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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.