Interview : Omar Khalidi
“The lack of Muslims in Officer Ranks is due to their Educational Backwardness.”
The current controversy over a survey of minorities in the armed forces, which raised a furore and provoked much criticism, is being attributed to a book titled, Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India, written by Omar Khalidi.
Khalidi, an American citizen and assistant professor at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, spoke to India Abroad, the newspaper owned by rediff.com, in its December 26, 2003 issue about his research investigating the structure and composition of the Indian Army and police.
Speaking to Shakti Bhatt, he discussed why the suspicion of Muslim loyalty in India is largely based on myth and why the Muslim presence in the Indian Army’s officer ranks is low.
How did you become interested in this subject?
Watching the armed forces parade during Independence Day or Republic Day, I noticed that there are regiments named after religious and ethnic groups, such as Sikhs, Rajputs, Dogras, Garhwalis, Gurkhas, Mahars, but no Christian or Muslim regiments. A personal reason was that one of my brothers applied for a commission rank in the Indian Air Force in the late 1960s. He was turned down. To this day, he and I are unsure if he was turned down because he was less qualified than others, or because he, as a Muslim, was considered a security risk.
How much are British policies to be blamed for forces being ‘ethnically skewed’? And how much are India’s post-Independence governments responsible?
The British colonial authorities did not inherit a national army of any kind from the Mughals, so they created what suited them. The colonial army comprised what the British designated as ‘martial races,’ Punjabis of all religions: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Rajputs, Dogras, Gurkhas and the like. They were recruited in great numbers because they were perceived as more loyal than other Indian groups. All post-Independence governments have tried to rectify the mistakes of the British. But they have moved very slowly in this matter, current being no exception.
Do you think Muslim loyalty has been suspect in India since independence?
Yes and no. No matter how much they demonstrate their loyalty to India, the Hindutva types are not convinced. However, I believe that most Indians consider Indian Muslims to be just as loyal as anyone else.
How much of this suspicion is based on fact and how much on myth?
Most of it is based on myth. I have kept track of press reports about Indians involved in espionage for Pakistan since the 1950s. My figures tell me that out of 39 cases, only three Indian Muslims were ever involved. This number does not include Pakistani citizens caught in India gathering intelligence for their country.
An even more pertinent question is: Are Indian Muslims capable of spying for Pakistan?
A categorical answer is no, as there are only a handful of Muslims in the higher ranks of the army and air force with access to classified information or intelligence. They have to walk on eggs. Most are more loyal than the king, trying at every step to be more careful than others.
You state very early in your book about the Indian government’s ‘policy of discrimination against Muslims.’ How did you first become aware of this discrimination?
No, I don’t think I blame the Indian government so categorically for discrimination. As far as the armed forces are concerned, I state that the lack of Muslims in officer ranks is due to the Muslims’ educational backwardness. This is true of the situation in the police and the paramilitary as well.
How much of a barrier is this factor by itself?
Very much so. In fact in the officer ranks, it is probably as high as 80 percent. The Indian government and Indian society at large is not responsible for or a cause of Muslims’ educational poverty. The reservation policy in the IPS (Indian Police Service), state police recruitment hurts Muslims more than upper caste Hindus, because Muslims are a lot more educationally backward.
What are the reasons for the educational backwardness?
There are four main reasons. The first is that the elite and well-educated groups amongst Muslims migrated to Pakistan in 1947, leaving behind farmers and urban unskilled workers. Secondly, access to good schools in India depends on your access to money and political influence. Muslims lack both. Third is their poverty and fourth, because many choose to go to madrasas.
And what about the cultural and social prejudices on part of Hindus and others against the Muslims that you addressed in your book?
Well, things like Muslims wanting to out-breed the Hindus and calling them ‘Babar ki Aulad’ (children of the Mughal emperor Babar) and so on makes me believe that factors of prejudice are not entirely absent.
What is your strongest recommendation to correct this problem?
The armed forces’ exemplary conduct is a great source of hope.
Our police needs to learn from the jawans and officers of the army. Most IPS officers are also impartial, but they have to follow the direction given by politicians in control of the government. So change must happen at the political level.
Omer Khalidi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org