ONE of the most senior figures in the Army believes it is “absolutely fundamental” that members can practise their faith and be themselves, as he warned that the armed forces were “wasting talent”.
Hindus and non-Hindus from the Army, Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) and local communities gathered last week to mark Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu festival that celebrates the bonds of protection between brothers and sisters.
The Armed Forces Hindu Network held ceremonies across the UK and at each location, members of local Hindu youth groups tied rakhis (thread bracelets) on the wrists of personnel from local armed forces units.
Lieutenant General Andrew Gregory is the chief of defence people, which means he is in charge of skills, training and wellbeing of service personnel. During the ceremony last week at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London, he told Eastern Eye it was important that personnel could live their lives according to their values of their faith and their traditions.
“It isn’t always easy [to practise one’s faith] when you are in difficult situations. But that is what we are trying to achieve because then we will be able to take talent from all sectors of society and maximise that talent and develop young people, men and women, and watch them prosper within our organisation and I believe in that passionately,” he said.
“You must be confident that you can practise your faith in a way that follows your traditions, follows the rules of your society and your religion just as I want to do.
“The more we can understand each other’s faith and religions the better we would be able to do that. Because if you couldn’t practise your faith, you would say ‘I’m not sure I would be prepared to compromise something so fundamental’.”
Currently there are 950 Hindus serving in the Army, but Gregory said it was not as diverse as he would like it to be.
He added: “We should reflect society, because if we don’t, parts of British society will not see us as their armed forces and we will not be realising the talent in those communities.
“It’s all about creating an inclusive culture in which people can be themselves and will lead to a more diverse workforce. This is a huge priority for me personally and as an organisation because we are wasting talent.”
Krishan Attri, the UK’s first and only Hindu chaplain in the armed forces since 2005, said he gets calls about six times a day from personnel seeking advice on religious matters. The former Hindu priest, who was in charge of the northeast’s Hindu community since he arrived in the UK from India in 1986, said he often got calls from commanding officers.
“They were delighted to have a Hindu chaplin there, someone they could talk to about faith and cultural issues,” he told Eastern Eye.
“Time to time I get these calls from soldiers who get scared about being told to remove the rakhi. They say, ‘I don’t want to remove it, I would rather give up the job’. I tell them to stay calm and I’ll call their superiors to sort it out. When I explain its significance, they completely understand.”
Shir Chand, a sergeant who has been serving in the RAF for 29 years, said the rakhi reminded him of family when he was away on missions.
“We have, over the last 30 years, changed immensely. In the beginning, no way would you wear a rakhi while in uniform. You just weren’t allowed to.
“I’m glad we can wear it now. It’s a bond of protection. It’s that sense there is home, there are sisters, there is a brother, there is family back there. Nine times out 10, that’s why we got out, to protect the family.”
Manish Tayal, chair of the Armed Forces Hindu Network, and a medical officer in the Navy said the armed forces offer a great career.
“Despite what the perception may be, the armed forces, from my experience, is the one place that no one cares that I’m brown, no one cares that I’m male, no one cares I’m married and have a child. What they care about and know is that I’ll do the very best I can to do my job and look after them. It’s a family.”