Bhakti in olive greens

Lt Gen KJ Singh (retd)

Spiritualism of the secular variety comes easily to soldiers. I was commissioned in 63 Cavalry, an elite armoured regiment with martial races of Sikhs, Rajputs and Jats. Being a Sikh, I was assigned to Rajput and Jat squadrons, so my regimental religion was Hinduism. It continues even after retirement. While visiting the regiment, my wife chided the civilian driver for stopping in front of a gurdwara. She asked him to drive on, for always, we first go to a mandir. In the regiment, I used to hear Shakeel Ahmed recite ardaas loudly in the gurdwara. I also used to recite Durga aarti (tougher than Om Jai Jagdish Hare) and remember troops going silent at crucial points to test me. It was bhakti with fun and some mischief!

I got the first lesson in counter-radicalisation at Bhopal. We had an old, run-down mosque in an Army area surviving on our financial assistance, including the pay of the maulvi. When we thought of suspending assistance, the maulvi came to see me and asked me to reconsider it, cautioning that being a de facto station mosque, it could be monitored. In other mosques, troops may be exposed to Wahabbi strands of Islam. Having learnt this lesson, during my next posting at Hisar, we started a station mosque to cater to our Muslim troops.

While residing in Flag Staff Houses, it was distressing to see the guard and support staff praying in makeshift tin-shed contraptions. Col Rehman, my CWE at Hisar, helped me to design and construct a hexagonal Sarva Dharam Sthal, with different walls for separate faiths. This was replicated at the Sukhna Command House with improvements.

My association with mandirs has more significant milestones. Hanuman Tok at Gangtok is historic, as it is believed that Lord Hanuman had rested there while ferrying sanjeevani. This mandir, though on Army land, was allowed to be controlled by a body dominated by Rajasthani families. They had got their initial toehold by manipulating earlier Generals and had even inserted their so-called contributions in the mandir museum. As the Corps Commander, I was lucky to have Gen DR Anbu, who anchored the regaining of control and the complete facelift of the complex. It resulted in litigation but the high court ruled in our favour. The General applied preemptive measures to shield the gurdwara in Gangtok from such lobbies.

Mandir Marg in Delhi Cantonment had Hanuman Mandir, again on defence land, but under the control of a civilian committee with no accountability of funds. My pointsman, Brig Jai Singh steered the litigation well and we got the control. Despite vilification and volley of anonymous letters, we stood our ground. The mandir is now transformed and a treat to visit. I am reminded of a chance meeting at the Bagdogra airport with a learned judge of the Sikkim High Court. He remarked, ‘Hanumanji is always safer with the Army and compliments for the facelift!’

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