Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a forward base in Ladakh
File photo of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a forward base in Ladakh | PTI
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The Indian Army has a long history of being not only apolitical but also religion neutral. For ages, soldiers from all communities and religious backgrounds have been part of the Army. Although the British did establish regiments on lines of castes and regions, by and large, the character of the Army remained mostly irreligious. The British did get a taste of mixing religion when the ‘pure’ Brahmin units went renegade and started the 1857 mutiny. The reaction of the British was swift and very harsh, because they not only disbanded a large number of Brahmin units but also gave extreme punishments — ordering captured soldiers to be shot dead after pretend court martial proceedings.

The British analysed the situation and immediately transformed the regimental system of the Army. All the native Infantry regiments based on religious denomination were disbanded and consigned to history without a trace.

The British transformed the regimental system to instil discipline in the forces. Since Independence, the Army brass has introduced various measures, big and small, to have successfully ensured that forces are governed by their own code. However, recent developments show a worrying trend.


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Social media impact on forces

The negative impact of social media has spread in the last five years. The danger from false propaganda and half-truths that are being spread almost daily on social media has become a reality. Few will admit, but this trend is permeating into the rank and file of this most secular organisation of India. WhatsApp has been used to circulate a huge amount of Right-wing propaganda among the forces. Most of this literature, based on baked lies, is likely to make an adverse impact on the performance of caste/region-based units, if there is a crisis like Punjab that saw mutinies in the Army.

The Army, on its part, looks to be aware of this trend and has given very clear orders on the use of social media by serving personnel. However, this is a very difficult genie to put back into the bottle. What is also worrying are the activities and the ideology of the political leadership of the day. This has a direct impact on the Army leadership. In the last few years, some of the actions by the armed forces have been openly politicised by the ruling dispensation. The surgical strike, Balakot strike, and Galwan clashes have been repeatedly used as election rhetoric. This is a dangerous trend never seen earlier. No political party or leader cashed on the most famous victory against Pakistan in 1971. Other notable achievements, such as Kargil, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Siachen operations, Pokaran Nuclear blasts, etc., were left to the military to celebrate.


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Army rituals now PR ops

The most striking recent trend is that many rituals that were at best unit-level activity in the past have now been turned into PR exercises. Recently, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh performed shastra puja during the Dussehra festival while visiting Army formations in the northeast. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit Ladakh to ‘inspire and motivate’ the troops asked the soldiers to organise a puja of the Indus river. The defence minister on his two-day visit to Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir decided to visit the Amarnath cave with the entire military hierarchy standing behind him with folded hands. Rajnath, during his France visit for Rafale delivery, was seen performing rituals that at best is, again, unit-level activity, and not for the consumption of the people at large.

These symbolic gestures and activities have never been seen or publicised in the secular Indian Army. The body language of the Generals standing to oversee these ceremonies also make for a sorry picture. This is the new normal and it looks ominous in the long term for an army that is passionate about its secular and pluralistic culture and ethos. Is the Army looking right? The social structure of our nation is fragile with deep cracks in our polity, the nation will not be able to afford a polarised military.


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Regimental system survived

Post-Independence, the Army retained the old regimental system left behind by the British. The first Commander-in-Chief, General Cariappa, however, felt the need to change the caste system of the units, and thus, one of his first initiatives was to raise an ‘All India All Class’ infantry regiment in the form of the Brigade of the Guards. This experiment was a huge success as the new regiment performed extremely well in all operations. This, however, was not carried forward as the future leadership felt no need to tinker with the regimental system in vogue. Not a surprise, because by nature, armies world over are status-quoist.

The bulk of the fighting arms like infantry, armoured corps and artillery remained a mix of pure class or mixed class composition units. Some regiments, however, retained their pure character — the Sikh, Sikh Li, Jat, Garhwal, Gorkhas and Rajput regiments. Few have mixed class composition like the Grenadiers, Mahar, Madras, Punjab, Rajputana Rifles and The Guards.


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1984 mutiny and govt’s mature handling

The first shock of the negative fallout of pure regiments was felt during the aftermath of Operation Bluestar in Punjab in June 1984. A sizable section of the Sikh, Punjab and Artillery units went on a mutiny unseen in modern times. The Sikh regimental centre at Ramgarh, too, erupted with religious frenzy, with recruits and their instructors going on a rampage. The Centre Commandant, Brigadier R.S. Puri was shot dead by the soldiers. It was a sad chapter for the Army as a whole. Over 2,800 soldiers were arrested for mutiny and charges including murder and assault. The units that deserted were 3 Sikh, 8 Sikh, 9 Sikh, 18 Sikh, 14 Punjab, 166 Mountain Regiment, 171 Field Regiment, and 196 Field Regiment.

The initial reaction of the Army authorities was to curtail this blowback and not allow it to spread across the force. So, the Army acted very quickly, and by direct and indirect methods, was able to ensure that no more occurrences took place after the early reactions that came in the ‘heat of the moment’. Initially, this sporadic out-pouring of reaction on religious lines sent tremors within the Army and disbandment of a few units was also contemplated. However, later, recognising that the desertions were mainly a mindless choice, the government toned down the harsh measures planned, and even announced rehabilitation measures.

The situation was handled quite maturely by the leadership of the day. The Army had burnt its fingers and there was consensus on reorganising the force to make it more cosmopolitan. Almost all infantry regiments that were pure class were planned to be mixed with troops from other regiments. However, even then, only rifle companies (approximately 130 soldiers) were posted to different regiments. No one ever thought of mixing the troops at section level without any affiliation to caste or region. This half-hearted experiment lasted for a few years and without any long-term view, the Army went back to normal.

The false sense of regimentation, which at best is an emotional bond prevailed and no long-term view was taken by the leadership. In such cases, the political leadership seldom gives any firm directions and the bureaucracy lets the military handle its internal affairs. This has been the attitude of the defence ministry since Independence — it avoids giving any directions on age-old ethos of the Army, lest it is accused of not knowing the functioning of the force.


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A hard lesson

The Army had learnt its lessons in a quiet manner and the officers’ corps was specifically trained not to be too religiously inclined. A check on the religion of officers before their initial commission to pure class units was quietly instituted by the military secretary branch. The officers were told: ‘You have no religion, you adopt the religion of the troops you command’. Thus, we had a generation of officers who started to practise ‘religion of the troops’ and even their families reposed faith.

This legacy lasted till the internet and smartphone reached almost every household in the country. The Army could not be isolated from this technological tool. In the last few years, religious identities have been hardening all over the world.

Maj Gen (retd) Yash Mor @YashMor5 has served in South Kashmir and Punjab in counter-terrorist operations. He writes on strategic and leadership issues. Views are personal.

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22 Comments Share Your Views

22 COMMENTS

  1. “WhatsApp has been used to circulate a huge amount of Right-wing propaganda among the forces.”
    That tells a lot. Such propaganda unleased by RSS and BJP will destroy our professional and secular army.

    RSS and BJP are riding atop a tiger which will itself devour them one day.

  2. The Chinese don’t believe in God but that does not mean we religious Indians are at any military advantage whatsoever. I hope our Raksha Mantriji is not thinking prayers can help win battles on the border. Or maybe it was all just a PR exercise for the RSS BJP civilian voter base.

  3. “Do a puja of the Indus River”…what was Modiji trying to get out of innocent soldiers by doing a faith-based ritual in bitter cold and desolate Ladakh? What skeletons lie in Modiji’s closet that he cannot bring himself to name China?

  4. Much-needed perspective, a very useful article. The nation needs to take care to preserve the army’s apolitical, irreligious character. It takes centuries to build fine institutions that are the bedrock of a nation; but just months of short-sighted stupidity to destroy them. We depend on the leadership of the armed forces – hope they keep their backs straight and eyes clear.

  5. Hats off to author for hard hitting article. Religion and related activities should be confined to barracks and cantonment areas respecting sentiments of soldiers from different faith and religion. Kurta pyjama or dhoti walas should keep away by bringing religion inside the minds of soldiers. Also, when I was in NCC during college, unknowingly I aimed the rifle (not in firing range), the external NCC officer gave me wack and cautioner me and others never to aim rifles excepting while practicing in firing range or real war. However, most of the time I noticed Rajnath Singh aiming thr rifle, obviously, officers behind have no guts to caution him

  6. Nice and timely article. A stern reminder for the current ruling dispensation to not to commit the same mistake by previous regime during 83-84. The highly communally divisive false propaganda unleashed by RSS, BJP and it’s subsidiaries will cost our country very dearly in future, just like Nazis destroyed Germany at the end of WW2.

    • The last sentence is correct. In fact, it is too late. India is heading for break up due to the communal divisiveness. There is no way to check it, so matters have to take their natural course. The break up of unstable countries and creation of new ones has been all through history.

  7. Dear sir,
    well written article. Ended rather abruptly. Wish you could amplify more on your thoughts on the future of regimentation, its cons specifically, pros often being talked about, and measures to counter the rising discontent among the troops due to the half-truths proliferated on social media.

  8. Very good article. The RSS-BJP have infitrated their communal Hindu outlook into all institutions : parliament, judiciary, police, universities, schools, even into the medical and healthcare system. The army cannot be left out. That is how fascists work – they want total control, as they cannot brook internal opposition. The Nazis also controlled everything from school children to army – it produced fanatic and blind loyalty to the regime, but with disastrous results for Germany.

    The way things are going, it is turning into a Hindu army. Muslims and even Sikhs may feel it is not the place for them. Instead of a meritocracy, you will have a dharmocracy.

    • The Brahministic intelligentsia of RSS BJP should restrain themselves when it comes to an institution like the army.

      Most of the fighting soldiers are from OBC SC Sikhs, Nagas etc, not Brahmins therefore it is a sinister design to impose Brahminical customs on the army. Army should be run on motivation, discipline, bravery and planning/organization. Do Brahminical practices and customs help the army in any of these?

  9. It should also be noted that India’s Defence requirements are much different from any other country in the world.

    1. India faces two belligerent neighbors who have designs on our Sovereignty. We have long borders, with both, characterized by hostile terrain to be defended conventionally in adverse weather conditions. No other country in the world is in a military situation of such magnitude. In over more than seven decades the successive Governments of India have failed to resolve border issues with our neighbors through diplomacy. It is naive to expect any solution in the near future. Hence a strong and motivated Military is imperative to safeguard our sovereignty.

    2. All the same, repeatedly, successive Governments of India have expressed a desire to make India a world power. In order to become a World power, any Nation should have a very strong and modern military and a robust domestic defence production base. We can’t achieve anything if the defence expenditure reduces as a percentage of GDP, with each passing year.
    Of course, there is no comparison between the Military and civil services. Their respective roles are vastly different. In India’s context, with the type of neighbors we have, the role of the Military is predominant. India will do well not to overlook this situation.

    Another important point is that you can’t expect to make progress by progressively reducing Defence expenditures to balance the budget. All powerful developed countries maintain a strong , well equipped and motivated Modern Military. This more imperative now that alliances like NATO etc.. are constantly under pressure.

    • Col., it is better you stay out of politics in the best traditions of the Indian army.

      Let us say your justifications (two rogue neighbours against peaceful India) are vaild, and we need to keep up defence expenditure. How is this possible when the economy is shrinking and India has no R & D culture ?

      The Soviet Union/Russia had a smaller less developed economy than Germany or the US, but Stalin built a military industrial complex that eventually smashed Germany, and allowed the Soviets to emerge as a superpower in 1945. After that, no one can dare invade the Soviet Union/Russia . Even Americans cannot attack them without facing annihilation. Russia was always threatened by European powers in the 19th and 20th century, so they were forced to build a military industrial complex to defend themselves. They were ready to make the sacrifices to build the military due to the sheer patriotism of their people. Indian people are not patriotic like the Russian people, they never fought to the last man if invaded.

      India finds itself in the same situation : two predatory neighbours (or India imagines so). Nehru set India on the road to make it impregnable to any future repeat take overs, by engaging to build nuclear and space power. That objective has been achieved. But border wars and other type of attrition wars are possible. – that is what India faces on two fronts. India is also faced with internal conflict stoked by the BJP and that cannot be curbed by raising defence expenditure. This is a new problem created by Hindu communalism, and in fact will undermine India more than any border attrition. The army cannot fight Indians all over India for CAA-NRC, as in Kashmir.

      India does not have the economic clout of China even for a war of attrition. India does not have the education and scientific culture to build an military industrial complex and is always in catch up mode. You said Modi is running and running to catch up for 70 years. Modi is your great hope. He will still be running after another 70 years. Small countries like Israel and Turkey are producing and using drones. India is waking up to it.

      • We can never become a military-industrial complex nor an economic power even in next 30 years. Brahminical beliefs like pujas to military equipment or factory equipment reveals a unquestioned tradition and submission to a particular thought process. Understanding the science behind how the equipment works and learning how to design/build such equipment would be much more worthwhile for a nation’s progress than worshipping it.

  10. Political ideology has a direct impact on Army’s leadership, and that’s a worry.
    Strange, does it mean that since independence there was no ideological impact on the Army’s leadership and it is only since 2014 it has started happening.
    If there is a dislike for MODI dragging it down to such level is unbefitting a decorated a senior Army man.

  11. Just like coconut breaking at the time of inaugural ceremony, Shasthra Puja is a usual ceremony performed in India.. This is part of the Indian ethos and nothing more should be read into this tradition. In particular, it is not a sow of non tolerance against any (other) religion. Every country as such traditions. USA does not become religious country just because its President goes to Church before taking oath of office and by saying May God bless USA! Similarly, UK has many traditions which are Christian in nature but are still observed. So let us not raise a false sickular alarm on this tradition.

    Reorganizing army into non caste based units is a separate issue best left to Army itself.

    • Rafale is a product of scientific and engineering endeavour. Lemons, coconuts and other religious symbols will neither help us design a Rafale nor fight against the enemy in a Rafale.

      Most Christians in the West know well where their religion has limits , only science and engineering can help in design and manufacture military equipment. As long as the Indian Army knows that religion has it’s limits then it is not a worry. Let the politicians do their religio-political drama for votes from their core base. This faith-based drama cannot produce design or manufacturing of superior military equipment.

    • You are not the one to decide who joins the army. The Army decides. Have you heard of Muslims in the Army? Or the Sikh regiment and Naga regiment? Go peddle your narrow minded ideas in your right wing Whatsapp groups rather than the Print platform.

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