Subedar Dilsher Khan’s Joshilaa ‘Ram Ram Saheb’
The Shangri-la of military cantonments
Almost every month my regimental warrior and fellow Veteran, Subedar Dilsher Khan calls me from his nondescript village in the dustbowl district of Saharanpur, an uninterrupted ritual that has survived for years. Each time the phone rings and I see his name, I smile to myself at the selfless gesture that really has no loaded intent, except for a heartfelt exchange of wishes and replay of regimental stories, that we have repeated endlessly – still it remains a moment to cherish.
His roaring exhortation in a booming voice, ‘Ram Ram Saheb’ (always louder than required, a combination of josh and perhaps his own hearing issues) sets the tone to update me about his horses, which he explained beautifully serve no real purpose, other than Shauq (pleasure), making perfect sense to me!
The Zamindar and former-Soldier’s unmistakable tehzeeb, dignity and correctness necessitate that he asks about the welfare of each of my family member in person and then endearingly derides his own sons as Nalayak bhi theek hain! The calls end with the di-rigueur ‘Ram Ram Saheb’ and I reply back with the same vigour ‘Ram Ram Saheb’ to him, as is warranted onto to all Subedar Saheban of the Rajput Regiment.
In the innocently cocooned world of the Indian Armed Forces where individual identities of race, religion or region are subsumed to the identity of the Regiment, Corp or Service – Subedar Dilsher Khan is just another proud Rajput soldier (from the 17th Battalion of the Rajput Regiment or ‘Barhe Chalo’) who fought gallantly for his paltan, his regiment and above all, for India, period.
He has other personal identities of religion and region, are neither denied nor frowned – they either remain personal or are collectively celebrated as they embellish, enrichen and strengthen the unit with its diversity.
The sweeping political winds of polarisation, bigotry and supremacy that poison the civil societies were kept outside the Shangri-La of Military cantonments, and the civilisational and constitutional majesty of the ‘Idea of India’ thrived, within. No suggestive or loaded insinuations of overt-religiousity were either made, encouraged or tolerated – no contradictions or confutations with one’s person faith or identity marks were felt, even as seemingly inexplicable cultural-leitmotifs were adopted by all.
Instead, a predominant faith was vested, internalized and personified in the pride (of Naam, Namak and Nishan) of belonging to the paltan. The regimental war cry ‘Bol Bajrang Bali Ki Jai’ sent shivers down the spine of enemy, as the fierce ‘Rajputs’ who could also be Gujjars, Brahmins, Bengalis and like, Subedar Khan, a proud Muslim, but still collectively and simply ‘Rajput’ soldiers, and true patriots.
In the winter of his life, Subedar Khan resides in the civilian milieu and faces the alien world of increasing ‘divides’ that now besets his life. Every personal identity mark, word or action has an unsolicited meaning for someone else – the innocent nirvana of the Armed Forces is just a memory to be invoked in occasional calls.
He never said it, but he would be torn between the India that he fought for and the India that he would increasingly see and live in – everything from physical appearances, food, clothing, faith etc. will no longer allow him to vest his belief and soul into anything other than what the fractured society will automatically decide for him.
Hereinafter, he may be allowed to be only one and not the other – in his ‘Uniform’ days, he used straddle many identities seamlessly, both personal and professional, with equal pride and justifiable élan.
Each Infantry Regiment has inadvertently adopted a dominant deity and the Kshatriya King, Lord Ram, has a deep resonance, reverence and inspiration for the fiercest warriors, Rajputs or Raja-putra’s (Sons of Kings). Thus, the social greeting adopted amongst its soldiers became a simple ‘Ram Ram’ – not necessarily religious in its narrowest context, but more culturally that affords no discrimination or divide.
But in today’s charged times the colloquial words, expressions, intonations etc. can be stripped of their innocuousness to suggest a far polarising or religious context – a challenge that afflicts the naturalness of Hindu soldiers praying in Gurdwaras of Punjab Regiment, Sikh soldiers in the Mandirs of a Dogra Regiment or Hindu soldiers helping out in the Eid festivities of a Grenadier Regiment mosque.
This reality of syncretic plurality that defined the composite ethos of the Armed Forces was sacred and unrepentantly unique - often beyond the comprehension and to the discomfiture of religio-political purists with the smallness-of-spirit, who usually resided outside the cantonments. But for how long could the proverbial barracks remain insulated from the morass, hate and regression of the revisionists, of all religions?
Last couple of weeks the mind swerved from pride, despair to hope as one heard about Rifleman Amir Hussain Wani’s martyrdom in Kashmir or Wing Commander Hilal Ahmed Lather’s role in weaponsing the prized Rafale fighters, as India’s Defence Attache in France – while Indian Armed Forces never communalise or view any martyrdom or contribution from the lens of religiousity, simply because it never mattered, but today given the societal narrative, it does matter!
The conversations, aspersions and reckless passions unleashed by religio-politico elements have led to hardening of stances that are puritanical and divisive of social harmony, it could also corrode the inner health of a proudly apolitical institution like the Armed Forces.
The public lynching of a Meo man in the ‘Millennium City’ of Gurugram or the roughing-up of another in Jaipur brought back memories of an interesting story in Pakistan on December 7 1992, a day after the tumult in Ayodhya.
Apparently in a small township called Niaz Baig, one retired Pakistani soldier, Bashir Ahmed Meo, had stood in between rioters who wanted to demolish a non-functional Badra Kali Mandir as marauding mobs sought their own notions of revenge. The Meo whose family had moved during the wounds of partition was given to a different nuance of his faith, as opposed to that of the mob, as he urged a irate mob of 150 about not just protecting Hindus but also their places of worship – much has changed since, but such was the syncretic spirit on both sides of the border.
Today Pakistan wallows and burns in the fire of extremist religiousity that it has assiduously fanned, and now consumes it too. His Meo brethren in the Mewat region of India prided on their syncretic culture that mirrored their Rajput origins with names, surnames, practices and ceremonies that gave away their past. So worried were the purists that the much-bandied Tablighi Jamaat sought remedial ‘corrections’ in the Meos to indoctrinate them towards ‘purer’ faith, and the larger circumstantial and societal moorings, obviously accelerated that process.
Today the ‘divide’ is sadly consuming our conscience, trust and civility towards each other as it seeps into every nook and corner of our national emotions and institutions.
As I mull the decay with much consternation the phone rings again….it is Subedar Khan and the steel, pitch and thunder of his ‘Ram Ram Saheb’ is still intact, I now smile dismissively and reassuringly at my own negativity and imagined fears. Clearly, we have survived and thrived for over 5000 years, the neev (foundation) of our civilization runs deep after having gently embraced, assimilated and celebrated ‘all’ without fear or discrimination.
The nobility of the civilisational, philosophical, constitutional and moral ‘Idea of India’, must be persisted with.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.