In his new book, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice And Indifference In New India, Harsh Mander writes how commonplace anti-Muslim prejudice is in middle class households these days: 

Since my father-in-law served in many senior positions in the armed forces, several of his friends who visit our home are senior defence officers. Without over-generalizing — and there are, indeed, thankfully, some wonderful exceptions — I find among them a high degree of anti-Muslim prejudice, converging seamlessly in their minds and hearts with a nationalist-militarist hostility towards Pakistan. I recall one particular discussion with a senior naval officer. ‘All Muslims are anti-national, you have to accept this,’ he declared with conviction. I had to ask, ‘Sir, what is the empirical basis of your belief?’ ‘They created Pakistan,’ he thundered, ‘what more proof do you require?’ For a while, I was stunned into silence. 

In yet another allusion, Steven Wilkinson’s new book Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independenceinforms us that amongst older generation military officers, a larger proportion, over one third, hail from Punjab. Since undivided Punjab had witnessed the turmoil of Partition, military officers so affected can reasonably be expected to be sceptical of Pakistanis.

However, since one popular narrative on Partition says that it was brought on by Muslim intransigence, at least some defence officers of that generation cannot but be expected to carry their personal - and incidentally very human - reservations against Muslims. Since Muslims were earlier a minuscule percentage of the military, there would have been little positive interaction with peers to help dispel these images. However, the army is categorical that as a professional force it is thoroughly secular.

Is the army immune to society?

There is no obvious reason to probe the army’s self-image further. A quarter century or thereabouts since the permeation of prejudiceinto drawing room conversations, as Mander brings out, is time to take stock. Especially so, since the extent of the bigotry is such today that a Muslim MBA job aspirant has been denied a job in a leading jewellery company in Gujarat on account of his religious affiliation.

By mid-eighties, a new India was emerging. Liberalisation was in its infancy and communal overtones were manifest in politics. Even though the military is physically detached from society, confined as it is spatially to cantonments and the borders, the military is after all not an island. It is affected by the goings on in society.

Outlook magazine recently revealed a military link to the Hashimpura massacre of 1987 by the Provincial Armed Constabulary. This nebulous link perhaps led to the perpetrators being let off by the courts. In the late nineties, a Rear Admiral, while complaining against his Chief over a promotion-related issue, referred to the Chief’s ‘half-Muslim’ wife. Admiral Bhagwat was later sacked over his defiance of the Ministry over the case. The 2000s has its Major Purohit episode in which the military intelligence officer had reportedly indulged in an intelligence overreach, keeping tabs in a domain usually left to the Intelligence Bureau.

Through the eighties, the army was increasingly brought out to quell communal riots. It was on standby in Faizabad cantonment during the 1992 Babri Masjid episode, though its Chief, sensitive to the fallout of Operation Blue Star, was reluctant to intervene. In the event, NarasimhaRao’s arguably astute Nero act  prevented its involvement. Zamiruddin Shah, Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, and general in charge of the army when it was called out in Gujarat in 2002, had made the politically correct observation on Modi’s candidature as prime minister, saying the position would force Modi to reform.

It is perhaps the deepening of its involvement in counter insurgency in J&K in the nineties that could potentially have had a graver impact on the army. However, the proxy war angle meliorated this somewhat since there was a territorial aspect to the dispute with Pakistan. The army also prevailed over terrorism with the help of Kashmiris working in proxy groups controlled by it and the largely Kashmiri police.

Nevertheless, the levels of revivalism in larger society, that took political form in the emergence of a right wing government at the Centre by the end of the nineties, did find expression. The idiom for military motivation acquired cultural roots. The introduction of Yoga and Art of Living discourses for stress busting, ornate decors to increasingly visible temples in cantonments, and acceptability of religious markers such as vermillion on foreheads, rings and wrist threads even in uniform are examples of the gradual permeation of religious practices into a secular space. The latest instance is of a report of the Chief leading a Bhumi Poojan for an officer’s institute in a retiree community.

It is apparent that these changes do not constitute evidence of anti-Muslim prejudice. They are merely instances of the more visible religiosity in society creeping into the military. More fitting perhaps would be the army’s refusal to part with its figures for Muslim representation for the Sachar Committee’s use. However, that too would appear to be more to hide its abysmal record as an equal opportunity employer. It was not so much an act of commission as of omission in that there were no prior calls for minority representation orallegations of its recruiting policies benefittingonly a set of ethnic groups advantaged by its regimental system.

A season for caution

In the broader context of the discourse in society, the army would do well to keep watch. This century has witnessed a rise in Islamophobia. Increased military interaction with the US and Israel, exposure to virulence on the Internet, and conditioning by media-fanned stories of Muslim-perpetrated terrorism indicate continuing dangers. It is good that militancy in Jammu and Kashmir had subsided considerably by the time Islamism was getting to be a force to reckon with – around the mid 2000s.

It must also be noted that there has been a steady expansion of the officer cadre. This is of largely lower middle class origin and from north India, where Hindutva has had a vociferous presence. It is more than likely that products of ‘nationalism’-oriented schools and colleges – Shishu Mandirs and DAV Colleges – could be more inclined towards a career in the army.

Moreover, if the current government’s policies in the educational sphere are any guide, the military will not remain outside its long term agenda for a socio-cultural transformation of India. This is not in itself problematic since militaries are conservative-realist institutions. But with a change in the definition of India, of the very ‘idea of India’, this may have implications that the army needs being alive to.

Finally, another point cited by Mander is worth pondering: that of national-militarist hostility to Pakistan. Unlike the racial prejudice seen in Pakistan’s approach to its wars - such as holding a Pakistani soldier equal to ten (non-martial) Indians – no equivalent prejudice has been voiced on India’s side. Ayub Khan is credited with believing that an army made up of Hindus would be shatteredin the face of a few blows. India roundly dispelled this misconception fifty years back. Any Indian utterances against Pakistan have been more reflective of frustration, such as General Rodriguez’ reference to ‘bandicoots’ and VK Singh’s use of the term ‘irritant’. 

Nevertheless, the military’s doctrinal wares suggest a greater offensive-coercive content. The impetus behind this could come from several quarters. A higher defence budget, greater self-assurance as a regional power and a raised geopolitical and economic profile make India’s incline towards proactive shaping of its security problematic. However, realism requires sensitivity to the context, the most salient factor being the nuclear age.

The set of exercises this year witnessed a strike corps exercising together with a pivot corps. This suggests an intention to prevail rather than merely to deter. While strategy as distinct from doctrine can be expected to be different and indeed there are many exit points on the escalatory ladder, if religion driven hyper-nationalism penetrates into the military, it would not know when to stop. 

Surely, even if two of the three strike corps are launched with the integrated battle groups of the four pivot corps, they would trigger Pakistani nuclear triggers based on tactical nuclear weapons. India promises to go strategic in rebound. Blaming Pakistan once the nuclear fallout settles across the subcontinent would hardly do. Since this appears to be a blind spot with the army, its persistence with the ‘proactive doctrine’ in the face of nuclear dangers calls for seeking answers not in the strategic domain, but in the military’s changing sociology.

Harsh Mander’s observation, therefore, needs to be taken seriously. Anti-Muslim prejudice may yet manifest itself internally, for instance when the sensitive ‘Bangladeshi immigrant’ thesis acquires security overtones in the North East. In any case, however, it is already manifest in the military’s approach to Pakistan.