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Has the renaming bug hit the military?
I learnt that the suite named ‘Akbar’ in the Western Naval Command officers’ mess has been renamed. ‘Akbar’ stood alongside the one named ‘Ashoka’. The two suites were thus well positioned to evoke memory of the two emperors who tried to make India whole. While Ashoka succeeded, Akbar set the stage for his great grandson, Aurangzeb, to succeed.
I wondered if the rooms named ‘Akbar’ and ‘Tipu’ at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, that find mention in writings of right-wing general, late General SK Sinha, are still so named. As I contemplated the renaming phenomenon, a rumour reached me that a hall named after Tipu at the Army War College had a new name. I feared verifying this, should it turn out true.
In the confirmed instance above, has the Western Naval Command taken cue from the national education watchdog, which recently deleted portions on the Mughals from the history syllabus? It would also be questionable if the Adjutant Genaral, who had snapped his heels together in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call at a Combined Commander’s Conference to decolonise the military mind, approved the unverified mentions here in his rather long list of contemplated changes.
Even so, the military’s buying into the line that India’s slavery lasted 1200 years – the timeline Narendra Modi stipulated in his first address at the parliament on taking over his new job in 2014 – needs cautioning against. If the military does follow suit in such mistaken belief, then it is being political. Departures from being apolitical is unprofessional. To be unprofessional exacts a price in national security.
Cautioning on Hindutva
For Hindutva to wish for an obedient military is unexceptionable. The popularly elected regime deserves as much. However, its expectations appear to be going past the traditional professional mould of subordination. It wishes for a military with an intersubjective understanding – of Hindutva. The alacrity in response of the military suggests it is being obliged.
There is no arguing decolonising the mind and ushering in a measure of authenticity and indigeneity into norms, mores and conduct. However, the assumption behind this push - that Indian military has lagged in this over the past 75 years - is unconvincing. Any continuity owes to tradition having a motivational place in the military ethos. Ideally, change is an organic process, leading to self-renewal over time. In any case, the shift to a technology-oriented military is underway and is of revolutionary proportions, which will bring about cultural change alongside.
To press through diktat for substituting the martial inheritance of the forces by having them dig further into history – and mythology – for inspiration is unnecessary. The military is Indian enough. For motivation, it already has foyers of all training auditoriums carrying iconography drawing on the great epics from the Holy Sermon on the Battlefield, the Bhagwat Gita. Also, thus-far lesser-known heroes from physical and social peripheries have been resurrected, such as Lachit Barphukan and Birsa Munda. When an issue is already in hand, there is little reason for the military to go overboard.
For the regime to have an agenda is understandable – its parochial interest is the consolidation of Hindutva. To elevate this to the national interest requires a national consensus. The military must await this. A national security document could be laid before parliament, which – given the regime’s prioritisation of a cultural makeover - must include a persuasive chapter on cultural change. Sans this, proactivism is to bite off more than it can chew of the Hindutva Apple.
Not only must whats to be discarded be reviewed cautiously but whats displaces must also be subject to scrutiny. Hindutva insists on non-autochthonous influences be repealed, while antediluvian observances included. Neither is desirable. The former negates India’s diversity – geographic, ethnic and cultural – while the latter militates against a modern mind - prerequisite for imbibing the ongoing technological revolution.
The martial legacy of Muslim India
Getting rid of horse-drawn buggies for fetching up inspecting officers to the parade ground is fine, as is jettisoning the sahayak system. However, disregarding Muslim contribution to Indian martial history is however to go a bit too far. Since it is to go against the grain today to point out that Indian Muslims have historically made a nationally significant contribution, it must be belaboured here.
From the ebb and flow of Muslim presence across India’s historical map, it is evident that Muslim entrants into South Asian land mass rightly bought into the prevailing perception that it is a single strategic and civilisational space. They were - to begin with - at separate corners of the Subcontinent (Kerala, North West and Sindh) and with time ensconced within it. Their martial history contribution comprises their march from the periphery lasting centuries and their participation in the strategic affairs, with fellow Indian communities, during and after their spread.
First off, but for Muslim keenness to make India whole, the British who wrested their empire, may not have had a British Indian ‘empire’, but a conquest quite like colonial mess left behind in West Asia. Muslim instinct for and accepting the received wisdom on the oneness of India accounts for Muslim-led kingdoms from the Sultanate to the Mughals trying to encompass Indian landmass, in the tradition first set by Chandragupta. Therefore, Muslims transmitted through time to the British, the perception of India as a political entity, which – in turn - enthused their subjects to overthrow the colonial yoke. That Independence turned out a ‘transfer of power’ owes to Mughals having first served up a unified polity.
Secondly, by no means was the spread solely by the sword as Hindutva-tinged history has it, but a product of syncretism – incomprehensible in today’s communalised lens. The communalised template of today serves political forces, who legitimise their ideology and conduct using a medieval scare crow. This has lately been accentuated by displacement: to intoxicate masses with religion lest they talk of equality and economy. It’s Hindutva’s ‘opium war’ on Indians.
Third, Muslim martial legacy is a veritable trove. Littered across India’s landscape are medieval forts, capped by guns of the era in mute testimony of India’s artillery prowess – largely a Muslim forte. Muslims were also at the forefront of cavalries, with horses being imported from areas whence some had come to India’s northern plains. Medieval Indian history is a military historian’s delight and cannot be accessed without empathy for the Muslims of the time.
Fourth, reaching to ancient times alone for reclaiming pre-colonial legacy can only lead to missing this. A missing piece leads to a negative self-appraisal, that in turn prompts an impulse rooted in an inferiority complex. This is an unnecessary imposition by Hindutva on Indians. Neither the Sultanate nor the Mughals would’ve reckoned in history but for alliances with Indian ethnic groups, even if asymmetric. To denigrate Muslims of the time is to side-line non-Muslim actors, such as among others, the Rajputs and the Purabiya, that included Brahmins. Muslim despots were only products of their time and in political pursuits adherents of Chanakyan Mandala strategic thinking (Richard M Eaton, India in the Persionate Age: 1000-1765, New Delhi: Penguin, 2020, p. 24).
Fifth, going beyond the so-called ‘Muslim period’, acknowledging the legacy renders redundant the call to overthrow the colonial clasp over mindsets. It dates to the period of colonial subjugation, ignoring that the armies were essentially Indian, even if answering to a would-be colonial master. Even under the colonialist, victory could not have been with the Allies in the two World Wars if it hadn’t been for the Indian contribution – both military and material. The Indian National Army too can do without the overhype. It being undivided India, the collective contribution of Muslims was at least a third.
Lastly, since Muslim India’s is a shared legacy, if India does not own up to its martial inheritance, Pakistan cannot but appropriate it. Though it can be expected to use the names Ghauri and Ghaznavi for its purposes – the marauders having held sway over the Indus basin at points in time - reports are that it also is working towards a long-range missile, calling it Tipu. It already has a naval ship named after Tipu. Tipu had little if any to do with the area that now constitutes Pakistan. If New India thinks it can hand over that legacy to the Pakistanis – as some unfinished business of Partition - it must be disabused of the notion.
To wit, the ad-nauseum reiteration of Kashmir’s glorious ancient past must not be at the cost of its medieval connection with India. To emphasize the ancient over the medieval is to allow Pakistan a leeway into staking claim on like ideological grounds using the medieval period as cue instead. Kashmir is Indian not because it was Hindu once. Taking ownership of the medieval period by India would allow for the continuity in claim that it otherwise potentially surrenders to Pakistan by default, using the Hindutva’s religious affiliation as argument to ownership of Kashmir.
If numbers made a country, India’s Muslims could finish fifth – after China, India, United States and Indonesia. Ignoring 15 per cent of the population is hardly inclusive conduct. Since numbers in the military ranks are difficult to come by, that they are less than 3 per cent at the soldier level and 2 per cent at the officer level, shows that there is a serious issue with diversity index of the military. Their absence and - now – any further relegation to the psychological margins is unwary participation in a pet project of Hindutva – invisibilisation of Muslims from national life.
The upshot can well be the military ending up bystander or worse, an active participant in a cultural vandalism as prelude to genocide. Cultural erasure is a preliminary of physical eclipse. This explains the shindig here over Akbar’s nameplate prised out. Since Hindutva is not too keen on the Buddhist emperor either, if given such latitude, tomorrow will be Ashoka’s turn to have his nameplate removed. Initial tentative steps test the waters. Worse inevitably follows.
The military’s apolitical character that is central to civil-military relations also has a cultural facet to it. It means keeping ideology from colouring the perceptual lens of the military. Whereas conservatism is the usual political vein of militaries, liberalism must equally inform the military ethos of a diverse nation. India’s diversity implies multiple streams feed Indian strategic culture. No stream may be dammed or damned, even if some or other stream is privileged at a point in time.
The military must know that Hindutva adherents self-servingly subscribe to Orientalist historiography, in which the periodisation of history served colonialists well. The British who took over from the Mughals undercut Mughals for legitimising their power grab. Hindutva, left with a feeling of inadequacy by the largely violent colonial take over, bought into the colonial construct of history.
It’s the Hindutva mind that needs decolonising. Unfortunately, no amount of renaming - ‘Kartavyapath’ etc - and cultural jugglery - Sengol etc - can bring it about. It shouldn't take a civil war for it to be dragged back from the fascistic era of the twentieth century, where it has it ideological fount.
The ado over Aurangzeb
In Maharashtra, on the back of Hindutva early-year gatherings on the usual trope against Muslims – love and land ‘jihad’ – the deputy chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, tried intimidating Muslims by recourse to the invective ‘Aurangzeb ke Aulad’. Backtracking, he tries to nuance Aulads as those with foreign ancestors as against off-springs of converts, hoping the wean off the latter from the former as potential nationalist Muslims.
This is of a piece with Hindutva’s fixation on the Oppressive Muslim, though history has versions aplenty of Muslim contribution – including Aurangzeb’s – being multi-splendoured. That Aurangzeb was incorruptible and pious is lore.
Though four of Akbar’s Navratans, including his army commander, were Hindu, yet he stands deleted; what chance can Aurangzeb the Bigot possibly have? Yet, Aurangzeb, though persona-non-grata for Hindutva, is a prospective military icon, for his tactical bravery and operational finesse, if not for his political overreach.
The southern Muslim sultanates were much against the northern Sultanate and Moghul intrusions south of the Tapti over the preceding three centuries. Their armies comprised inhabitants of the Deccan, both Hindu and Muslim, and indeed also Africans and, on occasion, foreign mercenaries from the proto-colonial presence dotting the peninsular shores. The early Mughals were held off from Deccan, though both the younger Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb respectively tried extending the empire southwards. Maratha Deshmukhs participated in the push back of the three sultanates – Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda. Indeed, both Chhatrapati Shivaji and Emperor Aurangzeb had considerable proportions of respective armies comprising Muslims and Hindus respectively, including in substantive segments of firepower and manoeuvre.
Under the circumstance of defiance of imperial authority, Emperor Aurangzeb had little recourse but to spend the last quarter of his life in the Deccan. To this choice must be attributed the vision behind the controversial mural on Akhand Bharat that graces the newly inaugurated parliament building.
Aurangzeb is an apt warrior model. While Tipu is credited with killing a tiger, Aurangzeb, as a teenager, fought off an elephant. At the operational level, Aurangzeb, as prince, was recalled from Gujarat to recoup the campaign into Uzbek lands that had gone awry. That he managed to do so and win the respect of his superior Uzbek forebears on their home turf testifies to his operational acumen. A vignette from the battle has him dismounting in full view of his enemy and partaking of prayer. This show of cool courage impressed the Uzbeks into a compromise.
As Emperor, his dedication to expanding the empire to cover the Indian landmass shows the singularity of his political aim. A large proportion of his senior commanders being Hindu shows that he was not communal, as the popular version has it, as much as political in his approach. It is unfair to examine him using modern lens, while not using the same lens on what Hindutva is up to since the destruction of Babri Masjid and the Gujarat pogrom 2002. His political avatar need not overshadow his yen for war.
Aurangzeb and his Rajput and Muslims generals proved worthy opponents for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the latter’s derring-do has much to do with the challenge Aurangzeb posed. Extolling the Chhatrapati does not need doing down Aurangzeb. Indeed, the Chhatrapati’s challenge put Aurangzeb to camp out in the Deccan, where he was later laid to rest. Fadnavis’s ideological blinkers prevent fathoming how both remarkable warriors can be held in high regard simultaneously. What will escape Fadnavis is that between the two, the Chhatrapati wins out, owing not so much to his sans-peer martial prowess, as much to his evolved secularism and a gender sensitivity much ahead of his times.
The very thought that the third generation from Independence yet requires to ‘Indianise’ – as Fadnavis had it in the presence of General Bipin Rawat at a function at the Bhonsala Military School (for the uninitiated: site of Shrikant Purohit’s Abhinav Bharat escapades) - prompts certainty of it being anchored in extraneous impulse, Hindutva. Decolonisation does not mean disavowing every inheritance, especially those selected for discard by Hindutva. The military has to vet instructions it receives for subtext. At the apex level, the saying ‘theirs’ is not to reason why’ is inapplicable. Perfunctory allusion to a secular military – as late Bipin Rawat did at that function - will no longer do.
If the military avidly participates in Hindutva’s core project – disadvantaging Muslims in the national enterprise – it cannot but be called out. Into the ninth year of Narendra Modi’s term, it is evident that Hindutva is in modern times indulging in bigotry it accuses its bête noire Aurangzeb of. While excusable for Aurangzeb – considering he was a product of medieval times – the anachronism in aping him today is lost on Hindutva.
If bhakts can idolise Modi, Muslims can hold Aurangzeb in nuanced regard and no one can exercise a veto. My grandfather, the first Indian Muslim military staff course graduate in undivided India, surely was master of military affairs. He advisedly named a son after Aurangzeb. Fadnavis ought to know Muslims do not let forebears down, especially those who first exercised their freedom of choice of spiritual oasis, even if under Aurangzeb's allegedly bloody sword.
Military leadership cannot hide behind platitudes to an apolitical military any more: it must live the talk. It must throw out suggestions that it act in a particular, partisan manner. This is easier done on operational matters – such as is hopefully being already done in Manipur. It must now carry forward its professional independence of thought to spheres that otherwise appear less urgent and important, which, though in the in the cultural realm, are no less salient. The likes of Fadnavis must get to know where to get off, so they don’t need to be told off.