Every country has its historical moments, moments when it rises to demonstrate its true character and mettle. July 26, 1999, was one such day when, faced with a sudden and unprovoked attack against the backdrop of peace talks, Indians from all walks of life united in their support for the brave men and women of our armed forces as they fought to first beat off the intruders, and then to win a proud victory.
We had a collective lump in our throats as we heard and read reports of what Lt. Saurabh Kalia and five other soldiers on patrol had to endure in Pakistan’s captivity; our tears welled up when we heard stories of bravery and duty to the nation exemplified by men like Lt. Col. Vishwanathan, Capt. Vikram Batra, Lt. Vijayant Thapar, Lt. Hanifuddin, Major Sonam Wangchuk, Rifleman Yogendra Yadav, Lance Naik Ghulam Mohammed Khan, Lt. Neikezhakuo Kenguruse, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and so many others who represent the diversity of India, and the grit and determination of India and its soldiers to defend India’s people and territory.
Thirteen years on memories have begun to fade, as they do for all historic events. But these men and their families gave up their tomorrows for our today, and that’s why it is important that we remember them and keep alive those memories of sacrifice and duty. In an atmosphere of corruption and malgovernance, when cynicism about the government is all around, today is a day to grab those memories and names from the hazy mist of the past and feel proud knowing that these tall men and women once stood amongst us, and died for us.
While there is much to remember and thank these brave men and women and their families for, as a nation we have much less to be proud of. Our commitment to the men and women of armed forces and their families is at best opportunistic. All these years later, as a citizenry, we are yet to build a National Military Memorial to honor their sacrifices even as we fritter away precious money on monuments to politicians and other symbols of excess and waste.
We still tolerate the sight of proud veterans of our armed forces returning their gallantry medals as a mark of a silent and dignified protest against the government’s apathy to their One Rank, One Pension demand. If not ungrateful, we have surely been delinquent in our duty towards them. And deliberately or through ignorance, we are diluting the sense of duty and service that personified the armed forces all these decades, and are, therefore, not attracting the next generation of heroes and defenders. I often quote to people in government and bureaucracy the famous line by Kautilya: “The day the Soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha. For that day on, you will have lost all moral sanction to be King”.
The relationship between us, civilians, and the armed forces needs a relook. For too long our politicians and bureaucrats have held sway over this relationship. They are managing it callously at best. But as we will seek the next generation of young men and women to risk their life and limb again and again in the future, we need to establish a broader relationship that will encourage and rekindle a sense of loyalty and duty that makes men and women proud to serve in the armed forces.
The British Parliament passed an Armed Forces Covenant, which is a form of a contract between the people of UK and their armed forces whereby an assurance is given that the families and personnel of the armed forces will be cared for by the people of UK. I have introduced a similar bill in our Parliament and it is awaiting discussion. I hope that it is passed and that it promotes a new relationship between the people of India and its armed forces.
In the recent past, our heroes have tended to be cricketers, film stars and, of course, political scions. Be that as it may, today is a good day for parents to take their children to a military memorial or even read out the story of the life of one of these brave sons of India. Let the children hear stories about Capt. Amol Kalia, Major Padmapani Acharya, Rifleman Satbir Singh, Lance Naik Satpal Singh, Havaldar Rajbir Singh and all the others from India’s small towns and villages who went to battle for us and left behind sorrowful families to cope on their own. Let these stories inspire a new generation of Indians as dedicated to this nation as the ones that we have lost.
And to the memories of these brave sons, let us bow our heads, say a prayer and salute them as a thank you.
This article appeared in Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle on July 26th, 2012