Book Review / The Sarkari Mussalman
Reviewed by Anil Bhat
Author: Lt. Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah,
PVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Pages: 202 in hardcover
Price: Rs. 695/-
Born on 15 August 1948 in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh, India, Zameer Uddin Shah, an alumnus of St Joseph’s College, Nainital, National Defence Academy and Indian Military Academy, was commissioned into Artillery’s 185 Light Regiment (Camel Pack) in June 1968.
Adopted by his mother’s sister, Zameer spent his first five years with her and his maternal grandfather, from whom he learnt horse riding. He began his studies in their family madarsa, where, he recalls, how writing on flat limestone paste covered wooden boards with bamboo pens, taught the children to avoid making mistakes and excellent penmanship. He was soon moved to St. Joseph’s college, Nainital, one of a chain of schools run by Irish brothers whose remarkable dedication, he acknowledges, influenced him lifelong.
Coming from a family with a 200-year history of serving in the defence forces, it was not surprising that he opted to join the Army and quips, “I was a horseman, and the Army in all its wisdom commissioned me to a camel regiment.” Before the 1971 India –Pakistan war, this regiment’s camels were shed, but interestingly, he had two more trysts with camels.
Zameer is the second and tallest of three brothers, Zaheer, the eldest, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Naseer, the youngest and none other than the talented thespian Naseeruddin Shah. The second chapter of the book is titled Living under the Shadow of a Celebrity Brother. Naseer, in his foreword of the book mentions how, someone watching them play tennis commented that Zameer could have been an actor and Naseer could have been in the army.
The author relates the incident in which what he felt was a “demeaning and despicable” term- ‘Sarkari Mussalman’- which he had heard his father being referred to as and which was used against him also. He decided to use it as the title of this book.
Over a career spanning 40 years, Lt. Gen. Shah served in many parts of the country including Ladakh and the North Eastern states, on which itself there is a long chapter in the book.
Another three interesting and informative chapters in the book are, (a) his tenure as Defence Attache in Saudi Arabia, (b) his participation in two operations- Op Parakram, following the Pakistani terrorist attack on Parliament in December 2001 and Op Aman to quell communal riots in Gujarat during February-March 2002 and (c) his stint as Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
While on Op Parakram, Lt Gen Shah was moved at very short notice to head a contingent of 3,000 troops to Gujarat. Landing at the Ahmedabad airfield by 7 am on March 1, they had to wait for over a day to receive transport and other logistical support from the state government. This delay, according to him, occured despite a request by him to then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who he met at 2 am on March 1 in Ahmedabad, in the presence of then Union Defence Minister George Fernandes. The Army with its impartial and no-nonsense approach, put an end to the riots within 48 hours. The Special Investigative Team appointed by Supreme Court concluded that there was no delay in requisitioning and deployment of the army, which, was a blatant lie. General S Padmanabhan, then Army Chief backed the assertions of General Shah, who he said, “could not be surer” about the events leading to the deployment of Army in Gujarat as he had mentioned every detail in the After Action Report on Op Aman. He briefly mentions about some eyebrows raised and questions asked as to why a Muslim officer was heading the Army contingent to quell riots in Gujarat, the matter was closed after the reply that the Indian Army does not at all discriminate on those grounds. On being awarded a Sena Medal for restoring peace and sanity in Gujarat, Gen Shah acknowledged that it was owing to the good work of his troops.
On retiring as Deputy Chief of Army Staff, he was posted to the Armed Forces Tribunal, Principal Bench, Delhi, an appointment on par with that of a High Court Judge. Approached by AMU delegates, he resigned from the Armed Forces Tribunal, stood for the election and was elected Vice-Chancellor of AMU.
This was at a time when indiscipline in AMU was rampant. Initially, he faced some resistance from a section of students and teachers. It was a challenging assignment during which he dealt with firmly and fairly, maintaining, “I always said, your freedom ends where my nose begins. Discipline is of utmost importance, and anti-national activities are intolerable.” Observing that the gap between children who came from madarsas, bridge courses were organized to teach them English, computers and more. The success rate of this bridge course has been 100% with the children, both boys and girls going on to take competitive exams, law courses etc. Moreover, it was seen that these children became the agents of change. “Theology is important, but it is also important to move along with modern times,” he believes. He retired from AMU in May 2017 and in 2018, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings picked AMU as India’s best.
The author’s description of life in the Army, the India-Pakistan war of1971, his recollections of the insurgency movements in Manipur and Nagaland, his tenure as a Defence Attache and the travelogue, all make for good reading. His observations, in particular, of the North East and as a Defence Attache are quite insightful.
Gen Shah’s further trysts with camels were while traveling in the Gulf and later during Op Parakram. While driving a car in the Gulf he had a serious collision with a camel, which resulted in it landing on top of the car and dying. And during Op Parakram, when a need was felt for using camels as they had been used effectively in special operations during the 1971 war, Gen Shah found himself training troops for camel-riding.
With reference to the title of this book, released at a time when politics in India, particularly related to communal matters has been at its worst of levels, the author’s thoughts and comments are on the one hand politically correct but also a reflection of what the ailments are and how they should be dealt with. It is a fact that thanks to a lot of highly organized scurrilous propaganda by Pakistan and its various and varied attempts to radicalize Islam and poison the minds of Muslims not only in Pakistan but very purposefully in India too, as well as lumpen elements at large in India, life for the Indian Muslim can be very trying. With the challenges Gen Shah faced during the Gujarat riots and later as Vice Chancellor of AMU, he has been quite proper in whatever he has expressed in the book. A significant recommendation he has recorded for Indian Muslims is proper education for the young and reform of madarasas, which should prepare students to be ‘job ready.’
Towards the end of the book, he has some valid praise for the Army as an institution honouring all religions but not letting them affect the discharge of duties in service of the nation. His tribute to sense of humour in soldiers is the inclusion of a collage of cartoons by a master artist and lampooner, Col A J Arulraj. The second last appendix of the book is Gen Shah’s open letter to the Prime Minister.
This book is a must read for decision makers, soldiers, academicians, administrators, students etc and not to forget, politicians.
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