During a meeting with the American Ambassador, Mr Rahul Richard Verma after he had assumed office, I invited him to visit the University. He enquired ‘What is a General doing in a University?’ I replied ‘The same thing Gen Eisenhower did when he shed his uniform and assumed the responsibility of President (Equivalent to VC) of the University of Columbia’. I also reminded him that 12 Generals, starting with Gen George Washington had become Presidents of USA. Less I be misunderstood, I took care to explain that I had no political ambitions or aspirations. He replied, ‘I know, but you certainly know your American History’. I had gone prepared, as one must, before important meetings.
As a veteran, I served with honour, dignity and respect in a predominantly non-Muslim environment – the Army, for more than 40 years. I never had to conceal my Muslim identity. I never wore it on my sleeve either. The fact that I remained faithful to the tenets of my religion didn’t bother my brother officers or men. There is no contradiction or conflict between my adherence to Islam and love for my country. In fact, both these loyalties are inter-twined and linked together.
As a young officer I was always assigned responsibility for supervision of the ‘Liquor Bar’, being a teetotaler. My wife and I both remained vegetarian without drawing any notice or attention. It certainly would have been disconcerting if we had enquired from hosts if the meat dish was kosher (halal). I attended ‘Mandir Parade’ with my men, not as an act of worship but as an essential duty to show to my men that I respected their beliefs. They respected mine too, preparing breakfast for me at 3 AM whenever I fasted during ‘Ramadan’.
It would be of interest to the readers to know that the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan banned the consumption of beef in the late 19th century so as not to hurt the religious sentiments of fellow countrymen. It is entirely up to the Muslim community to remain relevant and within the margins. My advice to fellow co-religionists is to be sensitive to the social mores of fellow countrymen. Shun food which is offensive to the majority. It was for this reason that when it was incorrectly reported, in the media, that ‘Beef Cutlets’ were being served in a cafeteria in AMU we clarified that even buffalo meat was termed ‘beef’ and immediately changed the nomenclature to ‘Buff Cutlets’.
Recent developments in India have jolted me from my reverie. I attribute this anti-Muslim onslaught to the social media. I notice with concern that even army WhatsApp groups are awash with anti-Pak posts (no harm with that) but also blatant anti-Muslim venom, mostly directed at fellow countrymen. I have been following the social posts of my school friends and course mates who grew up with me and have been perturbed by the Islamophobia sometimes expressed, always by a few. I was shocked recently when two buddies, commissioned with me, wrote a comment, on my family, meant for my attention ‘Go to Pakistan’. I couldn’t digest this onslaught and asked the moderator if this was permissible as our group was formed for exchanging light hearted banter to foster bonhomie. One of the writers, a knowledgeable historian, apologized immediately. The other was removed from the group. I have subsequently noted a positive dip in divisive posts of this nature. This is where we draw our strength in the Armed Forces. On my part I have never failed to speak out against this perceived injustice and once addressed an open letter to the PM on the issue.
Ramachandra Guha in a recent article, was certainly mistaken, when he wrote that Muslims act and dress in a form they believe is consistent with the golden age of their community. If that was so they would be dressed in brocades, fez caps and “Agarkhas” and not in the simple ‘Kurtas, Pyjamas’ that most, who are not affluent, wear. Mode of dress is mostly poverty driven. My advice is to dress as the occasion demands. Don’t stick out like sore thumbs. Islam only dictates shunning opulence in matter of clothing, for males. I would admit that in the Army I always donned a ‘Sherwani’ instead of a suit on social occasions, because I felt it was more elegant and also because its fashion never changed and one did not have to spend a fortune every time narrow lapels and trousers switched over to broad ones. When I was the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University I noticed an increased trend towards head scarves ‘Hijabs’, (mandated for women) and facial veils, ‘Naqab’ (not mandated). Headscarves, are more of a fashion statement, across the world. The facial veil on the other hand is positively unhygienic in a warm, humid climate. When this was pointed it elicited a positive response from the most conservative of our girl students.
The constant refrain of AMU students were apprehensions of discrimination. I explained that this trend was ingrained in human nature but I also explained that discrimination was largely against the lesser educated. Dalits and Muslims were in this category and hence faced discrimination. I questioned why my family members, or myself, were never discriminated against. If it had been so I would have retired as a colonel. I rose slowly up the ladder to a three-star rank and retired as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff. I was entrusted with the modernization of the Army and its budget running into thousands of crores. There was never an occasion when my presence was viewed with apprehensions or mis-trust.
Muslims are certainly afflicted by the siege mentality that affects vast sections of the Islamic world. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the destruction of Muslim nations across North Africa and the Gulf have certainly stoked the existing misgivings but more insidious is the ‘Go to Pakistan’ chide which is becoming shriller in our country. Politicians noticeably taking care to avoid any reference to the ‘M’ factor. This is regrettable. 14 percent of the population must not be politically ignored.
I had earlier described that we are a ‘Salad Bowl’ nation. I recently read about an equally apt term of a ‘Harmonious Orchestra’. It stressed that when music is not harmonious it becomes a discordant noise. Music is the pleasant effect of different instruments combining into a whole. India is a multi-religious, multi ethnic, multi lingual society. Harmonious existence does not imply uniformity in thought, behaviour or actions. It is very much like an orchestra, with different instruments making different sounds.
When a nation does not treat its citizens alike or provide equal opportunities, frustration, grievances and anger erupt. These are fertile grounds for conflict.
Having worn several hats – Army, Diplomacy, Judiciary and Academics there are a few closing remarks I would like to make:
(a) The Army is capable to take on any adversary. It must however be given the necessary wherewithal. Unfortunately, this aspect has been long neglected. Inputs from Defence personnel must be taken seriously. We had been stressing for many years that our main adversary was China. We neglected to prepare to meet a possible Chinese threat. It is time for immediate corrective action
(b) It is a matter of some consideration that those who have been privileged to be part of the Service, are often wasted into oblivion. In building the edifice of India they could play a meaningful role, and spread the institutional values which they have imbibed, nurtured, and practiced.
(c) Diplomacy cannot succeed unless our diplomats learn the language of the host country. Dependence on interpreters must end. Don’t be fooled by Chinese and Russian Diplomats. They know our languages. They only use interpreters to get adequate time to think, before responding. They also pick up snippets of our unguarded remarks in Hindi.
(d) Our Universities can never figure in the top universities of the world unless we enforce discipline, both amongst teachers and students. I do not mean curb freedom of speech. I mean curb Hooliganism. The teaching profession has no accountability, not even a confidential report. There should be an element of accountability brought in.
I am an optimist. There is growing hunger amongst Muslims for education. This community on the strength of knowledge and competence will rise above the tide of hate, ‘lynchings’ and even ‘Love Jihad’. Time for healing, better sense and inclusive nature of India’s population will correct this imbalance sooner than later. The silent majority has started speaking out for the unity and greater good of the country. There is positive hope in our predominantly young population. They are destined to shape the future.
We must ensure that the minds of the young are not contaminated. In this the key role will be played by education. Unless soldiering captures the full dedication of those who are competent both morally and intellectually to meet its challenges, and unless it becomes for the most talented a complete and fulfilling calling, it is likely to fall to hard times. In the hands of the mediocre or the morally insensitive, the calling of arms could find its noble purpose distorted with adverse consequences for its premier client – the common man whose esteem the soldier always seeks, and gets – All this ends from where it starts. We the People.
Excerpted from the book, The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist by Lt Gen. Zameeruddin Shah PVSM, SM, VSM (retd) [published here with permission from the author]
Konark Publishers, Rs 590.
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