Thursday, July 23, 2015

With due honour - It is important to value the sacrifice of soldiers

Not very long ago, what struck one on return from an overseas visit was the sheer shoddiness of the Delhi international airport along with all that is associated with an overseas arrival, namely immigration, customs, baggage retrieval and, indeed, the mayhem of touts and taxis outside. In all fairness, we have come some way from that embarrassing past and today the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi is amongst the finest. Alongside that, much has changed for the better in the clearance of arrival formalities, although the same can hardly be said once one is outside the terminal building.
But it is not airports and air travel that this piece is about, even though at the time of writing our infotainment industry is going ballistic over some airline flight delays caused by errant VIPs-quite forgetting that we are at the receiving end of a VIP culture in a hundred different ways in our daily lives. 

This piece, however, is about a culture shock that, to one's mind, is of far greater significance, since, in a sense, the very idea of our nationhood hinges on it.

This writer is no Anglophile, but he has been exposed for a few days to the deep respect and admiration that the British people have for their military veterans. This is effectively portrayed in the electronic and print media - which, uniformly, are of a very high journalistic quality. That has left a striking impression of the deep sense of nationhood of the British people. 

Then, to return to one's motherland and learn of veterans on relay hunger strike in some 50 cities across the country, with no air of concern on anyone's part, come as a shock of far deeper import than the earlier return to a shabby airport. To see life proceeding as normal not just for the Govt of the day but also for our parliamentarians (with one notable Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka as an exception), ordinary citizens and the media -which would rather cover scandals and trivialities - one is left haunted by a flood of disturbing thoughts and questions. More of that later.

Britain is in the midst of a four-year national commemoration programme marking the centenary of the First World War, to honour and remember the lives of those who served and were affected by the war. This national programme commenced in 2014, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and is due to continue till 2018. A befitting beginning to the programme was a work of installation art placed in the moat of the Tower of London, between July and November 2014, that consisted of 8,88,246 ceramic red poppies, each representing one British or colonial serviceman killed during the war. Poignantly, the title of this creation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was taken from the first line of a poem by an unknown soldier of the First World War. Whilst one did not have the privilege to see this homage in person, images were adequate to get a sense of the pride and honour that the nation, especially the successors of those so honoured, must have felt when witnessing this emotion-filled work of art.

Clearly, the British media are playing a major role in celebrating the spirit of this commemorative period through a feast of reporting and writing, as various events take place and historic milestones and battles are commemorated. The BBC has planned some 2,500 hours of television, radio and online programmes that include documentaries, drama, arts and music. More importantly, there are special programmes for children and schools, because it is in these cradles that, through the history of sacrifice, the spirit of nationhood is being nurtured amongst future generations. Not surprisingly, it was exciting to wait for morning papers or to watch programmes and to be treated to the many facets of this history, the battles fought and won or lost, the human and military side of those who took part and, not the least, the contribution that every member of society made to this valiant national effort.

But love and respect for their men and women in uniform in Britain is not limited to commemorations like these - they go far deeper. On one's way to have lunch with an old RAF friend at the RAF club on Piccadilly, one was surprised to see across the road in Green Park, a recent and imposing Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on June 28, 2012. It has not been seen on earlier visits. Intrigued by this rather belated memorial - which depicts seven crew members of an RAF bomber just returned from their mission, with the inscription, "For the 55,573 aircrew of Bomber Command who died during the Second World War" - this writer asked the RAF friend the reasons behind this belated honour.

It turns out that the controversy over the tactics employed by the RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War, when even cities suffered bombing, had resulted in this delay. The sheer depth of this feeling can be judged by how Winston Churchill - who had famously said of the Battle of Britain fighter pilots, "Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few" and who had, in 1940, described bombers as "the means of victory" - chose not to mention the role of Bomber Command in his famous speech at the end of the war. That the nation is able to overcome controversy and prejudice for serving the larger cause of honouring its uniformed sons, even after an internal debate of some seven decades, surely is a sign of the strength of nationhood.

With this background, one is left wondering whether we have any sense of nationhood. If it is there, where should it begin to manifest itself? Is there not a single cause that can unite this richly diverse society of ours for the larger good of the people and quality of our nation? Is there any better place for this than at the altar of those whose only mission is to protect national frontiers and provide us with security to get on with our lives and those of their predecessors who have either perished in this mission or are in the twilight of their lives? For these are the ones who have voluntarily committed themselves to an unwritten contract of unlimited liability to protect the nation and its people. Ironically, what we are witnessing today is not idealism, but benign indifference to the spectacle of our veterans returning their medals to their supreme commander and being forced to resort to dharnas and relay fasts across the country.

Not many of us may be aware of the fact that India Gate, originally called the All India War Memorial, situated at the end of Rajpath, is a war memorial to some 82,000 soldiers of the undivided British army who laid down their lives during the First World War. The structure beneath the memorial archway called " Amar Jawan Jyoti" is a recent addition after the Bangladesh Liberation War and serves as India's modest tomb for the unknown soldier. Once again, we are indifferent to the fact that a befitting memorial to our soldiers, sailors and airmen who have laid down their lives to protect independent India continues to be absent, notwithstanding electoral promises by political parties of all shades.

The sad conclusion is that we, as a people, care little for these sacrifices. This is reflected in the lack of interest shown by the pillars of our much-heralded democracy, be it Parliament, the government or the fourth estate. Even amongst those lakhs of red poppies that were earlier mentioned, some 82,000 honoured sons were those of our soil. But one recalls no reflection or recognition of this in our official announcements and certainly none in the media, when this was on display in faraway London. Indeed, no one bothered to reflect that these are the same sons of our soil in whose memory India Gate stands.

For their just demand of 'One Rank One Pension', an uncaring nation has forced our veterans to stoop to the level of resorting to fasts and dharnas. Yet, this writer believes that if an emergency were to confront this nation and a bugle sounded by the leadership, every one of these veterans will again willingly pledge their old commitment of unlimited liability for flag and country. One is at a loss to fathom why the institutions of our democracy are so blind to this vital pillar of our nationhood.

As national security challenges become both diverse and complex, it is vital that the one institution that will remain at the forefront of facing the challenges and keeping the nation state secure is not allowed to get corroded. Sagacity and sensitivity of the leadership and all institutions of our democracy can still pull the nation back from the brink. As it is, when the issue of Orop is finally resolved, it will be at best a pyrrhic victory, because of the huge wound inflicted by our democratic institutions to the izzat (honour) and dignity of our veterans and, by extension, to those waiting in the wings to join. There will be no victors and vanquished. Indian nationhood will have lost.

The inscription on the Bomber Command memorial referred to above reads, "Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it". For the sake of preserving freedom for future generations, it is the turn of our political leadership to display courage. Let this be a fervent appeal to the supreme commander to take command and apply a balm to the wounded psyche of the veterans and a call to our Parliament to pick up the gauntlet to repair the archaic model of the now broken civil-military relationship.
The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force



  1. It is indeed painful that the authorities turn a blind eye to the relay hunger strike by veterans at Jantar Mantar although it entered its 39th day and this govt will have to pay a heavy price for the indifference and arrogance shown to our war heroes.

  2. Air Marshal Sir, leave alone all the things, when a MP goes on TV and tells a Major, for the whole world to see and hear that the Major joined Army for free liquor and free ration what did ur today's counterpart do? What did today's COAS/CAS?CNS do? All the three shud hv demanded the MP's resignation or they themselves shud hv resigned. The Vice Chiefs also shud hv resigned. The deputy chiefs also shud hv resigned. Then there wud hv bn some respect for servicemen. How do u expect anyone to care for u when u don't care for yourself. Had u bn the CAS now, wud u hv resigned in support of all veterans fasting at Jantar Mantar? If ur answer is NO I wud appreciate ur honesty. If the answer is YES, well then u hv every right to write this article. Do u think any self respecting Chief of Staff in UK or USA wud hv taken such an insult lying low?

  3. PM se ardas hai ki orop jaldi se lagu kare nahin to agle election main tumhara orop banayange.

  4. Govt is willing to waive 7 Lacs Cr NPA of corp orates, MP, MLA and MLC want to double thier payment + perks, but these heartless creature does not have sypathy towards soldiers. The knew how play politics with their emotion and earn votes by eating whole share also.

  5. Dear sirs,
    The author has vividly elucidated the inertness and callousness and numbness of our government of course all section of society. this is very sad and pathetic scene, we ex defense personnel are enduring because we know the sanctity of nationhood brotherhood, we will never indulge in the violent activity

  6. The ex-gen vk singh should resign from the ministry for his army if he is the real commander. In the case of his d o b he should be chargesheeted and sentenced with court martial.

  7. Army,Navy and Air Chief should work this out.