By Aritra Banerjee
Amidst the ongoing controversy surrounding the introduction of ballistic helmets for Sikh troops, the Central Government declared on Friday [17 March 2023] that all pilots of fighter aircraft and combat helicopters, as well as soldiers deployed in areas anticipating enemy attacks or defending critical installations, are required to wear full protective gear for personal safety.
According to Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt, Sikh troops battling terrorism have been wearing bulletproof patkas over their cloth patkas while maintaining their religious identity. Tank crew of armoured regiments also wear padded communication headgear.
Tactical helmets are a crucial part of flying gear for combat aircraft operations and protective gear for soldiers against enemy gunfire. Fighter pilots and helicopter pilots of the Indian Armed Forces have always worn helmets over their religious headgear for heads-up displays and communication, he added.
The MoD had previously issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) earlier this year to procure ballistic helmets specifically designed for Sikh troops, sparking a debate among religious and defence circles.
Some Sikh religious and political leaders opposed the move, arguing that wearing a helmet instead of the traditional turban violated the tenets of Sikhism and would impact Sikh identity. They also appealed to the Prime Minister to refrain from introducing such helmets.
Meanwhile, several defence and historical experts pointed out that Sikh soldiers had been wearing helmets in the past. They also cited the example of personal equipment Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army used.
What Did The Defence Ministry’s RFP Require For Sikh Troops?
The MoD’s RFP was for around 12,730 specially designed helmets to be worn by Sikh soldiers in the Army. The helmets have been designed to be indigenous, with a bulge in the centre to cover the whole head while remaining comfortable for the wearer.
The RFP stipulated that 8,911 helmets should be large, with the remaining 3,819 extra large. The helmets must withstand extreme temperatures and bullets and are being procured under emergency procurement procedures.
Until now, Sikh soldiers have been wearing ‘bulletproof Patkas’ over their turban for protection against bullets during military operations. The new helmets will cover the entire head, enabling unhindered use of communication radio, respirators, in-service night vision devices (NODs) and personal spectacles.
The RFP states that the helmets should be delivered in Kanpur, UP, with a minimum warranty period of 96 months for the Ballistic Helmet Shell and 36 months for all other components.
Last year, Kanpur-based Global Defence and Homeland Security Company MKU unveiled the ‘Veer’ combat helmet, specifically designed for Sikh soldiers. According to industry sources, MKU is perhaps the only company in India to have designed and developed such a helmet. The Veer helmet is compatible with the first-of-its-kind Modular Accessory Connector System (MACS), which enables communication systems, cameras on helmets, head-mounted sensors, and modern combat equipment like night vision goggles.
The helmet is also anti-allergic, water-resistant, chemical-safe, shock-absorbing, flame-resistant, anti-fungal, and lightweight, making it ideal for the battlefield or other operations.
Company officials have said that the Veer helmet has been dedicated to the spirit and valour that Sikh soldiers have embodied for generations in India and overseas.
Military Veterans Say Ballistic Helmets For Sikh Troops Are A Critical Battlefield Need!
Military veterans, ranging in rank from Subedar Major to Lieutenant General, gathered in February earlier this year for a meeting called by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) to discuss whether Sikh soldiers should wear helmets. The issue, which remains a subject of debate, saw veterans arguing that helmets are necessary for the safety and security of troops in modern combat operations.
The debate has caused anxiety among the veteran community, who fear that the use of state-of-the-art weaponry in future operations could put Sikh soldiers at risk if they do not wear protective headgear. Combat headgear has been prevalent in the Indian Armed Forces for the past five decades and is an integral part of the weapons system for tanks, self-propelled guns, and infantry combat vehicles.
However, Akal Takht’s Jathedar Giani Harpreet and SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami had expressed reservations about requiring Sikh soldiers to wear helmets. In fact, the Jathedar argued that making Sikh soldiers wear helmets over their turbans would diminish their identity and that the Panth (Sikh community) would not tolerate such a move.
Similarly, the SGPC president has written to the Defence Minister that wearing helmets is against Sikh Maryada (sanctity) and that the proposal should be withdrawn. He has also argued that wearing a turban is a commitment of Sikhs to their pride and adherence to the Gurus’ command.
At the meeting, several military veterans spoke in support of the use of combat headgear by Sikh soldiers. Lt Gen. KJ Singh (r), former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Command, explained that decisions about acquiring weapons and equipment are taken with input from the entire rank and file of the armed forces. He emphasised the need to educate troops against spreading misinformation on the subject.
Similarly, Lt Gen PS Mehta (r) argued that the armed forces are sensitive to maintaining the ‘Maryada’ of all soldiers per their religious edicts. He explained that combat headgear would form a part of the war stores of the units and would not be used in a regular routine. He requested the Akal Takth to assist the armed forces by motivating Sikh soldiers to maintain their Swaroop (appearance), according to Sikh Maryada, since it is vital for the ethos on which the Armed Forces function. He strongly recommended the induction of combat headgear and all other equipment required to make the Indian soldier effective on the battlefield.
Major General Deepak Mehta (r) spoke from personal experience as a war-injured soldier. He said that he has always remained sensitive to the need for the proper equipment for troops. The veteran also asked Muslim troops and explained that many edicts in their religion, too, needed a new thought in consonance with modern warfare techniques. He said that the government is spending a lot of money to acquire these very expensive state-of-the-art combat headgears for the safety of troops and that this government initiative needs to be appreciated.
The meeting also heard from several religious personalities, including Gurvinder Singh Dhamija, Deputy Chairman, Haryana Punjabi Sahitya Academy; Baba Amrik Singh; Baba Gurpreet Singh Hastinapur; and Baba Naunihal Singh. Akal Takht Jathedar sent representatives led by SGPC general secretary Gurcharan Singh Grewal, who left the meeting after presenting a written statement opposing the introduction of helmets for Sikh soldiers.
The meeting had emphasised that turbans would continue to be worn with ceremonial uniforms, working dress, and fatigues of Sikh soldiers. Combat headgear would be a part of battlefield wear.
It may be pertinent to note that such helmets are compulsory for Sikh soldiers serving in the British, Canadian and Australian armies, and the induction of tactical helmets for Sikh military personnel in the Indian Armed Forces is considered the need of the hour.