Beyond Glass Ceiling: Minorities In Pakistan Military

Buzz over Hindu officers Kailash Kumar and Aneel Kumar’s promotion to the lieutenant colonel rank in February 2022 thrust into the limelight non-Muslims who have held top posts in the Pakistan military

Buzz over Hindu officers promotion to Lt Col rank in 2022 thrust into the limelight non-Muslims who have held top posts in Pakistan military

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In February 2022, Pakistan Army officer Kailash Kumar’s promotion to the lieutenant colonel (Lt Col) rank triggered a buzz in the country. Federal minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain congratulated Kumar on Twitter calling the Lt Col their pride with a hashtag in Urdu: ‘Pakistan for all.’ 

Hussain’s ministerial colleague, Zartaj Gul Wazir, described the promotion ‘proud moment for the country.’ State broadcaster Pakistan Television earlier broke the news about Kumar’s promotion, which made him the highest-ranked Hindu army officer in the country. Later, it emerged another officer from the community, Aneel Kumar, was also promoted to the same rank on the same day.

Samaa TV quoted Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations calling Kailash Kumar a ‘brilliant officer’. The News reported about Aneel Kumar’s work in remote areas of Pakistan such as Tharparkar, Gilgit-Baltistan, and the Hunza Valley. It added he was decorated for serving at the world’s highest post, Baltoro Sector. 

Lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who is among Pakistan’s most recognisable Hindus, congratulated the two officers and claimed the Pakistan Army provides merit-based equal opportunities to all citizens. 

Kapil Dev, a Pakistani human rights activist working for equal citizenship of the country’s religious minorities, tweeted the names of six Hindu officers of the Major rank. Pakistani Writer Shama Junejo tweeted ‘history has been made’ with Kailash Kumar’s promotion and hoped to see him promoted to the rank of general.

In India, the promotions received virtually no media coverage, and understandably so. India is a big country with much bigger issues at hand. Apart from the biggest global crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the media remained focused on the elections in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members of Parliament to a 543-member Lower House. 

The bellwether Uttar Pradesh election results confirmed that Hindu nationalism in India, with its antipathy to the Muslim minority at the heart of its agenda, remained ascendant. Hindu nationalists project themselves as saviours of Hindus, particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and use this as a stick to beat Muslims with. The promotions did not fit into their narrative or that of much of India’s allied media.

The rise of Hindu nationalism has coincided with a consolidation of the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)’s power in Sindh, the country’s second-largest province, where a bulk of Hindus are concentrated in. PPP has ruled the province since 2008 and sought to give the community much-needed political representation

Sindh remained largely untouched by the Partition violence. Places such as Mithi there have a Hindu majority and other parts of Sindh have between 49 and 13 percent Hindus. Both Kailash Kumar, 42, who was commissioned in the army in 2008, and Aneel Kumar, 41, who joined the force a year earlier, belong to Sindh. 

Sindh accounts for about a quarter of Pakistan’s population but together with Baluchistan, the country’s largest province in terms of area, contributes just 15 percent of soldiers, according to academic Shuja Nawaz’s assessment based on the perusal of internal documents. 

Soldiers from Sindh may not necessarily be ethnic Sindhis. Author Anatol Lieven has argued Punjabis living in Sindh since the British granted them land ‘have contributed a disproportionate number of recruits from Sindh. Pakistan has over the years been encouraging so-called non-martial Sindhis and Baluch recruitments by lowering fitness and educational requirements.

A majority of Pakistani Hindus lived in East Pakistan before the country’s breakup with Bangladesh’s creation in 1971. Bengalis were the single-largest ethnic group but constituted less than one percent of the Pakistani army till the country’s dismemberment. 

A far smaller region of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, whose demographic makeup mirrors Punjab’s Pothwar region where a majority of Pakistani soldiers are recruited, contributed six percent of recruits, according to Nawaz’s assessment. 

A bulk of soldiers are drawn from Pakistan’s Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Sindhis, irrespective of any religious denomination, rising through the ranks should also be seen in the context of the geographical recruitment patterns of Pakistan’s armed forces. 

The buzz over the elevation of Kailash and Aneel Kumar was similar to the one that surrounded Hercharn Singh’s commissioning as the first Sikh army officer in 2006. 

Pakistani journalist Mariana Baabar met Hercharn Singh, whom she described as ‘a symbol of the changing face of Pakistan Army’, and Hindu officers Danish Dhanani and Aneel Kumar, for an interview at Karachi’s Malir Cantonment in June 2008 for the Indian Outlook magazine.

She wrote the three ‘wear their religion on their sleeves with a confidence quite remarkable for their age and ambience.’ Dhanani and Aneel Kumar told her their sergeants assured them during training that they were free to worship as they wanted.

Hercharn Singh, unlike Dhanani and Aneel Kumar, initially ‘stood out like a sore thumb’ at the military academy due to his appearance. Many of his fellow cadets had not seen a bearded and turbaned Sikh before. 

Singh told Baabar his sergeant did his hand-holding to make him feel at home. He assured the young officer he was free to follow his religion. The assurance encouraged him to approach his commandant for permission to make a presentation on Sikhism. He got the go-ahead to explain Sikh appearance and symbols. 

Singh’s good performance at the academy earned him the distinction of selection for guard duty at the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The honour attracted global media attention. Singh’s family was flooded with congratulatory messages from Sikhs across the world. He felt vindicated. 

His family was uncomfortable with his decision to join the army. They wanted him to look after his father’s business, fearing a possible entry into the army would shut the doors on their visas to visit Sikh shrines in India.

The two Hindu officers told Baabar they too joined the army despite the opposition of their families. Their success helped change hearts. Danish Dhanani went on to serve in Wana during the Pakistani army’s anti-Taliban operation. 

Aneel Kumar told Baabar he hoped more Hindus would join the officer cadre. The two Hindu officers added they had become role models for young Hindus. Baabar wrote Singh had then set the goal of at least achieving the fourth fourth-highest—brigadier—rank.

He can go even higher. Baabar wrote rules do not even prevent him from becoming the army chief. Non-Muslims have held top posts in the Pakistan military after British officers led its three wings in its infancy.

Christian officers Noel Israel, now Pakistan’s ambassador to Ukraine, and Julian Peter, who also served as head of logistics, achieved the third-highest—major general—rank before retiring. So did Kaizad Manik Sopariwala, a decorated Parsi officer. 

The likes of Yubri Malven and Simon Samson Sharaf retired as brigadiers. Sharaf served as an instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy and School of Infantry. He was twice decorated as a battalion’s honorary colonel and was the director of doctrines when he hung up his boots in 2015. 

S K Tressler, a Christian, who retired as a colonel, served the Pakistani army along with his two brothers. He joined the foreign service after retiring from the army. In 1994, Tressler went on to head the academy that trains Pakistani diplomats. He later became a federal minister in Pervez Musharraf’s government. 

Rear Admiral Leslie Norman Mungavin has been the highest-ranking Pakistani Christian naval officer. He retired as deputy naval chief after 33 years of service. The two-star admiral opted for Pakistan Navy after the Partition. He returned from his posting in London as defence attaché to fight the 1971 India–Pakistan war. 

India took Mungavin as a PoW in Chittagong after the erstwhile East Pakistan city fell to Indian troops. A recipient of the third-highest civilian award, Sitara-e-Pakistan, his body was cremated in 1995 and his ashes were scattered in the Arabian Sea following a military funeral as per his wishes.

Christian officers have made their mark the most in Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Many of them feature in the galaxy of the country’s celebrated war heroes. 

Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, a Catholic, remains at the top of this pile. He had the third-highest bravery award under his belt when his country was decimated and stripped of its eastern wing in the 1971 war. Pakistan’s humiliating surrender to the Indian Army and PoWs added insult to injury. Officers such as Chaudhry provided the demoralised country with something to write home about. 

Chaudhry, so the story goes, was flying 3500 feet above sea level when it took a hit and caught fire. He somehow manoeuvred the burning plane and shot down two aircraft before landing back in his territory. Chaudhry is said to have come out almost unscathed barring his broken ribs. He was decorated again for his heroics.

Chaudhry tops the list of celebrated and high-ranking decorated Christian officers. Air Vice-Marshal Michael John O’Brian, a fighter pilot, has been among the highest-ranked PAF Christian officers. He went on to occupy the penultimate position in the PAF and served as deputy chief of air staff. 

Squadron Leader William Desmond Harney was awarded the third-highest military award, Sitara-e-Jurat, for volunteering for 14 bombing missions in the 1965 war. 

Air Vice-Marshal Eric Gordan Hall, who was decorated with Hilal-e-Jurat, Hilal-e-Imtiaz, and Sitara-e-Jurat, is also known for his voluntary role in the war. Hall, as the story goes, volunteered to use a transport plane, C-130, for bombings to overcome the short range of fighter jets. The mission’s success prompted 13 more bombing missions using C-130s. 

Wing Commander Mervyn Lesley Middlecoat, 31, too opted out of his deputation in Jordon to take part in the 1971 war. He was returning after strafing India’s Jamnagar airbase when he went to his watery grave. A missile hit his jet over the Gulf of Kutch. He ejected but fell into the Arabian Sea. 

Middlecoat was decorated with Sitara-e-Jurat for the second time posthumously for the Jamnagar mission. A Ludhiana-born Anglo-Pakistani, Middlecoat features prominently in Pakistan’s version of holding its own against a much bigger adversary in the 1965 war. According to the Pakistani version, Middlecoat brought down two jets in 1965 to earn the ‘defender of Karachi’ title.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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