February 14, 2006
The story of Indian Muslims in India’s armed forces is far too nuanced to be understood by the bureaucratic inquisitiveness of the Rajinder Sachar committee. In the Indian Army, there are certain regiments with fixed community composition: the Sikh, Kumaon, Dogra and Jat regiments. For the rest of the army, as per government policy, all citizens irrespective of caste, creed or religion, are eligible for enrolment. Recruitment to the army is made from among the recruitable male population of each state as determined in the census.
At the time of Partition, the Muslim regiments which went to Pakistan were those comprising people belonging to areas that fell within the new nation’s territory. The departure of this large chunk drastically reduced the percentage of Muslims in the Indian Army. Officers and Junior Commissioned Officers were given a choice and a large number of them who served in regiments with troops belonging to divided India opted to stay here.
Officers like Brigadier M. Usman and Major Anwar Karim were persistently invited by Pakistan with assurances of high ranks and posts but they preferred to stay back. There are many regiments, which, within their overall compositions, have a quota for Muslims. These are the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry, with 50 per cent Kashmiri Muslims; Rajputana Rifles; Rajput Regiment; Grenadiers; Brigade of Guards; Parachute Regiment; Madras Regiment; 16th Cavalry; 18th Cavalry; 71 and 73 Armoured Regiments; and the Corps of Artillery and Engineers. All other corps and units of the Indian Army, which have an intake on a zonal basis, have Muslims serving in them. In all these regiments, right from the first India-Pakistan war of 1947-48, Muslim troops fought valiantly, much to the disappointment or displeasure of the Pakistan Army.
If, at any point of time, a recruiting office states that there are no vacancies for Muslims, it only means that the vacancies have already been filled for that period. In the category of fighting soldiers, no Muslim vacancy has ever gone unfilled. In fact, the only vacancies left unfilled by Muslims are in the ‘tradesmen’ category, which includes cooks, waiters, carpenters, equipment and boot repairers, barbers and ‘safai’ (cleaners) — the last two being the least. A few names may help in refreshing public memory: Maj Gen E. Habibullah (16th Cavalry, father of Wajahat Habibullah, IAS, secretary, Right to Information) and Lt Gen Sami Khan (Madras Regiment), both commandants of the National Defence Academy, are still fondly remembered by cadets of their times. Lt Gen Jameel Mahmood was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, when he died with his wife in a helicopter crash. His brother-in-law, Lt Gen M.A. Zaki, served as security adviser to the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, while his son is Colonel Adil Mahmood, 16th Cavalry, commandant of the President’s Bodyguard.
Late General Mahmood’s younger brother retired as a major general, while Zaki’s younger brother is a brigadier. Maj Gen Afsir Karim (retd), brother of Major Anwar Karim (who was one of two officers — the other was Brig M. Usman, who died defending Jhangar, Jammu & Kashmir during the 1947-48 war — actively wooed by Pakistan to opt for it with the promise of top ranks in Pakistan Army), is a well-known military scholar, who commanded 11 Infantry Division, headquartered in Ahmedabad. This post was also held in recent years by Lt Gen Z.U. Shah, brother of actor Naseeruddin Shah, who is currently GOC, 3 Corps. Their cousin is Colonel M.A. Shah of 73rd Armoured Regiment. The former army chief, Gen N.C. Vij’s military attache is a Muslim officer of the Dogra Regiment. A former Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Idrees Hasan Latif, became governor of Maharashtra.
While those so far mentioned are officers of the rank of chief downwards, there are many Muslims in the rank and file of India’s Army, Navy and Air Force. The list is very long. The Indian Army, with a reputation for being impartial during communal riots, enjoys the confidence of Muslims, as was evident in Gujarat and Meerut. It is in the best interests of India that the armed forces are not politicised.
The author is a security analyst
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