Wednesday May 29, 2024

A Sikh in khaki uniform in Pakistan

By Mariana Baabar
January 11, 2016

ISLAMABAD: As all eyes were focused on an unusual sight of a Sardar Jee in Pakistan’s Rangers uniform at Wagah border during the beating retreat ceremony this week, memory goes back to the first Sikh cadet in the army, Hercharn Singh, who also turned heads in 2006 when for the first time a Sikh cadet and women cadets had taken over guard duties at the mausoleum of the Quaid.

“I couldn't believe it, no Sikh here could even imagine such a thing,” Singh had told me later in an interview, as he was flooded with telephone calls from the world over. A Sikh in uniform in Pakistan is also a reflection on how minority citizens are becoming a rare species here.

It was a two year of patient wait after he was promoted as a Lieutenant, before DG ISPR General Athar Abbas allowed a meeting in 2008 with Hercharn Singh at the Officers' Mess of Malir Cantonment, Karachi. Twenty-three years old at the time, Hercharn Singh the first Sikh officer was a symbol of the changing face of the army.

At the officers' mess, amidst smiles and a display of palpable pride, Singh begins his story from the day his romance sparked with the Pakistan Army. Like all such stories, it was ignited with a chance glimpse and an irrepressible tug at the heartstrings. It was nearly three years ago, and he and his friends had decided to apply to the prestigious National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore. On the way, they passed an army recruitment centre. Something about it spoke to him, perhaps. “But no one had any idea of a Sikh being allowed entry into Pakistan's military institutions,” Singh recalls.

Singh got admission to the NCA but he decided to visit the recruitment centre to make inquiries. When told the law didn’t proscribe Sikhs from the army, he promptly submitted an application, apparently arousing curiosity at the centre even then about the “Sikh who wants to join the army”. He was selected, in the process grabbing headlines countrywide. But his family was opposed to him joining the army, the elders wanting him to head the business of his deceased father. And then there was Singh's mother who believed a career in the army would shame the family. Shame? “All our lives our community had been ridiculed. Especially in the electronic media where Sikhs were portrayed as drunks, womanisers and villains. My mother said that I wouldn't be respected and this would bring shame to the family.”

At the PMA, the callow, sensitive Sardar Jee was baffled by some insensitive souls asking him to convert to Islam. “I wondered what kind of people are these who are not happy with the way I am, who offered to convert me. I didn't mind jokes about Sikhs because these are so common,” he says wryly. But at Kakul, with young cadets and their irritating inquisitiveness, it took some chutzpah to ensure his religion or culture was not compromised. But he had his sergeant on his side. As Singh puts it, “My sergeant told me I was free to follow my religion and that everything would be done to make me comfortable.”

Singh now did two things—he told his room-mate if they had to share a room they must show tolerance for each other's religious codes of living; his second act was daring and sagacious. He approached the commandant to make a presentation about his faith. “With the help of a documentary from the Golden Temple and my own literature I gave a presentation about the Sikh religion and culture. I explained why I looked the way I did, the symbols of faith a Sikh is never found without. Then I asked for questions,” says Singh, bubbling with confidence. “In the next two years at the PMA, no questions were asked.”

And so as days passed by at the sound of azaan echoed in the PMA, his room mate took out the prayer mat facing west, while Singh turned to his own sacred corner, where there were gathered symbols of the Sikh religion. Their prayers over, they returned to their chores, oblivious to the history they had created. It wasn't that the PMA proscribed other forms of worship; there simply hadn't been a Sikh cadet till then.

Did the induction of Singh, together with Hindu and Christian officers mark a revolutionary change for the Pakistan Army, while posing new challenges too?

The sheer enormity of this change can be gleaned from a reading of Dr Aneela Zeb Babar's Texts of War: The Religio-Military Nexus in Pakistan and India. She writes, “In Pakistan, the military officer is not just a professional. Placed on a pedestal, he is glorified as a hero. The public feels he is performing his religious duty.... All advertisements for recruitment in the Pakistan military and all publicity material start with Quranic verses.” Dr Babar quotes junior Muslim officers describing their motivational lectures, “We are taught that in the Quran one Muslim is equal to 10 kafirs and after every lecture, slogans praising God and caliph Ali are raised.” Will the minorities induction prompt a change now in the army's ethos, perhaps a dilution of its Islamic orientation or at least some understanding of those officers who belong to minority communities?

Singh at the time doubted whether many Sikhs would join the army, largely because his community is engaged in business with their counterparts in India. Army officers who have relatives doing business with Indians would be a major problem, Singh declares.

For Sikhs at least, an army career marks a snapping of the umbilical cord tying them to religious places in India. Singh, for instance, has given up on his dream of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar. “I am a Pakistani army officer now and I can't even think of performing my religious duties in India. Even my mother will not be allowed to go, with a son in the army,” he laments.

In 2008 when the Sikh together with Hindu and Christian cadets said that Pakistan was now a nuclear power with so many internal threats.” Many wanted to know whether these minority officers would kill others of their faith in a war?

“Of course, we will or else we will be killed. Even our mothers will not ask us why we fired, they will just be glad that we survived,” was the response. What about Singh? “Well, I have set my sight on wearing red pips, that is become a brigadier,” he says.

When I tell him that army rules don't debar him from the rank of Chief of Army Staff, his eyes glitter and a smile lights up his face.