Colonel Neeraj Bali, SM
[In these days of racial prejudices and
hatred, here is a refreshing article about religious harmony. The writer
is a colonel in Indian Army.
As a serving army officer, I never stop marvelling at
the gullibility of our countrymen to be provoked with
alacrity into virulence in the name of religion. I
have never heard the word 'secular' during all my
service -- and yet, the simple things that are done
simply in the army make it appear like an island of
sanity in a sea of hatred.
In the army, each officer identifies with the religion
of his troops. In regiments where the soldiers are
from more than one religion, the officers -- and
indeed all jawans - attend the weekly religious
prayers of all the faiths. How many times have I
trooped out of the battalion mandir and, having worn
my shoes, entered the battalion church next door? A
few years ago it all became simpler -- mandirs,
masjids, gurudwars and churches began to share
premises all over the army. It saved us the walk.
Perhaps it is so because the army genuinely believes
in two central 'truths' -- oneness of god and victory
in operations. Both are so sacred we cannot nitpick
and question the basics.
In fact, sometimes the army mixes up the two! On a
visit to the holy cave at Amarnath a few years ago I
saw a plaque mounted on the side of the hill by a
battalion that had once guarded the annual Yatra. It
said, 'Best wishes from -- battalion. Deployed for
On another instance, I remember a commanding officer
ordered the battalion maulaviji to conduct the
proceedings of Janamashtmi prayers because the
panditji had to proceed on leave on compassionate
grounds. No eyebrows were raised. It was the most
rousing and best-prepared sermon on Lord Krishna I
have ever had the pleasure of listening to.
On the Line of Control, a company of Khemkhani Muslim
soldiers replaced a Dogra battalion. Over the next few
days, the post was shelled heavily by Pakistanis, and
there were a few non-fatal casualties.
One day, the junior commissioned officer of the
company, Subedar Sarwar Khan walked up to the company
commander Major Sharma and said, "Sahib, ever since
the Dogras left, the mandir has been shut. Why don't
you open it once every evening and do aarti? Why are
we displeasing the gods?"
Major Sharma shamefacedly confessed he did not know
all the words of the aarti. Subedar Sarwar went away
and that night, huddled over the radio set under a
weak lantern light, painstakingly took down the words
of the aarti from the post of another battalion!
How many of us know that along the entire border with
Pakistan, our troops abstain from alcohol and
non-vegetarian food on all Thursdays? The reason: It
is called the Peer day -- essentially a day of
religious significance for the Muslims.
In 1984, after Operation Bluestar there was anguish in
the Sikh community over the desecration of the holiest
of their shrines. Some of this anger and hurt was
visible in the army too.
I remember the first Sikh festival days after the
event -- the number of army personnel of every
religious denomination that thronged the regimental
gurudwara of the nearest Sikh battalion was the
largest I had seen. I distinctly remember each officer
and soldier who put his forehead to the ground to pay
obeisance appeared to linger just a wee bit longer
than usual. Was I imagining this? I do not think so.
There was that empathy and caring implicit in the
quality of the gesture that appeared to say, "You are
hurt and we all understand."
We were deployed on the Line of Control those days.
Soon after the news of disaffection among a small
section of Sikh troops was broadcast on the BBC,
Pakistani troops deployed opposite the Sikh battalion
yelled across to express their 'solidarity' with the
The Sikh havildar shouted back that the Pakistanis had
better not harbour any wrong notions. "If you dare
move towards this post, we will mow you down."
Finally, a real -- and true -- gem. Two boys of a Sikh
regiment battalion were overheard discussing this a
day before Christmas.
"Why are we having a holiday tomorrow?" asked Sepoy
"It is Christmas," replied the wiser Naik Singh.
"But what is Christmas?"
"Christmas," replied Naik Singh, with his eyes half
shut in reverence and hands in a spontaneous
prayer-clasp, "is the guruparb of the Christians."