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Secular icon to buff up army image

New Delhi, July 3: The defence establishment today resurrected the memory of the late Brigadier Mohammed Usman ' a gallant officer who refused to join the Pakistan Army at the time of Partition in 1947 and fought against raiders in Kashmir ' and held him up as an icon whose patriotism was not shaped by his religion.

The decision to observe the martyrdom of Usman on a scale that is unusual on the 58th anniversary of his death allows army headquarters to refurbish its secular image after it took some flak for refusing to answer the queries of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee that asked for the number of Muslims in the service.

The committee’s report on the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in the country is expected in August.

But it also sends the message that the military does not want the national conscience to forget the “sacrifices” of its officers and soldiers who made huge gains on the battlefield.

The memory of Usman, who re-took Jhangar from Pakistan, rides alongside that of officers and troops who took the strategic Haji Pir Pass in the 1965 war. Some of the veterans of that war were present at the function today.

“Though a devout Muslim, he was a staunch nationalist,” said defence minister Pranab Mukherjee. “Once, when anti-India elements had taken refuge behind a mosque and the gunners were reluctant to fire on the place of worship, Brigadier Usman told his men ‘that mosque is no longer holy’ and ordered them to take it out.”

Usman’s is a story that is narrated to every officer in the army but celebrated most by the elite special force ' the 50 (Independent) Para Brigade. Lt Gen. Nirbhay Sharma, its colonel, who hosted Mukherjee and the army chief at the function today, put Usman on a par with officers who had led troops into inflicting heavy damages on Pakistan in war.

Ironically, many of the gains in the battlefield that were notched up by figures like Usman were frittered away on the negotiating table ' yet another reason to recall the “sacrifices” in Kashmir as Delhi begins preparing for the Prime Minister’s visit to Pakistan.

Usman’s gallantry used to be observed on a much smaller scale every year by the elite force, to which the officer shifted after the Baluch Regiment in which he was commissioned went over to the Pakistan Army.

Today’s programme marked the 58th anniversary of his death in the auditorium of the Defence Research and Development Organisation in front of army headquarters and was on a much larger scale ' it was attended by the defence minister and army chief General Joginder Jaswant Singh.

Vice-chief of army staff Lt Gen. Pattabhiraman and chief of integrated defence staff Lt Gen. Hardev Lidder, who are from the 50 (Independent) Para, were also at the function.

The rediscovery of Brigadier Usman will continue in October with programmes to be organised by the army in Kashmir. As one officer said: “The political symbolism of Usman meshes well with the politics of the UPA and the Congress.”

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