Prakash Javadekar at the launch of the Vidya Veerta Abhiyan in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, May 2: The Sangh version of Bharat Mata, a woman resting on a lion and holding a saffron flag against the backdrop of a map of India, today made its way to a government event where senior military officers paid homage to it.
A retired general chided the serving officers for participating in an event that promoted "a particular ideology", but another former officer chose to criticise the government for compromising secularism at an official function and said the officers had little option.
Lt General Sarath Chand, the army vice-chief, Rear Admiral Kishan K. Pandey and Air Marshal H.N. Bhagwat took part in the charan vandana (salutations at one's feet) to Bharat Mata at the launch of the Vidya Veerta Abhiyan.
The scheme encourages colleges and universities to erect walls and display the portraits of all the 21 Param Vir Chakra winners, recipients of India's highest gallantry award, to instil patriotism among their students. It was launched by human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar in the presence of junior defence minister Subhas Bhamre.
After the charan vandana, the programme witnessed the singing of Vande Mataram in full, including the references to the goddess Durga. The first two stanzas of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's poem have been adopted as the country's national song and contain no references to any Hindu god or goddess.
"This is rather unusual. There are religious places in every army unit; we go to such religious places as part of the army ethos. But this public event is a semi-political function," Lt General H.S. Panag, who retired in 2008, told The Telegraph .
"Here you are publicly displaying a particular ideology of a particular party. If I were a serving officer, I would have refrained from attending this event."
Former naval officer and defence analyst Atul Bhardwaj, however, said the government's increasing use of "communal motifs" at its programmes, where military officers too are invited, was emerging as a "challenge" for the defence forces.
"I don't remember any functions in the past where serving military officers had to pay tributes to symbols that are construed as communal," Bhardwaj said.
"If the government wants to use such symbols at its functions, what can the officers do? Such events will pose a future challenge to the defence forces to protect their secular and apolitical image."
He emphasised that the armed forces had always maintained an apolitical and secular image.
Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, who had led the one-rank-one-pension agitation against the BJP government, said there was nothing wrong in serving officers paying floral tributes to Bharat Mata.
"We participate in religious programmes in the various army units. We issue various war cries having religious overtones. If worshipping Bharat Mata helps us, why should there be any objection?" Singh said.
The Vidya Veerta Abhiyan was started following a proposal from BJP politician and former Sangh pracharak Tarun Vijay.
"One thousand universities and colleges will display the portraits of the Param Vir Chakra awardees. Every morning and evening, the students and teachers can pray to these heroes when they pass by the wall," Vijay said.
He exhorted students to consider military service as a career option. Members of Sangh student arm ABVP kept chanting "Bharat Mata ki jai" at regular intervals.
Javadekar said that campuses were expected to erect a 15-to-20ft-long wall with funds donated by students and teachers to implement the scheme: the government would not provide the money.
He condemned the killing of two Indian jawans and the mutilation of their bodies by the Pakistani army in Poonch yesterday. "There is anger in the country. The sacrifices of the soldiers will not go waste," he said.
Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav and Rifleman Sanjay Kumar, both Param Vir Chakra awardees, recounted their experiences of the Kargil conflict.
Bhamre said: "Everyone has the responsibility to protect the country. This initiative is aimed at taking the message to the youth."
He said the Indian troops would give Pakistan a fitting reply for the killings and mutilations.
Javadekar and Bhamre handed portraits of the Param Vir Chakra awardees to Jawaharlal Nehru University rector Chintamani Mahapatra, Delhi University vice-chancellor Yogesh Tyagi, Kerala Central University vice-chancellor G. Gopa Kumar and IIT Delhi director Ramagopal Rao.