Muslims in Indian army

Published Mar 15, 2010 12:00am

WE must not doubt the ability of the 1.2 million-strong Indian army to fight wars on two fronts, because one of its top commanders has told us so. Nor should we doubt that India has more Muslims than all of Pakistan, since the statement is routinely broadcast from New Delhi.

And no one should doubt India's secular democracy, since that has been its credo since independence. But we are unable to conclude that Muslims are well represented in the Indian army, because the official silence on this important issue is deafening. Omar Khalidi, an independent scholar at MIT who hails from India, probes this mystery deftly and lucidly.

In his new book, Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India, Khalidi points out that not only is the number of Muslims wearing Indian army fatigues not proportional to the share of Muslims in the Indian population, it is politically indeterminate and potentially minuscule.

Khalidi meticulously narrates the history of attempts to force the defence ministry to provide the number of Muslims in uniform to parliament. He says they have all been met with derision. At one point, a former defence minister, George Fernandes, said it was “anti-national” to count Muslims in the armed forces. Fernandes charged that anyone asking for such information was not only an enemy of India but a person who had failed to grasp the complexity of India's security concerns.

To make sure that no one would ever again raise that issue, he said the very act of asking the question would be an act of sedition. Another former defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, stated in 2006 that military recruitment was based on merit and there was no discrimination in the services based on caste or religion. He added that no survey had been conducted to determine the religious identity of the soldiers nor would one be done in the future.

One wonders why questions about religion are asked in the census. Are they not an act of sedition?

When asked about the role of Muslims in the Indian army, two former army chiefs, Field Marshal Manekshaw and Gen Sundarji, reiterated the same 'party line'. Recruitment is based on merit and there is no discrimination in the ranks. In an interview with Khalidi, Manekshaw seemed to concede that Muslims were not proportionately represented in the army but said that was because they lagged in educational attainment, not because they were not sought out in recruitment.

No official statistics are available on the number of Muslims in the Indian army. However, Khalidi says that former Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav stated in the late 1990s that only one per cent of the Indian soldiers were Muslims. Maybe that is an underestimate. But even if we quintuple it, it is still a far cry from the number that existed once.

As twilight descended on the British Raj, the number of Muslims in the Indian Army was about 30 per cent. Just six years later, it had come down to two per cent, according to the minister of state for defence of the time. Prime Minister Nehru was very concerned and sought to boost the recruitment of Muslims.

To put things in perspective, according to the 1941 census, 23 per cent of Indians were Muslims. After partition in 1947, two-thirds of the Muslims resided in Pakistan but a third resided in India. The 1951 Indian census showed that there were 8.3 million Christians, 35 million Muslims and 304 million Hindus, making the share of Muslims about 10 per cent. By the time of the 2001 census, that share had risen to 13.4 per cent.

The presence of Muslims in the Indian army went in the opposite direction, from roughly two per cent in 1953 to roughly one per cent in the late 1990s. The first Indian army chief, Gen K.K. Cariappa, did not believe that Muslims would ever be loyal to India. Admittedly, most of the Muslims in the Indian army had opted for Pakistan. But over time that number should have risen. The decision of Maj-Gen Anis Ahmad Khan to migrate to Pakistan in the mid-1950s was entirely apolitical. But it was used by the hardliners in India to question the loyalty of all Muslims in uniform.

Contrary evidence was provided during the war of 1965 when Indian Muslims in the army received some of the highest military awards for gallantry. However, no Muslim in the Indian army ever made it past the rank of major-general and only eight ever made it that far. During the British Raj, Muslims and Sikhs were over-represented in the army compared to their shares in the population due to the martial races theory. That theory was shelved after Indian soldiers mutinied in 1857.

Since Muslim soldiers were in the vanguard of the revolt, the British had begun to distrust Muslims. However, the demands of the time during the First and Second World Wars once again opened the gates to recruiting them. Since soldiery had long been the dominant occupation of people living in the northwestern regions of India and since most of them were Muslims, the share of Muslims rose once again in the British Indian army.

However, the fear of the Muslims never fully receded from the colonial psyche. No Muslim regiment was allowed to come into being even though there were plenty of other ethnic regiments. That tradition of not having Muslim regiments continues today in the Indian army. Perhaps the tradition of distrust has outlived the British. In contrast to the slim share of Muslims in the Indian army, there are the Sikhs who account for about two per cent of the population. At partition, their share in the army was eight per cent. By the 1980s, it had risen to 13 per cent. Many rose to three-star rank and one became the army chief. Sikhs account for as much as 20 per cent of the officers.

And then there are the two microscopic minorities which account for less than a tenth of a million people in the population but which have produced as many two-star generals as the 150 million Muslims. It is hard to prove that the presence of the Muslims in the Indian army is low because of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Indian military establishment. But the evidence marshalled by Khalidi is very disturbing. The reluctance of the Indian authorities to investigate the issue only validates his concerns.

ahmadfaruqui@gmail.com

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