HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED IN MY LIFE TIME
I distinctly remember it. The Defence Exhibition was held at Lahore (Pakistan Now). The year was 1941. I had gone to see it and saw a Machine gun or an Artillery gun and a Tank for the first time. There was a ride on the troop carrier. There were posters all over with a Sikh Soldier in uniform with the slogan “ Ache Khurak, Ache Pushak , Ache Tankhaw” with the soldier showing three fingers. The posters were meant to encourage people to join the Army. There were similar posters with a Muslim soldier and a Hindu soldier’s photographs on these.
The war ended in 1945. The British Indian Army stood at 1.2 million strong. Nearly 300,000 were Sikhs. This was way disproportionate to their population in undivided India which stood at one and half percent only. Sikhs had supported the war effort whole heartedly as against other communities who gave partial support. Mahatma Gandhi and Indian National Congress had opposed it. Also, the British had accepted Sikhs as a martial race and gave them preference in recruitment.
India was divided into the dominions of India and Pakistan in August 1947. All the Muslim soldiers went to Pakistan and all the Sikh soldiers came to India. In 1947, Sikhs roughly formed 40% of the Independent India’s Army.
I joined the Military Academy in July 1954 and was commissioned in the corps of Engineer in June 1955. Though I had completed my civil engineering degree from Banaras Hindu University and had a good first division, I somehow always saw myself in a soldier’s uniform. It may have to do with the life saving lift the Sikh soldiers had given me (a young lad) in first week of September 1947, to the out skirts of Amritsar.
At the military academy, we were 200 cadets. 70 of them were turbaned Sikhs and a few more (6 or 7) had cut their hair. The army at that time was a non political and non religious organisation. Most of our senior officers had been trained by the British officers and had served under them.
The percentage of Sikhs was slowly reduced systematically in the army. Why? I will never understand. The community that had made maximum number of sacrifices for the freedom of the country and had suffered the most as a result of partition was being taken as suspect. Though, the 1973 Anandpur Sahib resolution had primarily asked for more autonomy for all Indian states, it was projected by the powers that be and the state controlled press and media, as a demand for a separate Sikh state.
Through an executive order, Shri Jagjiwan Ram, the Defence Minister of India, made percentage of the population of the province the new norm for recruitment to the Indian army. This way, Punjab would have less than two percent representation in the army. Provincial population percentage representation became the key criteria. Merit was no longer the criteria for recruitment.
An incident comes to my mind. In the 1965 war with Pakistan, Maj Gen Naranajan Prasad was commanding a division. In the thick of battle while his brigade was attacking the Pakistan forces on the Amritsar-Lahore Axis, Major Gen Naranjan Parshad, the brigade commander found that he and his skeleton HQ had moved too far forward. He quickly retreated and in that hurry lost his diary which was later captured by the Pakistanis possibly in a counter attack. The brigade commander’s withdrawal in the thick of battle was considered a cowardly act and he was immediately relieved of his command. This was certainly a blunder which deserved exemplary punishment but the officer was only retired permanently.
Now, compare it with Gen Hardev Singh Kler (a sikh) who performed excellently in Bangla Desh, in the 1971 war with Pakistan. He was court-martialled and dismissed from service, on a very petty charge, “Using govt resources for improvements in his HQ”. Having served in the MES, we are all fully aware that in the field areas , where the various formation Head Quarters have been there for decades, progressive minor improvements in the working and living conditions are got done by every commander. These are not officially authorised but are done the by local MES staff.
Another case of Gen Shaheg Singh, who was a hero of Mukti Bahini (a Bengali local resistance force) who again was dismissed from service, which made him “anti Govt of India” and motivated him to join Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala.
All what I have written above about discrimination against Sikh generals is based on news paper reports. I have no first hand personal knowledge of the incidents or exact charges levelled against each. I must admit and record here that throughout my service of 27 years never did I feel any discrimination for being a Sikh. All the instances stated above were handled at the highest political and administrative level. But one thing does come to my mind that the generals, who performed extremely well, never got their due.
Gen. Kulwant Singh, a brilliant Sikh Army Commander and strategist had opined in 1956 that it was the China from where India faced its biggest and real danger. Those were the hay days of “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai”. Pandit Nehru is rumoured to have read his report and commented, “The old man has gone Nuts”. But Gen Kulwant was proved right in 1962.
Gen Harbaksh Singh (Western Army Commander) performed extremely well in 1965 war with Pakistan. He can truly be called a saviour of Punjab, but was never elevated to be the Chief of the Army Staff. Similar was the case with Gen Arora (Eastern Army Commander), hero of Bangla Desh war in 1971. Over 90 thousand Pakistan Army Soldiers surrendered to him at Dacca. He was made to retire unsung. None of these two proven generals were given any award or plush post after retirement.
Then came 1984 and operation Blue star. This changed things for the worst. Leaving of Barracks by some soldiers of the Sikh Regiment at Ramgarh (Bihar) and killing of their commanding officer and also some reports of unrest in Sikh units who felt outraged at the attack on their central place of worship. Being the saviours of their country, they felt helpless in the case of their religious faith which they severe. All this had a very demoralizing effect.
The year 1986: The occasion was the annual Army Commanders Conference presided over by the Prime Minister and attended by all the army commanders and the PSO’s. As told by a Sikh officer who was then a Major General, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India saw many turbaned Sikh officers in the corridor. He asked the Chief of the army staff, pointing towards them, why there were so many Sikhs? “They have come up on merit sir”, was the answer. “Why do you let them come up” was reported to be the PM’s remark. This officer had already been cleared for promotion to the next rank. He got the rank, but not the command of a corps, which is the norm (you get a command appointment first and then the staff) thus disqualifying him for consideration for the next rank (Army commander)
It is to the credit of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, who appointed the first Sikh army chief. May be it was her upbringing in Italy which was free from the caste and class prejudices, which plague the Indian political system in the top echelons.
All efforts on the part of Punjab Government have not proved to be effective in getting the “Executive Order” promulgated by Mr. Jagjivan Ram withdrawn, though their alliance partners are in power at the centre.
The representation of Sikhs in the Indian Army has been reduced considerably. Drug addict youth in Punjab, are no longer physically fit for recruitment in the army. The standard of education is so low in Punjab that very few qualify for entry into the officer cadre of armed forces now. The picture is dismal indeed. We do hope that something is done to retrieve the situation in Punjab. The heart of every lover of the land cries for this.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2017, All