Nearly half a century ago, as a young subaltern of the Indian Army, I was so embedded in the military ethos that I kept an arms distance from politics. Anything and everything to do with the ‘political games’ was treated as pariah, occupying no mind space at all. Added to this was the military high that we were drawing from the fact that the Indian Army in fourteen days had carved out a new nation by splitting Pakistan and achieving the unprecedented military success of taking the surrender of the entire remaining East Pakistan army.
Back home who fought and who won elections never crossed my (our) mind. There were bits and pieces that we read in months-old newspapers reaching our far-flung incommunicado posts along the LoC. We read about an enamoured Leader of Opposition Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as ‘Durga’ in Parliament.
Although we do have a provision of postal ballots that we were encouraged to exercise during various elections, yet the logistics and paperwork were so cumbersome that most of the time it was an exercise in futility. Moreover, other than those posted in ‘peace stations’, many amongst us were hardly ever inclined to vote, primarily because we barely knew about the election process and the candidates other than a few “big” names.
While there were few religious fractures within the sociopolitical space, and even if there were any, we were oblivious to them, since our regimental ethos of ‘naam, namak aur nishan’ (identity derived from unit, fidelity towards the nation and our tricolor/ regiment standard) was so strong that such ‘aberrations’ could not find a place in our cocooned existence.
Perhaps the first visible signs of ‘open’ religious divide came after the Babri Masjid demolition when for the first time post-partition an ideological wedge was created between Hindus and Muslims. However, it had a ‘zero’ effect on the psyche of the armed forces.
I am reminded of an anecdote. I had just returned from Kashmir after a counter-insurgency tenure joining my family in the nondescript military station Raiwala located between Haridwar and Rishikesh. While post-Babri rioting was in full swing and Muslims were getting ghettoed all over, we drove to Rishikesh’s Trimbakeshwar Temple in search of a special ‘rudraksh’ nugget that my wife needed for some medicinal purpose. The shopkeeper at the base of the temple informed us that it was not readily available but he would get it delivered to us at Raiwala. He went aghast when I gave him my name and address. Very respectfully, he enquired if we were not scared visiting the holy Hindu dham during such violent times? I smiled and told him I am a fauji.
When it comes to politics, I suffer from an interesting paradox.
While I am totally divorced from politics having donned the uniform for a large part of my life, inspired by my three elder brothers who also served the Indian Army, Airforce, and Navy respectively and participated in the 1965 war, my wife, on the other hand, comes from a hardcore political family with her grandfather a freedom fighter who was sentenced to exile at Andaman cellular jail and her father also a freedom fighter, who was a member of the first UP cabinet and continued uninterrupted until the first split in Congress in 1969. Thereafter, Syed Muzaffar Hasan continued his forays in active politics as the UP President of Janata Party. I recall the hectic political activity that used to take place when I visited my in-laws during leave, particularly during Janata Party days in the late seventies, with Dr. CB Gupta, Banarsi Das, and a host of others including a young Mulayam Singh Yadav frequenting my wife’s home. So, here I was, occasionally in the ‘uneasy’ company of UP’s political who’s who at the time.
Although I had hung my boots in the winter of 1998, I could not vote, firstly because I did not find my name on the voter’s list, which was quite common back then. But the greater reason was my sheer disinterest built over years of watching the notorious political games played by the ‘Aya Rams and Gaya Rams’ and the ‘hire and purchase’ variety of politicians who were fooling the electorate with false promises, herding people into ‘vote banks’, creating divides based on caste and religion.
I had been groomed where my unit would postpone the havan pujan ritual just to ensure my attendance if I were on leave. And here, the so-called potential lawmakers were segregating people left, right, and center; a phenomenon that was alien to me in the army. So poisoned were their minds that once during a casual social gathering sometime in 1992, I happened to be in a conversation with a (Muslim) Member of Parliament where I casually mentioned that I had just returned from a high altitude tenure along the LoC and now I was in the Kashmir Valley for counter-terror operations. Prompt came his reply, “Oh, they just want Muslims to die”, leaving me bewildered and further stonewalled from the ugly face of politics.
The decades that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid were also a period when SP experienced exponential gains playing the ‘Muslim’ card to its advantage. The community getting disenchanted by the non-performing Congress and the dictatorial BSP naturally gravitated towards SP, which assumed ‘captivity’ of the Muslim vote, through sweet talk and clergy appeasement.
Things have changed rapidly, with a steady rise in Hindutva politics and fast-tracking of the Hindu-Muslim divide, until its culmination in Yogi Adityanath occupying the High Chair. But pre-2017 was considered a period of a ‘soft’ BJP with acceptable local faces in Lalji Tandon and Kalraj Mishra.
Influenced by the soft face of the BJP, I broke my self-imposed sabbatical of four decades and voted (ironically, in hindsight) for the BJP in 2017, to rise beyond the ‘vote bank’ ghetto, little realizing that by then that the Hindu consolidation was complete and a very virulent politics of religion was to become the new normal. The polarising events that followed got vicious by the day, compounded by the rabid anti-Muslim narrative deluging the social media including some sections of the mainstream media, shockingly equating/ aligning Indian Muslims to Pakistanis and/or barbaric Taliban. For the first time, I realized that the politicians had reduced my identity from an Indian to only a ‘Muslim’.
So what choices do I, or for that matter, any Muslim have for the 2022 Assembly Elections? Being under no romantic illusions the options get reduced to SP or NOTA. SP, not because it will come up as a messiah, but purely as Hobson’s choice. It makes me a reluctant voter.
Fasih Ahmed is a retired army colonel who served his country for 26 years. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.