My colleague Kadar
We, Abdul Kadar and I, joined the army in June 1947. 17-year old freshers from a school in a small town in Kerala, we were walking along a crowded Madras street in search of a job. Clad in dhoti and shirt, we walked bare-foot on the semi-molten asphalt road while the sun blazed above. We entered offices, invariably to be turned down with regret. They all wanted experienced persons, well dressed and with good personality. How could we have had experience when no one was ready to employ us for the first time? As for personality, there we were, lean and emaciated, dressed as rustics.
It was while roaming around the city, looking at signboards of business establishments, that we saw the army recruiting office. We were not very hopeful of being accepted, because our idea of a soldier was not what we were at that time. Anyway a trial costs nothing, said Kadar, and we ventured in.
The recruiting office was overflowing with young men in different states of undress. Interviews, written test, physical endurance test, medical test, all were going on at a hectic pace. Men in uniform, the recruiting staff, shouted orders and led the candidates from one room to another.
Viewing the scene, we were thoroughly disheartened. We compared the physique of the men around us with ours and were overcome with self-pity. We saw strong healthy-looking youngsters being rejected.
Nevertheless, we approached a man in uniform who looked at us with pity wrapped in scorn. Anyway, he asked for our educational certificates and we gave him our secondary school leaving certificates. That changed his attitude, as if the certificate was a magic wand. He showed sudden interest and took us to an officer who made us fill up forms. We underwent medical tests. Both of us were underweight, but the medical officer said that weight could be made up in a few days. Matriculates were scarce in those days and we were recruited as "sepoy clerks". We were given some cash and the required papers and were taken in a truck to Madras railway station where a military special train was waiting for us. We were told our destination was Ferozpore, Punjab, and representatives of the training centre would receive us there.
After a week's journey through different regions, the train reached Ferozpore and we were welcomed by the staff of the army training centre. The training centre is the nursery of the army. Here recruits enter as babies who know nothing. You are retrained: to sit, stand and walk military-style. We were issued with uniforms and equipment and allotted a cot and a wooden box in the big barracks accommodating some 50 men.
India is said to be a symbol of unity in diversity. But in the Indian army, the diversities dissolve into unity. Here recruits enter the barracks as Punjabis, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Tamilians, Telugus, Malayalis, etc. After training, they come out as Indians, speaking simple Hindi, relishing rice and roti equally, at ease in a dhoti or in a pair of pyjamas. Out they come marching in step, swinging arms, looking straight. Differences of short and tall, dark and fair, do not interfere with their measured steps. Differences of caste and creed, religion and region do not mar the geometrically correct rank and file formation. Integration becomes ingrained in their existence.
As mentioned earlier, we joined the army in June 1947. And within two months India became independent. Years later, when I boasted about it to a friend, he said the British did the wise thing; they could not have controlled the country with soldiers like me!
However, on the threshold of her freedom, India thought of us new recruits differently. Within weeks of our reaching the training centre in Ferozpur, communal riots broke out all over the North. Violence erupted in the town. We, who had never touched a weapon till then, were issued rifles and were converted into a 'peace keeping force'.
We marched along the streets, rifles slung on our shoulders, sending the fear of God into the minds of communal miscreants. No one knew the reality - that we were week-old babies in the Army, that our oversize jungle hats concealed faces on which hair had hardly appeared, that we did not know how to load the rifle or fire a shot. But the deception worked well.
Houses were burning and the streets were strewn with dead bodies. Men killed each other, often strangers. Like all insanities, communal madness too had no rationale.
After the man-made calamity, came nature's fury. Ferozpur was flooded. Some of us recruits were taken to the river Sutlej to repair the embankments. But the waters were swifter than we were; we had to run all the way back to the barracks with the floodwaters following us. And then we had to run from there to a safer place, collecting rifles and ammunition.
It was a gruelling march of some four miles. My friend Abdul Kadar and I carried our rifles on our shoulders and an ammunition box between us. The box was very heavy and I felt my arm coming off its socket. On the way we found a number of ammunition boxes abandoned in the bushes on the roadside. We had not been given any receipt for the box, nor would anyone have remembered that we were entrusted with it. I was tempted to abandon it.
"Let us throw this into the bush. No one is watching," I told Kadar.
"Allah is watching," said Kadar coolly. This enraged me. There I was, dog-tired and in pain. And he was involving God in my continued torture.
"I can't carry it anymore," I hissed.
"Okay," he said, as coolly as ever. "Give me the box. I will carry it."
Kadar lifted the box on his shoulder, and started walking as if nothing had happened. He was, in fact, weaker than me. I could see his suffering.
"I am sorry," I said and caught hold of one end of the box. We carried it silently all the way.
While we deposited our rifles and the box in the store, many others did not. The discrepancy, of course, would be written off as a loss in the floods.
Thanks to Kadar, I was spared the agony of having to carry a discrepancy in my conscience throughout life.
Those were turbulent times. People were shaken, mentally and physically. They were uprooted en masse. A number of Muslim soldiers, especially from the North, were opting for their promised land, Pakistan. For those who had their homes in areas that went to Pakistan, the choice was not difficult. But for Muslims whose homes were in the Indian part of the subcontinent, it was difficult to decide. Religion tugged at their roots. But socio-cultural affinity tempted them to be rooted in India.
I jokingly asked Kadar which country he would opt for. I knew he would not go to Pakistan, leaving his home in Malabar for a strange land with a different culture and language. I was only teasing him. But his answer surprised me.
"I will go to the country of Muslims."
"What, you fool?" I asked. "Why should you leave your home and dear ones in Calicut and go to a place where no one will recognise you? Why don't you stay in Hindustan?"
"Because I don't want to live in Hindustan. I want to be in the land of Muslims," he said with no trace of humour in his voice.
Strange, I thought. The fellow had not shown any special affinity to religion till then. In fact, no one would have known he was a Muslim but for his name.
After two days, he was called to the Training Centre Headquarters to give his option in writing. When he came back, I again questioned him: "Which country you have opted for?"
"The country of Muslims," he repeated as before.
"What? Are you joking?"
"There was no Hindustan in the form of an option."
"I opted for India which is the Motherland of Muslims too."
I believe it was from Abdul Kadar that I learnt the basics of secularism.
In 1947, we had never heard the phrase "national integration". Nor did we know much about secularism. Perhaps these lofty ideals were not named then. But in those few weeks when India was in the ecstasy of her newly-won freedom and the agony of partition, we, a few hundred army recruits coming from different parts of British India, integrated into a secular national force to pass out as the first breed of soldiers of free India.