SRINAGAR – In more ways than one, my posting to Kashmir in 2001 changed my life.
Back then, I was at the tail end of my two-year tenure in command of a Company. I had been in military service for 17 years and was naturally looking forward to being considered for a promotion as Lieutenant Colonel. Instead, the posting order in June 2001 directed me to report to a Rashtriya Rifles Unit of the Garhwal Rifles that was deployed in intensive counter-insurgency operations in South Kashmir (Anantnag). This was odd. Officers of my seniority and experience were seldom posted to serve in the Rashtriya Rifles. Besides, it was not even to our 21 Rashtriya Rifles unit, but the 36 Rashtriya Rifles unit of the Garhwal Rifles regiment, which we were not affiliated to.
Before the Commanding Officer could intervene and perhaps cancel the posting order, I decided this was providence. Something ordained by fortuity could only be lucky in the long run, and I chose to answer the call of the nation.
Thereafter, things changed quite rapidly. In about two weeks, bidding farewell to my family, I reached the battalion headquarters of 36 Rashtriya Rifles, The Gallants. As is the norm in a field area, everyone was warm and no efforts were spared to make me feel at home. Over the next one week, I had to go over the battalion’s Area of Responsibility. This was not easy. The unit was spread along the Bring River Valley amidst some of the most enchanting locations hugging the mighty Pir Panjal Range. There were some very prominent tourist spots in the Area of Responsibility as well as places of historic significance. My first impression was, how did this happen?
Journey Of Exploration
My journey exploring Islam and its origins started alongside my professional duties in Kashmir. During an area familiarisation visit, I met an Islamic scholar in a village near Kokernag. After enjoying his warm hospitality and a great conversation, I hesitantly asked him if he could let me borrow a copy of the Quran with an English translation. He readily agreed. I held the holy book in my hands and searched my host’s face, making sure he was lending it willingly. Human connections sometimes go beyond stereotypes.
The next few nights were spent reading the Quran. In fact, the book remained by my bedside at all times. Somehow the urge to know more about Islam took root in my mind and heart. When this journey of self-exploration began, I had no idea where it would take me.
Around the same time, I chanced upon Karen Armstrong’s book Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. I grabbed it with enthusiasm and could not wait to reach my billet to start reading about the life and times of Prophet Muhammad. It was a revelation to learn that Armstrong was once a Catholic nun. Growing in an orthodox Christian home and community, she had taken immense pains to research the life and times of the founder of Islam. Her book, published in 1991, attempts to bring out the common features of the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It vividly describes Muhammad’s journey from childhood to prophethood and his battle to spread his teachings. There are no stereotypical prejudices against Islam in Armstrong’s scholarly work, even when it explains the myths and practices prevalent in the Islamic world.
As I dug deeper into Islam and its principles, one thing became clear: all faiths essentially preach the same things and the commonalities between them are far greater than the differences. What we lack is knowledge and understanding of each other. In India, like elsewhere, a narrative has been built that Islam is a religion of terrorism and fundamentalism. This is not the truth.
My First Roza
My next step towards understanding Islam came in 2002. It was the month of Ramzan and the General Officer Commanding of the Corps, Lt Gen VG Patankar, was visiting us. While he was giving us a talk, he mentioned that Ramzan is the most important month for devout Muslims and so we should be extra careful during our operations, lest we hurt the sentiments of the locals. As final advice, he said that, if possible, all officers must try to observe roza, the practice of fasting, once during Ramzan and then try to motivate their men to do the same.
Once I had returned to my billet, I could not get over this suggestion by the Corps Commander. I kept asking myself: why did this idea not come to me? The thought got stuck in my mind and I started finding out more details about fasting. The answers to my questions came from helpful Muslims soldiers at my post.
Ramzan started and suddenly life took a turn in the region. Days started really early, with women singing and making sehri, the first meal before daybreak. Then came the long day during which people went about their chores without even a sip of water. The evenings buzzed with prayers and soulful music as families sat together for iftaar to break their fast. This continued for a few days and with every day, I was drawn further to the idea of observing roza. The thought refused to leave me, constantly poking at me.
One day, without prior planning or preparation, I impulsively decided to go ahead. I set my alarm clock at 3 am and went to bed. I must have barely slept a few hours, for the question “what if can’t keep this fast?” nagged at me. I had not fasted in all my adult life. Will I be able to go without water, tea and food for over 15 hours in the searing summer?
With those doubts swirling around, I woke up and prepared for sehri. It was difficult to eat at 4 in the morning. But, keeping in mind the long day ahead, I ate some leftover roti and sabzi. Once this was done, I was ready to start the day. The first few hours passed by without a hitch, mostly because of the great weather.
Then came the first test. Since I had vowed to do a proper fast, which means forgoing food and water without skipping regular work, I went for a long patrol with my troops, as had been planned for the day. It was a warm morning. At the places where we halted for rest, I would dutifully be offered water or the customary fauji chai. My refusal, despite sweating profusely, perplexed them. We came back in the afternoon after the long walk across the meandering Bring River and I was looking forward to what the rest of the day offered.
The real challenge was getting through the afternoon (no wonder the Arabic word Ramadan means “scorching heat”). I felt momentary hunger pangs and my throat ran dry, but I persevered. No way was I going to let myself down. Keeping my motivation level high was Kashmir’s sheer beauty. By lunch time my company had figured that the commander was observing roza. Some of them wanted to talk me out of it, but I made it firmly clear that this was my decision and I was going to follow it with full seriousness.
As the sun sank into the horizon and the Bring Valley changed hues, the local mosques broadcast the call to prayer. The community once again hummed with activity, with women getting the iftaar ready. By 7 pm, I sat with my Muslims soldiers to break the fast. We laid out our mats for prayer under the open sky, and afterwards took our first bites. The experience was revelatory. Never had I realised how sweet and delicious dates were. Nor had I tasted water this good. Small things in life, which we take for granted, appeared delightful after the day-long fast.
Gratitude And Humility
The sense of accomplishment that day was great. I had set a personal goal and achieving it brought me satisfaction. At the same time, I felt a multitude of emotions. I felt empathy and regard for my fellow citizens of a different faith, and a deep calmness. It was like reaching a summit and wanting to do more. There was an overwhelming sense of humility and gratitude after the social and spiritual experience. Just imagine being one of one billion people going without food for 14 to 17 hours a day, many for 30 days. This feeling cannot be easily described in words. I understood the significance of iftaar and why it represents a joyous meal: this meal follows one’s victory over their desires and showcases their solidarity with family and community.
That Ramzan, I observed roza five times and requested all my men to fast at least once. I was glad to see that most of them heeded my wish. It was an experience that most of us would never forget, it was like finding our moral compass. That small gesture of solidarity with fellow citizens went a long way towards inter-faith harmony. More so because, for the Army soldiers from the hills of Garhwal, fasting for Ramazan was a unique event. Come Eid, we celebrated with enthusiasm with the locals living close to our base.
Many of them had not tasted the halwa and puri made in an army langar (kitchen). We made tonnes of it and distributed it to almost all families in the vicinity. The Kashmiris are great and warm hosts. They reciprocated in full measure by treating jawans to some great Kashmiri wazwan. The ties of kinship established that summer stood the test of time. I went back to this place with my wife after 17 long years in 2019 and met many people who remembered that Eid and our warm association.
The Ramzan of 2002 was special and the sweet fragrance of its delightful iftaar will linger on in on my mind for a long time. – (SCROLL)