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In many senses, December 16, Vijay Diwas, commemorates the anniversary of an event that makes Indians believe the best in themselves. On the surface, this is the date in 1971 on which the War ended in Dhaka and the Pakistani army surrendered. That surrender of 93,000 troops marked the most comprehensive military triumph anywhere since World War II.
Yet, the date is not just about military victory and defeat; it is about principles and idealism, and the prism through which India sees itself - of a democracy prevailing over a dictatorship. In the late 1960s and in 1970-71, the Punjabi establishment in Pakistan began brutalising its Bengali compatriots. General Tikka Khan, the martial law administrator of East Pakistan, was so ruthless and so infamous that he was nicknamed the “Butcher of Bangladesh”.
Even so, due to Cold War exigencies, alliances with the generals in Rawalpindi or sheer apathy for poor, deprived people without a voice, the world didn’t care. When others with more resources turned a blind eye, India stood up ramrod straight. It provided a generous home to millions of refugees. Finally, its soldiers went to battle to liberate a nation crying for freedom. India stood up for what it felt was right, never mind if it stood alone.
Do consider the India that did this – a country led by a woman; a defence minister who was a Dalit and a first-generation achiever after centuries of prejudice; and an army that achieved a remarkable turnaround from a humiliating defeat only a decade earlier. The army leadership was almost cosmic in its configuration. The soldiers belonged to all communities and all regions of India. The principal generals were a Parsee, a Sikh and a Jew: three resolute men, each a legend in his own right.
Indeed, the selflessness, innovation and calibrated risk-taking that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora and, in the killing swamps as we approached Dhaka, Lt General J.F.R. Jacob accomplished, remains a rich legacy. It offers lessons not just in military strategy, but as a model of leadership in all areas of public life.
The men they lead responded valiantly. Take two examples, from different corners of India. Lance Naik Albert Ekka was born in a village near Ranchi, part of a Christian Oraon family. What was the higher calling, the supreme motivation that propelled him to fight to the last and sacrifice his life in the Battle of Gangasagar, deep in Bangladesh?
I have often wondered, even marvelled at the story of Albert Ekka of the 14 Guards Regiment – or that of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal,17 Poona Horse, son of a Brigadier and descended from a soldier in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, but just 21 when he found himself surrounded by enemy tanks at the Battle of Basantar. Left bereft of support, this young lion refused to turn back. He died in his tank, but ensured India won the day. Flg. Off. Nirmal Jit Sekhon, 18 Sqn, the brave Sikh who, while flying a subsonic Gnat, outdueled the much faster F-86 Sabres attacking Srinagar. All three men won the ParamVir Chakra, three among the four awarded in 1971.
Soldiers fight the battles and win the war; and then the politician comes along and claims the victory. This is so true in our country, where every national achievement is sought to be politicised and appropriated by one party or another. In truth, Vijay Diwas belongs to the Indian soldier; it is a grateful nation’s moment of thanksgiving to those who secure its today without thinking of their tomorrow.
How do we treat these brave men and, increasingly, women? It is believed at least 54 Indian soldiers still remain in Pakistan as prisoners of war (PoWs) from 1971. Occasionally, one hears stories of their families or of one of the soldiers themselves smuggling out a letter or being seen by somebody. It is wrenching, and utterly shameful. These are our heroes, they should be brought home with honour.
On December 23, 2011, following a petition spearheaded by Lt General Aurora, the Gujarat High Court ordered the government to approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to secure the release of these PoWs. A year has passed. In the Monsoon Session of Parliament, I asked the Minister of Defence if there had been any progress. The answer astounded me. The part of the judgement relating to approaching the ICJ had been stayed by the Supreme Court.
The stay had come following an appeal against the Gujarat High Court’s order by the Union Government. It did not want the ICJ to intervene in disputes related to Commonwealth members or armed conflict. That is where the fate of 54 Indian war veterans now lies: in a legal cul-de-sac.
The issue has continued to haunt me, as well as some like-minded friends. When news came of the family of Kargil hero Captain Saurabh Kalia’s lonely and heart-rending fight for justice, I was determined to do something, to send a message to the family of Captain Kalia that it was not alone, that we citizens cared for and cherished out soldiers and their sacrifices. Thirteen years have passed and the government has been unable or unwilling to take up the issue of Captain Kalia’s torture and murder with due authorities. Never mind if the government supports our soldiers or otherwise, the people and the nation are behind them and must demonstrate this. It is a solemn commitment we have given to Captain Kalia and his memory, and to every soldier who has worn a uniform for India.
That is why on December 7, 2012, along with Captain Kalia’s family and the Flag of Honours Foundation, an organisation dedicated to building ceaseless engagement between society and the families of our martyrs, I supported a petition to the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC).We have sought justice for Captain Kalia and urged the UNHRC to pressure Pakistan to investigate and account for what was patently a war crime. This is the least we can do.
From the Valhalla of Heroes where he no doubt is, Captain Saurabh Kalia will be looking down at us with expectations, as will Flying Officer Nirmaljit Sekhon, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal and Lance Naik Albert Ekka and countless others who have fought, bled and died for India. On Vijay Diwas, we must resolve not to let them down.
This article appeared in Mail Today on December 18, 2012