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The Rediff Interview/Major General (retired) Afsir Karim

'There are no communal feelings in the army'

November 11, 2008

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Major General Afsir Karim, who retired from the Indian Army [Images] in 1989, now edits Akrosh, a strategic affairs magazine that analysis internal disturbances, conflicts and insurgencies in and around India.

These days Karim saab, known for his balance and straightforwardness, is a disturbed man.

Being pragmatic, the allegations by Mumbai's Anti-Terrorist Squad against serving army officer Lieutenant Colonel Srikanth Purohit in connection with the Malegaon blast case doesn't worry him as much as the politics over the issue of terrorism. In the first of a two-part interview he told's Sheela Bhatt that India is passing through it worst time since Independence. The divide between Hindus and Muslims frightens him no end. He shared his views with sorrow in his voice.

Your army man Srikanth Purohit has been arrested on grave charges of terrorism. What are your thoughts on his arrest?

Firstly, I feel very sad that a man in uniform should get involved in this. But, the environment in the country is such that I understand it. For the last many years, particularly since the Mumbai riots of 1993 and then the Gujarat violence and other incidents� there has been a great divide. This divide got developed after the series of bomb blasts all over the country. It's possible that after the blasts some Hindus who were not involved started thinking why can't they do the same thing? After all, this game can be played by two.

Instead of riots which involved many more people and created a mess afterwards, they might have thought this is better method of doing it. You know now, after the investigation by the ATS that they were indulging in terrorist activities. It's a new kind of communal violence on both sides. The problem is that it is getting people at random. Innocent people are being killed on both sides. Therefore communal people are doing a great damage to the country. By carrying out these blasts they are widening the divide. There is a general atmosphere of chaos and confusion in Indian communities. I don't think there is any political leader capable of setting this problem right at the moment. Neither are they showing any interest in doing it except blaming each other.

Isn't the army's internal structure not alert to ensure detection of such communal elements?

You see, Purohit belonged to a peripheral group in the army. The intelligence core does different types of jobs than the armed forces, generally. There is no over-regimentation, there are no strict controls. They go out and meet anti-national elements to find out various things, they plant certain things. They are intelligence chaps. But, if a person comes into the army with a certain background -- I think Purohit came with it -- then it is easy for him to deceive people and do these things. The ATS claims that he carried out lectures and training camps. I think he started feeling that he is on the right path because he must have thought that why should Muslims kill others and why should they not be killed? But, as an army person he was bound by his oath. He should have protected the country and remained disciplined by not joining any associations.

If the ATS allegations are correct then he has betrayed the army. He has betrayed the country. Therefore he should be investigated properly and he should get stringent punishment.

But these roots are not deep in the Indian Army. These sentiments are planted and they are shallow.

It will be picked up and thrown out. I don't think it will not have any long-term impact on the army except that we feel a little embarrassed that somebody in uniform should be involved in such a thing.

Can you tell us more about how secular values are inculcated in army men?

See, the army has two-three major parts. One is the fighting element of the army which is highly regimented and disciplined. There are other core groups which are not as disciplined.

They are not controlled that much. So, you do find talk of corruption coming out from those places. The army is a very cohesive group. I am not talking this as a part of drawing room conversation. I am talking about war. I am talking about the situation at the borders. I am talking of LoC incidents of which I was a part of for very long time. I never ever felt that I am a Muslim or somebody is a Hindu or a Sikh. It was always a question of you being in the Indian Army, your regiment and your country. And whoever you are fighting against whether it is Pakistani or Chinese or insurgents it's your enemy. Generally, army men are like this. Although, army men are religious there never have been communal elements in the army.

They are never encouraged. The whole system and ethos is such that you absorb yourself into one community named the Indian Army. Whether, you privately follow Hinduism or Sikhism that doesn't matter in the army. As an example, in the J&K military you have got Muslims. When I was Commanding Officer in J&K there was this battalion under me. The CO of the battalion was a Gujarati Brahmin. His name was Shashikant. Once during Ramzan, I was touring that area and I sent the message that I would have lunch with him. When I reached there I saw no sign of food not even water. I got very annoyed and I called up the CO.

I told him, "What kind of an officer are you? I head your unit and I sent you a message, too."

His answer was, "Sir, I am sorry. Ramzan is on. None of us eat in the open or anywhere on campus because our troops are fasting." Those kinds of sentiments prevail in the army.

On the other hand the troops I commanded in the 1971-72 war period were Sikhs, Dogras Gujjars and Rajputs. Of course, we went to war together and there was never any kind of communal feeling. In fact, the troops' religion was part of the CO's life. No temple or Gurudwara function would start without my initiating it. That's the atmosphere in army. Your namaz and bhaktis and prayers are your own personal business. In the unit you follow the customs of the community, which is serving the army. COs are head in all sense of things. Under me a lots of Gujjars worshipped Krishna. During Janmashtami the custom is COs goes to the temple and Subedar Major, who is the senior most junior commissioned officer, brings a cucumber and a part of it is cut and a baby Krishna comes out and is placed on swings and then only ceremony starts. The CO happens to be a Muslim is not the issue in the army's traditions. I have done it so many times. Same is the story of Sikh soldiers. Gurudwara ceremonies take place at midnight. There is no personal religion as far as the army is concerned. The traditions related to it are dependent on the unit and its people you are commanding. The officers of the Gurkhas and Garhwal regiments follow its customs irrespective of their preferences.

There is no communalism in the army. In my 37-38 years of service, I came across just one or two odd individuals who had a communal mindset. Remember the army regiments are not based on religion. These are based on ethnic groups which were recruitable. In the army you are known by the regiments. Who are you? I will say I am Kumaon. That's the ethos that prevails in army, even now.

Many people have commented adversely against temples in army cantonments.

I'll explain, again. The army supports religion but not communal sentiments.

We, in the army have common rooms where all communities worship. You find the Gita, Quran and Guru Granth Sahib, too. In the army we don't have problems about this. There is no untouchability and no reservations about another man's religion. We are organised, secular and democratic with discipline. The sweepers in the army have same rights to worship and other things like the COs. The army doesn't believe that secular means you have no religion. Secular means you follow your own religion, it's your own affair. In the army we don't allow communalism because we are secular. This is functioning well.

Part II: 'We are in a dangerous position internally'

The Rediff Interviews

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