brutalised by soldiers. God knows where the truth lies, but if this is happening, not good either for the professional ethos of the Army or our evolution as a democracy.


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