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Playing with fire
Between the Lines By Kuldip Nayar

THE Indian armed forces are a holy cow. We do not question their expense, nor has there ever been any parliamentary committee to look into their budgetary allocation. Why they purchase a particular type of weapon has been left to the Defence Ministry. To take one example, the navy is bent upon buying the Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov, even though Moscow has been periodically raising the sale price, which now stands at $3.2 billion.

Once in a while a case like the Bofors guns scandal has shaken the nation, but the information came from outside and the ruling party did its best to hush it up. Even the Italian go-between, Quattrochi, was pursued up to a point and then allowed to go scot-free, despite CBI protests, because of his high level connections.

So our trust in the armed forces has been implicit since independence and never did we suspect that some officer could be ideologically contaminated. All of a sudden, we have been hit by one case, that of Lieutenant Colonel Srikant Prasad Purohit. He is the senior serving officer who has allegedly played a key role in the Malegaon bombings of September 29. The blasts took place in mostly Muslim localities, killing 31. As usual the initial suspicion fell on Muslims. Malegaon is a small weavers’ town near Nasik in Maharashtra and this is the second time in two years that the Muslims of this rundown area have been victims of similar blasts.

Strange that the military intelligence had no clue that one army officer was involved with local Hindu extremists. The credit goes to the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) that unearthed the information that those responsible for the crime were Hindu terrorists. The ATS interrogated Lt Col Purohit and arrested him after getting permission from the army.

The question anybody will ask is why military intelligence failed to discover that a senior officer was involved. Military intelligence has a large set up in all the three services and has its men all over the country. When they fail in their job of uncovering extremists in their own ranks, this suggests that they are taking their job nonchalantly. It is all the more disconcerting that no such previous case has come to light since independence. It may well be an aberration. Yet it is difficult to imagine that a Purohit has been born only in the last few years. An in depth and overall probe is required.

True, in a recent interview Chief of Army Staff General Deepak Malhotra has revealed that the army high command is now profiling officers. This is a knee-jerk reaction. A thorough profiling of 31,000 officers is simply not possible and picking up a few at random will not be fair. What the services have to eliminate is the suspicion in the minds of people that even the military is not immune to communal contamination. For the common man the armed forces are a bastion of security and protection. I concede that the military does a credible job to hire recruits from a society that has all the ills and convert them into an apolitical force. But this is a field where the nation cannot afford to go wrong even in one case.

If anyone has any doubts, they should see the sad example of our neighbour, Pakistan. Initial slackness and then General Zia-ul Haq’s effort to have jihadis in the army has created a situation in which some 35 per cent of men and officers are said to be votaries of fundamentalism. Reports have come in that there were in the Pakistan army who refused to fight against the Taliban in the northern areas.

I do not think that a secular India would ever face such a situation even if the rulers were to connive with fundamentalists of a particular community.. The armed forces themselves have such an ethos that they would not allow such a situation to arise. I know how upset the army was when a senior officer was taken to the BJP office in Delhi for a briefing when the Vajpayee government was in power. The mistaken impression given to the army high command was that some MPs wished to be briefed about ongoing operations.

Still, the the worrying point is that many retired military officers are joining the BJP, or propagating on its behalf. Indeed, the party has an association of ex-military men. A few days ago this association sent out invitations on the BJP stationery to a press conference about Assam scheduled to be addressed by a retired Lieutenant General. This does not come as a surprise because the BJP has said that Hindus cannot be terrorists and that the armed forces are a part of Indian society which has been horrified by the pusillanimous and apologetic approach of the UPA government to terror attacks.. In fact, party president Rajnath Singh has said that the party will bear the legal costs of those apprehended in the Malegaon case.

The BJP is playing with fire when it communalises a case that should be looked into objectively and the guilty punished severely. The problem with the party is that it is trying its best to polarize the country for the purpose of elections, five of which are in progress in the states and then  for the Lok Sabha, which is scheduled next March-April. The party is so power hungry that all other segments of society and the institutions will have to take steps to protect themselves.

I do not know why the regimental centres have to have a temple, mosque and gurdwara on their premises. These places of worship exist in those towns and cities where the regimental centres are located.  Those who seek the comfort of religion are perfectly free to go there. Why should the army allow religious worship in its places?

Yet much depends upon political parties. They cannot disturb the nation’s faith in the ethos of pluralism. This is our heritage from the national struggle and this is what we have enshrined in the constitution. Playing the Hindu card to counter Muslim funadamentalists is hitting at the very foundation of India. The nation even before winning independence said that it would have a secular polity and that is what we have been following, although not as firmly at times as we should. Purohit or persons like him among Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims are a symptom of diseased thinking. They are a danger to the country’s integrity. It’s a pity that for the sake of votes some political parties are encouraging them even at the expense of the country’s unity. My experience says that they will not go very far.

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