Soldiers, Soldiering, and Bigotry.

By Kedar Anil Gadgil

I was surprised.

No, I was not surprised that civilians within my friends were surprised that such a large proportion of Hindu military officers (serving and retired, equally) are bigots, xenophobes, and far less than gentlemen when it comes to Muslims.

I was surprised that actual military officers (mostly retired) in my friend-list (which is filled with mostly liberal humanists) were surprised.

My uniformed friends, you did serve with these same people not long ago, didn’t you? Are you telling me you were not witness to any of this? Were you blind or deaf or merely ignorant and naive? I was not even IN the forces, but only adjunct to it as part of a defence family, but even I am acutely aware of this so-called new phenomenon. Have you not heard your fellow officers speak of Muslims before? Have you not been part of conversations where they rue that they get only 2 Hindu festival leaves while the Muslims get 3? Where were you when your brother officers spoke in terms of “them” and “these people”? What were you doing when your friend who was in charge of perimeter security simply heard the name of the person caught grazing sheep inside and ordered him beaten and thrown out, while on the very same night, for the very same crime, another person with another name was asked to be only reprimanded and let out of the gates? How did you miss the obvious “Muslims = Pakistanis” connotations that are not even “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” any more (were they ever?) being spoken of lightly and quite publicly in cocktail parties? Did you not notice the “I am Sikh, he is Ghati, that chap is Tambi, and that one is Mossy.” at all? Who do you think your fellow officers were referring to when they said, “M”s? Did you not laugh at circumcision jokes while in uniform?

Who are you kidding by claiming surprise at this “new” turn of events?

All your bluster of “Sarv Dharma Sthals” and “The officer is whatever religion the unit is” and “The Maulana gave a rousing sermon on Janmashtami” and “A soldier is a soldier, and has no other religion,” all your TED talks and grandstanding, all your autobiographies and editorial columns, all your TV appearances and Twitter threads, while not exactly lies, are at the very least disingenuous cherry-picking. That is most definitely not how most soldiers think. No, not at the lowest of ranks, and not the Generals. They are almost all, with rare exceptions, as bigoted and as close-minded as the racial stock that they are drawn from, and as open-minded, liberal, and humanistic as their education, intellect, introspection, and exposure allows them to be. The uniform, the gun, and the training is not a cure-all antidote to all the indoctrination they have grown up with. It simply cannot be. At the end of the day, where do you think the man in uniform came from? Do you think he was independent of this society and its mores, its limitations and its boundaries? Do you think there’s some special genetic inventory from which he’s made that allows him to divorce himself from the surroundings he grew up in, lives with, and has to go back to? Do you think he is vaccinated or insulated against the traditions and culture of his elders and peers, the news and the daily happenings in the society he serves, or the pressures and prejudices of his environment?

All your bluster of “Sarv Dharma Sthals” and “The officer is whatever religion the unit is” and “The Maulana gave a rousing sermon on Janmashtami” and “A soldier is a soldier, and has no other religion,” all your TED talks and grandstanding, all your autobiographies and editorial columns, all your TV appearances and Twitter threads, while not exactly lies, are at the very least disingenuous cherry-picking.

Soldiers are not all ideal humans just by virtue of their being soldiers as is projected to be. They never were. Over the years, the uniform, the chivalry, the shiny medals, the seemingly polished behaviour, the messes and clubs, the chhota peg and the bearer in white gloves, the segregation from the civilian population, the salutes, the honours, the band, the music, the fancy titles and awards, are all about one and only one thing: Creating a human who is trained to follow orders and kill, but instead of feeling inferior like a slave because of this, is made to feel superior with all the pomp, pageantry, and showy displays. It was perhaps the first instance of “It isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.” Over centuries, this has taken on a life of itself and the myth has been sold so well that not only the people targeted by it (the ones in uniform) believe in it, but even outsiders, like civilians, have bought into it lock, stock, and barrel.

In fact, this has been the reason for so many dictatorships and martial laws in the world that by now, it should have been obvious that these are just flesh-and-blood humans with the same human foibles and weaknesses. It is just that their training involves following orders, and hence are easier and quicker to organise. Also, they have access to weaponry and communications. Add to that, the pride that is built into the system, along with the aura that the civilian population sees around them, and you have a potentially explosive mixture.

Nehru and Patel were right to fear a military dictatorship. They wrote long letters to each other, and to the Viceroy-Governor-General (Mountbatten) about this, and their ideas about reforming the armed forces post-independence. A big reason why India has remained free from this poison of military dictatorship till now is these two stalwarts (lucky us that we got them at the right time) spent so much of their time and efforts in ensuring that not only would India be born as a democracy, but would survive long into the future as one, even while others collapsed around it and succumbed to the temptation of the General in the shiny brass-buttoned uniform.

Now, I know what you are thinking. So, let me volunteer some answers:

Do I hate them? Goodness no! I was brought up in the Air Force. My father served his entire life. My brother gave up his on duty. So, no. I do not hate them.

Do I feel proud of them? I cannot help it. I am conditioned to. I get a lump in my throat when I see a parade or hear “Sare Jahan Se Accha”. I get goose pimples when I watch a fly-past. I feel possessive towards a man in uniform. I have a sense of ownership and pride when someone points out how clean and disciplined cantonment areas or defence establishments are. I have a connection I cannot describe. So, no, once again. I have a special place of pride in my heart, however unexplained. But there it is!

Do I hate them? Goodness no! I was brought up in the Air Force. My father served his entire life. My brother gave up his on duty. So, no. I do not hate them.   I get a lump in my throat when I see a parade or hear “Sare Jahan Se Accha”. I get goose pimples when I watch a fly-past. I feel possessive towards a man in uniform.

Do I think they are special? Yes, but in a similar way a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer or a mason or a carpenter is. They are professionals assigned to do a professional job in a specific area of their expertise and training. Surely, there are those that are good at it, and those that suck. But are they inherently superior humans because they put on a uniform? Hell, no. Your costume does not decide whether or not you are a good human. Only your actions do.

Do I think the world would be a better place without men trained to kill on command? No, I am not that naive, utopian, or impractical. As long as there is a struggle for limited resources (as it seems in far into the future), such people will be necessary. My only contention is that we must neither ascribe to them such moral authority over us as to be blind to the fact that they are just like us in many ways, nor fantasise that if only everyone was like them (in a society where the uniforms actually made the rules, adjudicated on them, and enforced them), our world would be a better place.

One more thing before I end:

Would I like my daughter to don a uniform? Ah, that question everyone keeps ending with whenever I speak on this subject. Here’s the answer: I hope she doesn’t care what I like or dislike when she chooses how she wants to lead her life. If it is the uniform that attracts her, I shall be the proud parent sitting in the shamiana trying to spot her from the parade, where everyone looks the same. If it is poetry she wishes to write, I shall be the proud parent who’ll read it out to my friends without caring whether they are getting bored. If it is business she prefers, I will be the proud parent to claim that I always knew this. But here’s the bottom line: it does not matter. Whether Kymaia chooses a life in uniform is none of my concern and irrelevant to this issue.

Tl;dr: The military man is just one of us. To expect him to somehow have higher morals than those of the general society around him is stupid and naive at best, and dangerous at worst.

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