M A I N   N E W S

Exservicemen take to streets
Army to remain secular, says Pranab
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, February 15
As Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee today sought to put to rest the raging controversy over the survey of Muslims in the Indian Army by saying that the Indian armed forces were totally “secular and apolitical”, a number of former defence officials and other ranks led by former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lieut-Gen Niranjan Malik (retd) took to the streets here, saying any religious headcount in the armed forces could undermine its apolitical, professional character.

After a protest meeting, an 11-member delegation led by former Gen Malik also submitted a memorandum addressed to President A P J Abdul Kalam at Rashtrapati Bhavan. They said the President should advise the government and the Rajendra Sachhar Committee to refrain from carrying out any task that tends to create divisions in the armed forces.

‘’We take justifiable pride in our contribution through sweat and blood in shaping the armed forces of today into an apolitical, secular, motivated and highly professional national institution. Any tinkering with the time-tested traditions of the forces, therefore, hurts us more and deeper,’’ the memorandum stated.

On other hand in a bid to lay to rest the controversy the Defence Minister while speaking in Kolkata said that the recruitment in the Army was not made on the basis of race, caste, creed and religion. “It is open. It will remain secular and apolitical.” Mr Mukherjee was in the city to chair a council meet of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). He added that the Navy and the Air Force had already provided the data on the number of Muslims they have and “we are taking up the survey in the Army, which had no such data till now.”

His statement came as the BJP and the RSS criticised the government decision on survey of Muslims in the armed forces, which they feared would affect its secular character. Yesterday the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had stepped up pressure against a government-sponsored survey of Muslims in the military and had petitioned President APJ Abdul Kalam to have it immediately halted.

The ex-servicemen in their memorandum to the President also said that the service personnel take a solemn oath for loyalty to the Constitution of India to uphold the honour and to safeguard the integrity and freedom of their nation. “This creates a bond far stronger than the bonds of blood, caste or faith. As individuals they are highly religious but as soldiers their faiths merge into patriotism’’.

“Even a perceived attack on the homogenous structure of the armed forces on consideration of religion will result in fragmentation of this precious national asset, the last resort of the nation in any emergency, and for orderly governance of our diverse society,’’ it added.

Pointing out that religious distinctions do not matter in the armed forces, they said political interference will destroy the cherished ethos of the fighting force. ‘’Whether at the entry level or for their development, the services follow the philosophy of fairplay and merit and not that of discrimination of any kind; not the least the one based on religion.’’

Earlier, the ex-servicemen gathered at Jantar Mantar for the protest after laying wreaths at the Martyr’s Memorial at India Gate. Former Army Chief Gen V N Sharma, Lieut-Gen S K Sharma (retd) and Air Marshal M S Bawa were among those who laid wreaths at the Amar Jawan Jyoti on the occasion.

‘’The armed forces attract volunteers. There are no quotas in the services for enrolment or promotion,’’ Gen Malik, chairman of the Conclave of Defence Veterans, said. Members of the RSS-linked Akhil Bharatiya Poorva Sainik Seva Parishad and Sainik Kalyan Manch were also present at the protest.

Yesterday after meeting the President, who is the supreme commander of the armed forces, BJP President L.K. Advani had said, “ it’s a very serious issue. Nobody has ever thought of holding this kind of an exercise which this (United Progressive Alliance) government has done.” He had also termed the survey a “shameless attempt to woo the communal vote.”

A seven-member panel appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had in March 2005 asked the armed forces to provide data on the number of Muslims in their ranks, the positions they held and their role in some key operations.

The Army has objected to the survey, saying it would send out wrong signals in what has traditionally been a secular and apolitical organisation. Army chief Gen J J Singh reiterated his objection on Monday, saying: “We are an apolitical, secular and professional force. That’s the way I would like to look at it.”

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