THElast week, two events in quick succession, on September 15 and 17, once again called into question the secular and political credentials of the armed forces.
A video was found circulating on military groups WhatsApp and social media on September 15, showing young soldiers dressed in ceremonial attire performing the Hindu religious ritual of ‘aarti‘to the accompaniment of a military band to the exercise square – a paved area for ceremonial parades and exercise training. This, by all accounts, was a blatant violation of secular military ethics. The video has gone viral on social media, prompting a bitter debate between right-wing supporters defending the ceremony, citing traditions / religions, and veteran-led critics condemning the same for violating secular ethics.
On September 17, the headquarters of the 15th Corps, responsible for operations in the Kashmir Valley, under its Twitter handle – Chinar Corps – tweeted to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 71st birthday. The glowing language, accompanied by three images of the prime minister in military riot gear, was no different from the servility that is common among political subordinates relying on their leader. The tweet was quickly deleted but the screenshot has certainly shaken the apolitical status of the armed forces.
I analyze these two events to highlight the constant erosion of the secular and political ethics of the armed forces.
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Aarti on Drill Square
The British Indian Army after 1857 was organized along the lines of religion, caste and region. Allegiance to the crown was alien to the native troops, therefore the British cleverly introduced religion and regimentation as the main motivators. There was a lot of talk about religious places within the units with weekly parades organized. Most of the war cries were based on religious slogans. After independence, this organizational structure was retained for regimented cohesion – the most important factor in winning battles. All of the new regiments, however, were raised as mixed units for all of India.
As religion continues to act as a motivator, its primary importance has been gradually reduced. The concept of Sarva Dharma Sthal incorporating all religions has been introduced in multi-religious units. A clear separation was made between displays of religiosity off and on the parade. The only time religious books were brought to the parade was during the attestation parade or the young recruits fainting parade.
The soldiers during the attestation take the oath on the Constitution, however, at this point, the holy book (s) also parade alongside the adjutant, who administers the oath. Previously, the holy books were moved through the columns and the soldiers made a gesture of mechanical exercise of touching the holy book without actually touching it, with one hand. Out late, this practice was also stopped. Apart from that, no religious ritual ever takes place on the Place du Foret. Some marching tunes were composed on the basis of religious hymns – aarti (Hinduism), deh shiva var mohe (Sikhism) and abide with me (Christianity).
The video in question is, undoubtedly, at the exercise site, and appears to be linked to the attestation / key-handover parade for recruits of the Artillery Regiment, probably at their regimental center in Nasik. The parade is held in a hollow square with the winners in front of the base of salvation. The parade commander, carrying a sword, spins the ‘shit’ and in front of him is a coconut on a stone with “Om” written on it. All soldiers are wearing masks, indicating that the date in the video is after the Covid-19 outbreak. The soldiers are seen cheering while holding their rifles between their knees. The bagpipes and drums group plays the aarti.
Defenders of the practice, including the army spokesperson, have Underline that the event took place in front of the Temple of Unity before the parade and is a tradition. A video of the Drill Square of the Indian Military Academy was cited as an example. To my knowledge, such a tradition does not exist. This unauthorized practice is against the rules and regulations of the military and the policy issued by the adjutant general branch that all religious ceremonies are limited to authorized religious places, with the exception of the attestation parade mentioned. above.
From the original video for reference, it cannot be said for sure if this is part of the attestation parade or a dress rehearsal, or if it is an event before. or after the ceremonial parade. However, there is no doubt that it takes place in Drill Square. The rationale that was before the parade offers no mitigation. The artillery regiment is a mixture of Indian soldiers of all faiths. Performing the ritual of a single religion is discriminatory, likely to create community divisions and contrary to military rules, regulations and laws.
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Controversial birthday congratulations
There is no custom or tradition in the armed forces that a formation or its commander gives public congratulations of any kind to the Prime Minister or any other political leader. Department heads or the Chief of the Defense Staff may do so as a gesture of courtesy if they meet the dignitary in person the same day or, at best, formally send cryptic congratulations in military language.
The government selects and appoints the army commanders / chief of service / chief of defense staff at its discretion. Narendra Modi’s government has sometimes given priority to merit among equals, and it has every right to do so. In an earlier move, the Chief of the Defense Staff had commissioned a study to develop such a thorough merit-based selection system for the ranks of lieutenant general and above. Such a system would give longer terms to future theater commanders.
The tweet in question was written in slavish language and placed in the public domain. The intention, if not by design but certainly by default, seems to be an ulterior motive to endow the formation and, by implication, its commander, to the powers that be, in the hope of influencing future selection on “merit”. Or for an appointment after retirement. That the tweet was hastily deleted after the initial review tells the story.
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Need for course correction
The above two incidents are at odds with the secular, apolitical ethos of the military which has served the nation well for 74 years. There have been many other incidents where the military hierarchy itself has made political statements and gave the impression of letting go with the political winds.
The bad example set by the hierarchy in compromising the apolitical status of the armed forces now extends to the lower echelons. With every soldier with a cell phone, stale religious discourse on social media and television is also taking its toll. The unilateral actions of the subordinate commanders in triggering the two incidents prove this point.
It is time for the armed forces to correct their course. New political orientations must be issued and strictly applied by the Chief of Defense Staff and heads of service to combat this dangerous trend which undermines its fundamental constitutional values.
Lt Gen HS Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was a GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. After his retirement he was a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Opinions are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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