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'The lack of Muslims in officer ranks is due to the Muslims' educational backwardness'
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February 17, 2006

The current controversy over a census of minorities in the armed forces, which raised a furore in Parliament and provoked much criticism, is being attributed to a book, Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India, written by Omar Khalidi.

Colonel Anil Athale (retired) commented on that Khalidi had got in touch with about two years ago seeking data on the Indian Army.

Muslims in the Army: A dangerous census

Khalidi -- an American citizen who works at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States -- spoke to India Abroad -- the newspaper owned by -- in its December 26, 2003 issue about his research investigating the structure and composition of the Indian Army and police. An interview, which we reproduce here in the public interest.

Speaking to Shakti Bhatt, he discussed why the suspicion of Muslim loyalty in India is largely based on myth and why the Muslim presence in the Indian Army's officer ranks is low.

How did you become interested in this subject?

Watching the armed forces parade during Independence day or Republic Day I noticed that there are regiments named after religious and ethnic groups, such as Sikhs, Rajputs, Dogras, Garhwalis, Gurkhas, Mahars, but no Christian or Muslim regiments, both before and after Independence.

A personal reason was that one of my brothers applied for a commission rank in the Indian Air Force in the late 1960s. He was turned down. To this day he and I are unsure if he was turned down because he was less qualified than others or because he, as a Muslim, was considered a security risk.

That was one of the prime motives to investigate the absence or presence of religious and ethnic groups in the Indian armed forces.

You call the Indian armed forces 'ethnically skewed.' How much are British policies to be blamed? And how much are India's post-Independence governments responsible?

The British colonial authorities did not inherit a national army of any kind from the Mughals, so they created what suited them. The colonial army comprised what the British designated as 'martial races,' Punjabis of all religions: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Rajputs, Dogras, Gurkhas and the like.

They were recruited in great numbers because they were perceived as more loyal than other Indian groups. All post-Independence governments have tried to rectify the mistakes of the British. But the governments have moved very hesitantly and slowly in this matter. The present government is not different than others.

You called India's post-Independence wars with Pakistan 'a test of Muslim loyalty.' Why?

India was unsure if its Muslim soldiers would fight for their own country or support co-religionists across the border. In every war since 1947, Muslim soldiers did fight for their nation, without exception. However, since most Kashmiris consider Jammu and Kashmir [Images] disputed territory, some, not all, Kashmiri Muslims do support Pakistan.

Do you think Muslim loyalty has been suspect in India since independence?

Yes and no. No matter how much they demonstrate their loyalty to India, the Hindutva types are not convinced. However, I believe that most Indians consider Indian Muslims to be just as loyal as anyone else.

How much of this suspicion is based in fact and how much in myth?

Most of it is based on myth. I have kept track of press reports about Indians involved in espionage for Pakistan since the 1950s. My figures tell me that out of 39 cases, only 3 Indian Muslims were ever involved. This number does not include Pakistani citizens caught in India gathering intelligence for their country.

An even more pertinent question is: Are Indian Muslims capable of spying for Pakistan?

A categorical answer is no, as there are only a handful of Muslims in the higher ranks of the army and air force with access to classified information or intelligence. They have to walk on eggs. Most are more loyal than the king, trying at every step to be more careful than others.

I have heard it so many times -- and since you address this briefly -- the gripe about Muslims in India cheering for Pakistan in a cricket duel between the two countries. Why do you think that is so and should the rest of the country be upset about it?

I love this question! (laughs). The question needs to be contextualised. The Indian Muslim generation of the late 1940s, 1950s participated in the creation of Pakistan, had brothers and sisters across the border, so they could hardly be expected to change such close kinship ties so easily.

Some, not all Muslims, may have cheered Pakistani athletes back then. But when I was growing up in India in 1970s, I and others never did. Don't forget that when Mohammad Azharuddin led India's cricket team, he publicly performed namaaz for his country's victory. And he did lead India to victory many a time.

It is possible, though not probable, that some Indian Muslims do cheer Pakistani players even today, but for every Indian Muslim that cheers for Pakistan there are a hundred who don't.

You state very early in your book about the Indian government's 'policy of discrimination against Muslims.' How did you first become aware of this discrimination?

No, I don't think I blame the Indian government so categorically for discrimination. As far as the armed forces are concerned, I state that the lack of Muslims in officer ranks is due to the Muslims' educational backwardness. This is true of the situation in the police and the paramilitary as well.

Do you think some people will give this book less credibility because a Muslim has written about discriminatory practices by the overwhelmingly Hindu army and police?

I hope not. Since I write with great admiration for the armed forces' absolutely impartial role in combating communal riots. The army did a superb job in Gujarat in 2002, and all previous riots and pogroms.

Lack of or poor education amongst Muslims is often cited as a reason for their under-representation in the Indian Army. How much of a barrier is this factor by itself?

Very much so. In fact in the officer ranks, it is probably as high as 80 percent. The Indian government and Indian society at large is not responsible for or a cause of Muslims' educational poverty. The reservation policy in the IPS (Indian Police Service), state police recruitment hurts Muslims more than upper caste Hindus, because Muslims are a lot more educationally backward.

What are the reasons for the educational backwardness of the Muslims?

There are four main reasons. The first is that the elite and well-educated groups amongst Muslims migrated to Pakistan after Independence. They left behind agricultural labourers and urban unskilled workers.

Secondly, access to good schools in India depends on your access to money and political influence. Muslims lack both.

Thirdly, there is acute poverty amongst Muslims. Their situation is comparable to what are called Other Backward Classes and to the state of Indian women.

Lastly, many of them have chosen to go to madrasas where the education is hardly modern or scientific.

What do you mean by the 'subculture against Muslims' and how does it encourage discrimination against them?

What I meant was the subculture among Muslims, not against Muslims. That subculture implies that many Muslim young men assume that somehow the system is stacked against them.

And what about the cultural and social prejudices on part of Hindus and others against the Muslims that you addressed in your book?

Well, things like Muslims wanting to outbreed the Hindus and calling them 'Babar ki Aulad' (children of the Mughal emperor Babar) and so on makes me believe that factors of prejudice are not entirely absent.

What is your strongest recommendation to correct this problem?

The armed forces' exemplary conduct is a great source of hope.

Our police needs to learn from the jawans and officers of the army. Most IPS officers are also impartial, but they have to follow the direction given by politicians in control of the government. So change must happen at the political level.

Is there a role that Indians living in the US and Americans of Indian origin have played or can play in this subculture, the discrimination or the ethnic violence?

Yes, Diaspora Indians can play a great role in promoting modern scientific education among all Indians, but particularly those who need it most, such as the Dalits, Muslims, and women.

By advancing educational levels among Indians, it will enable them to successfully compete in the exams leading to entry in armed forces, paramilitary and police. That is the indirect role.

A more direct role would be to fund modern secular education for all Indians, discourage bigotry and intolerance against any groups, just because it is in some ways different from your own.

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