'It looks like India wants to follow Pakistan on the slippery slope of stupidity masquerading as religion,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).
With all the hullaballoo over beef and Punjab in ferment due to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, my mind went back to my days in Pakistan as a Prisoner of War in 1971-1972.
War is full of uncertainties and every participant faces the risk of getting killed, wounded or, as a third possibility, becoming a prisoner of war. It was my fate to face that third possibility.
It so happened that when I took out a patrol of six men, the enemy attacked that area and we were caught between the two sides. At night and in a riverine terrain full of tall grass, we literally stumbled into a Pakistani battalion and were caught by enemy soldiers.
Here I wish to make a clear distinction between getting caught by the enemy and surrender, as happened to the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. There was no question of the trauma of surrender. Of course, the next one month or so one faced interrogation and worse, but that is not the topic of discussion here.
Once the war was over on December 17, 1971, after a month or so I was transferred to what the Pakistanis called POW Camp no 2, which was at Lyallpur jail (now Faisalabad jail). Here, after a gap of over a month, I met my jawans and other officers who were captured from other sectors on the West Pakistan front.
In all we were six officers and around 600 jawans and JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers). It was a miniature India, right from deep Southern India, comprising Tamils, to a Kashmiri Muslim from Kargil district. Every language, religion and ethnicity of India was represented; we even had a Parsi officer!
But instead of the jawans staying in their regimental groupings, the Pakistani divided us into religious groupings, thus creating a Muslim compound and a Christian barrack. Our protest that this was against Geneva Convention fell on deaf ears.
The victim of this policy of 'divide' was poor Sepoy Mutthu Alam of the Artillery. Mutthu spoke only Tamil but based on his faith he was clubbed with the Rajasthani Muslims of the Grenadier Regiment instead of his fellow Tamilians.
The poor fellow was in tears as he could barely communicate with anyone given that he only spoke in Tamil. In fact, the Pakistanis refused to believe that he was a Muslim at all since he did the namaaz in Tamil. The Pakistanis then took it upon themselves to teach him Arabic to make him a 'proper' Muslim.
The Pakistanis were in for more cultural shock. That year the first major festival happened to be Ramzan Eid. All of us insisted that we must be able to meet our fellow Muslim soldiers on the occasion. They were amazed to see us, Hindu, Sikh and Christian officers not only partake in the Iftar but also join in the namaaz.
They had to be told that in the Indian Army, irrespective of their own faith, officers join the jawans in their prayers.
In the Indian Army it not uncommon to see a Major Sharma offering namaaz or a Zaki or Ansari praying in a Hindu temple!
As per Geneva Convention the POWs are permitted to hold religious gatherings on Sundays. At that time (and later, as seen in the Khalistani movement sponsored by Pakistan) the Pakistanis began to woo Sikhs with the offer to visit Nankana Sahib. There was a clear attempt to divide Hindus and Sikhs.
But our senior officer, the late Major Choudhary, had a heart to heart talk with Hindu and Sikh soldiers. We told the Pakistanis that we will have a combined mandir and gurdwara! So on alternate Sundays all of us attended combined gatherings. On one Sunday we sang bhajans while on alternative Sundays it was the Shabad Kirtan (Sikh devotional songs).
All went well till some peculiar problems arose. In Sikh gurdwaras, clapping is a taboo while it is common practice in temples. Many times Hindu soldiers in their enthusiasm would forget this, only to be corrected by their Sikh neighbour. But a ticklish problem arose one Sunday when we held the gurdwara.
All Sikh prayer meetings end with what is called ardas, equivalent of the Hindu prayer Twamey mata pita twamava (Thou are our father and mother).
One rustic Rajasthani jawan was rather disturbed by the last lines of the ardas that he thought went as 'Raj karega Khalsa BAKI rahen na koi,' whcih translates as 'The Khalsa will rule and no one else will be alive.'
Obviously this must have been troubling the poor soul so much he just got up and addressed the gathering saying that Sikhs are our brothers and it is all right even if they say no one else should be left alive. But the real words of the prayer are 'Aakhi rahen na koi, that is, no one would be left impure. Fortunately, we had a very erudite Sikh officer from the air force (they had joined us later at Lyallpur) to explain the correct meaning.
But why blame a poor jawan for his ignorance, I was a victim of a similar faux pas myself! It happened in 1964 when I left Maharashtra for the first time and travelled north for my selection board to Gwalior and Delhi. It was for the first time I 'really' met a Sikh in my life.
As a teenager, smoking a cigarette was part of 'style' those days (remember Dev Anand with a cigarette dangling from his lips and chasing pretty girls) so I offered one to a fellow candidate, a Sikh. He naturally took grave offence at it and scolded me for the affront.
I also got angry and told him that first of all I was offering a free cigarette and if he did not want to smoke it was fine but why get angry? It was now his turn to be surprised and he asked me if I did not know that Sikhs are not permitted to smoke.
Coming back to Pakistan, one particular memory is fresh in my mind. On the day we were to be repatriated from the Wagah border, an old Pakistani soldier came to me and spoke in whispers. His request: Please send me a copy of the Ramayan and Mahabharat. He clarified that he was a proud Muslim but as he put it, he wanted his children to know what their history was.
In the current context where the beef and cow have become not symbols of love and prosperity but an excuse for violence, all this sounds like fiction. It seems fake Hindutvawadi goons want to turn us into a Hindu Pakistan.
Do these cow belt warriors know what the original proponent of Hindutva said about the cow: 'It is a useful animal,' nothing more, nothing less.
Do these ignoramuses know that Hindus in Bali eat beef and so do Buddhists and Christians? One can quite understand that 'traditionally' in some parts of India, beef-eating is frowned upon. As long as no one is being forced to eat beef, there should be no issue.
The Bhagvad Gita, widely regarded as containing the essence of the Vedas, does not mention this issue at all. Lord Krishna, the author of the Gita, had himself tended cows in his young days. Surely, if this whole beef thing was part of 'religion', it would have found mention therein.
It looks like India wants to follow Pakistan on the slippery slope of stupidity masquerading as religion. Our cow protection laws in some states are as bad as the blasphemy law in Pakistan that is being misused to settle personal scores.
The earlier the Modi Sarkar reins in these 'mad cow' people, the better for the country, else let us be ready to say goodbye to the dream of a developed India.
India cannot remain one if this fringe is not controlled with an iron hand.
My experiences and memories of those days as a POW seem like another era or from another planet, such is the current growth of unreason and hooliganism under government patronage.
The cow belt mentality needs to be countered by all sane people to rescue Hindutva from their clutches, else we are looking at a very long, dark tunnel.
Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is Coordinator, Inpad, and a military historian.