THE INDIAN SOLDIER
My son, Arjun, has been fascinated by life in the uniform ever since I can remember. He used to pick out fighter jets from toy stores at two, choose books on tanks and naval ships from book stores at three and he could sit through an entire republic day parade at the age of four! Many of his painting are about soldiers or about fighter jets and battle tanks. There is no blood and gore in them though. His soldiers smile as they march along holding the Indian flag aloft. The skies are blue, the grass is green and the sun has a big smiley face! I have never bought Arjun a gun as a toy, but he continues to mesmerized by military life.When I realised that he was genuinely interested in knowing more about military life, I tried to channelize this interest. I took him to visit the NDA, the Tank Museum in Ahmednagar, bought him books on military life and took him for aerobatics shows. ‘Mamma, I want to be a soldier painter when I grow up,’ he used to tell me, his face shining with determination. I felt proud. His grandfather, my husband’s father was an officer in the Indian army, while my father was one of the celebrated freedom fighters of Goa. My son had inherited the fighting gene from both sides of the family. His father and I felt a quiet surge of pride when he declared his intentions to be a soldier though we never said it out loud.
These days though, I cringe visibly when he talks about becoming an Indian soldier. Someone once said that a nation that cannot respect its fallen heroes has no right to be free. I think India has reached that sorry stage. A group of enemy soldiers violate a nine year old ceasefire, walk into our land with impunity and kill and behead two of our soldiers. The head of one soldier is never found. Yet, all our ‘honourable’ polity can say is that the attacks were highly ‘provocative’! Provocative? Really? So when are we going to be provoked into retaliation? When a few more soldiers lose their limbs, lives and heads?
And this is not the first time either. Remember Capt. Saurabh Kalia? Yeah, the same Indian officer who was captured by Pakistani soldiers and subjected to tortures that I shudder to even mention to myself! His old father is made to run from pillar to post as he tries futilely to hold the state of Pakistan accountable for what they did to his son. The Indian state just does not care. Forget the state, even the privileged citizens of India do not care. Our idea of patriotism is to light a few votive candles, buy tickets in black for India-Pakistan cricket matches and wave a few cheap plastic tricolours! Once the match is over, we can then trample those very tricolours beneath our feet and go home and sleep in our cosy beds, our role as a cheerleader for the Aman Ka Tamasha show over for the moment!
India is a country where everyone has human rights. Rapists, murderers, child molesters, serial killers, terrorists, Maoists. Everyone. Except soldiers! They are paid to fight, remember? It is their JOB to die unsung and unlamented, to have their eyes gauged out, to have their dead bodies returned to their families headless!
A few years ago, all major newspapers in India splashed a picture on the front page. It is a picture that still haunts me in my darkest dreams. Some BSF soldiers were ambushed by a bloodthirsty mob of Bangladeshi villagers. The soldiers were killed after being subjected to the most inhuman tortures. The very telling photograph showed a dead soldier being returned to India slung on a couple of bamboos, like he was some kind of a dead animal! Yeah, that is the respect we bestow upon our fallen soldiers.
Even now, when I close my eyes and think of that picture, I feel like throwing up. I feel revolted by the attitude of our emasculated, spineless political leadership, by the selling out of our media that can fund meaningless extravaganzas like Aman Ka Tamasha, but does not have the will to follow up a soldier’s story. I feel revolted by the attitude of our thinkers, writers, film-makers, human rights activists, lawyers .. all the people who don’t give a red farthing for a soldier’s suffering. I feel revolted by the Indian people, whose idea of patriotism is to light a few candles and paint their faces in the colours of the Indian flag as they cheer the Indian cricket team at an Indo-Pak match and I abhor myself, abhor my sterile helpless, ugly rage that cannot do a thing to change any of this!
There was a movie called Dhoop that was released a few years ago, a very sensitive portrayal of the struggle that a fallen soldier’s aged parents have to go through to establish ownership of a petrol pump allotted to them. There is a scene in that movie that continues to be etched in my mind indelibly. The dead soldier’s parents are visited by their son’s comrade-in-arms, who fought along with him in his last battle. The mother cannot bring herself to speak for a long time. After a long, oppressive silence, she asks only one question, ‘ Did my son eat anything before he set out for his last battle’? The visitor merely shakes his head and she breaks down completely. She can only say one thing over and over again, ‘My son went to fight on an empty stomach. He was hungry when he fought his last battle’! I have tears in my eyes even as I write this.
I am that mother. I am every mother and I will never ever be able to tell my son with all my heart that if he chooses to become a soldier, his father and I would be very supportive of him!