NEW DELHI: Whispers of concern in military corridors about political tinkering with the secular structure of the defence services have found their way into print. First in an article by a former colonel and recognised specialist in military affairs Ali Ahmed in the Economic and Political Weekly, and more recently by senior defence journalist Ajai Shukla in the Business Standard.

The inability of the three military chiefs to cushion the services from political influence has been the subject of many a discussion, with officers referring to several incidents that have made the army play a role in activities it should have been kept away from. The construction of the pontoon bridges at the Art of Living mega event on the Yamuna river banks is the latest such example, with professional soldiers wondering how the Army Chief gave a green signal for this.

Several senior military officers have written in The Citizen and other media about the deployment of the soldiers as the first resort to quell the Jat stir in Haryana a few weeks ago. Instead of being the last resort, this became the first resort with the Army conducting a flag march with placards to differentiate itself from the other central armed forces that had been deployed in the state as well.

But while the above can be treated as matters of professional judgement, there is growing concern that the essential secular character of the military is being tampered with. And as sources said, dangerous as the Indian Army is trusted as a secular institution across India and while guilty of human right violations in border states where it is literally running the show, it has never been accused of taking sides in internal conflict on the basis of religion or caste. This despite the fact that the soldiers are drawn from conservative, religious backgrounds, believe in their respective faith and yet are trained not to bring this into the realm of duty. Again this despite the fact that army combat units still function under the old British classifications of Dogra, Kumaon, Sikh, etc regiments. And the unit is encouraged to pray and observe religious festivals.As Shukla points out, “Given the hazardous conditions in which many army units function, these institutions provide soldiers the spiritual framework they need. Occasionally, especially in combat, they discharge the last rites of soldiers whose luck ran out.”

Shukla who also served in the Army before becoming a journalist/writer notes: “This powerful religious framework is infused with a unique secularism. Much of this stems from the army's officers, who have displayed a remarkable institutional ability to adapt to the religion of their troops. To cite my own case, I was a Hindu Brahmin (albeit non-practising) officer who was commissioned into a Sikh sub-unit. Over years of attending prayers with my Sikh troops, celebrating festivals with them and invoking the Waheguru before and after every important event, my Brahmin identity (such as it was!) was effectively immersed into a new Sikh one. To this day, 15 years after leaving my sardars, I am as much Sikh as Hindu in religious observance and ceremony. This is true for tens of thousands of officers who have, over the decades, subordinated their original Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and animist identities to the religion of their troops. The spiritual outlook of the army's rank and file could not but have been moulded by this conspicuous, on-going demonstration by their officers of a community identity that over-rides personal faith. This unique, amalgamated faith might well be called Armyism.”

But then he like Ahmed, and countless other officers who are murmuring concern, goes on to point out that this foundation is being “potentially destabilised.” He points to the pontoon bridges built by the Army for BJP crony Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But traces the beginning of this gradual politicisation to June 21 last year when as he writes, “the Indian armed forces were shoehorned into celebrating International Yoga Day, with tens of thousands of soldiers filling up the numbers in an event that overtly aimed to establish a world record. True, the UN General Assembly had adopted this event through a resolution in December 2014, but that was at India's behest. Furthermore, it was scheduled on the death anniversary of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologue, K B Hedgewar. The military chiefs were aware, or should have been, that Muslim organisations, including the moderate Muslim Personal Law Board, had expressed alarm at what they considered right-wing Hindutva sponsorship of yoga, the singing of Vande Mataram in schools, and the performance of Surya Namaskar - also a yoga asana.

There are powerful arguments on both sides about whether these activities are a part of Indian culture, or Hindu, or both, since these are not mutually exclusive. That is not the point. What is crucial is that the three service chiefs (who dutifully performed their asanas behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi) allowed their services to be sucked into controversy.”Having opened the gates, it becomes that much harder to guard them.”

Ahmed writes of the 250 Army soldiers sent to participate in Ramdev’s event in Haridwar. They were to be trained as yoga teachers to spread yoga through the barracks. As he notes, ““The problem is not so much yoga as much as the army’s institutional association with Ramdev’s organisation. Ramdev is controversial, with his business deals having come in for investigative scrutiny. The premises in Haridwar where the army men spent a couple of weeks had hosted a convention for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 2014 (Trivedi 2014). Shukla also reiterates this fact pointing out, “It is nobody's argument that the army should remain at a remove from anything even faintly religious, particularly if it is Hindu. Over the years, army engineers have built pontoon bridges over the Ganga and the Yamuna for the once-in-12-years Kumbh Mela in Allahabad; and the army provides security for the Amarnath Yatra in south Kashmir every year, despite its daunting counter-insurgency responsibilities. These are truly public, cultural events worthy of the army's attention; not attention-grabbing jamborees like International Yoga Day or the World Cultural Festival.”

Shukla concludes, “Dismissing these concerns is easy, but that would be immensely damaging to the army and its reputation as an honest broker. Ali Ahmed, a staunchly secular former army officer, in an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, has invoked the troubling prospect of a country in which the military has been insidiously "reset" by infusing it with the ethos of majoritarian nationalism. With the right wing forces anticipating that their "makeover of India" would not be a peaceful exercise, they would like a placid military that watches from the side-lines as the storm troopers of Hindutva reshape the political and social landscape. These fears are growing.

Ahmed writes, “Is this politicisation underway? This is not politicisation in the usual sense of the term, a convergence of institutional and political interest of the military leading to its displacing of the government, as has happened in Pakistan. This is better described as the incidence of subjective civilian control in which the civilian ruling dispensation connects with the military by ensuring that the military shares its world view—in this case, that of Hindutva—such as is the case in communist states.”

Alarm bells seem to be ringing across the military establishment, now being voiced by two writers who were in the Army themselves and are respected now for their writings on the military and security issues. As a senior retired officer said, these developments are not healthy and the Army is being dragged into issues that should not be of its concern at all. “We are one of the last institutions to have survived the machinations of our political masters through the years, let us be,” he said.