For 18 long years and right through the contentious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans never saw a single image of flag-draped coffins coming back home to distraught families. At the time, the US military argued that this restriction was to preserve the dignity of the soldier and the privacy of his family. But many others — including military families and anti-war protesters alike — argued against a censorship that sanitised the human cost of conflict. The ban’s only motive, they said, was an attempt to control possible public anger. The policy was finally reversed by the Barack Obama administration in 2009.
I thought of the ironical contrast with India. There’s no ban here. But when the caskets are brought back there’s no throng of cameras either. And there are even fewer politicians. On the odd occasion when the headline is dramatic or has the attention of an increasingly fickle media, the news of slain soldiers gets prime-time focus and politicians are compelled into acting as if they care. But more often than not, the story of their death is told in the language of sorry little statistics that neither personalise nor humanise the individual. And the image of a silent salute sending off the Tricolour-draped box barely marks a blip in the transient memory of our minds.
So, you know that five jawans were killed in a militant strike in Srinagar. But do you know their names? Have the tragic accounts of their violent deaths made them persons in the public imagination, not just personnel? This time, the ruling National Conference was quick to issue a passionate, angry statement when the paramilitary forces shot a party supporter in the city, calling it a “cold-blooded murder”. For a Valley caught in the vortex of an old, familiar volatility, the disquiet in the Omar Abdullah government is understandable. And so is the absolute condemnation of the misuse of force on civilians.
Yet, there were no similar words of rage or grief expressed for the killing of the five jawans. Nor did any major state politician attend their funerals. The state’s main opposition party, Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, has led an aggressive debate inside the assembly over how the Afzal Guru execution has the capacity to rupture a fragile peace. Once again, no keen observer of the state’s politics will disagree with the legitimacy of that concern. But then, can’t the otherwise stormy assembly sessions find any space to debate the first ‘fidayeen’ (suicide) attack in three years? And shouldn’t there be a robust and transparent debate in the assembly around what the standard operating procedure should be for these men now that only 1/3rd of the deployed forces are armed after a spate of civilian deaths in firing during street protests?
Every life lost to the relentless cycle of violence in the Valley must be mourned; the civilian and the soldier, both. Our outrage can’t be ideologically selective, as it often tragically is in the polarised politics of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, it was only after enraged CRPF soldiers said that they felt “orphaned” by the absence of any significant political presence at the funerals of their comrades that the deaths got national attention. The J&K chief minister then placed a wreath on the coffins before they were flown out from Srinagar’s airport. And Parliament finally found the bandwidth to discuss the militant strike but only after the home minister had fumbled and tripped even over his ritualistic tribute, reading his prepared text twice by mistake.
This time the steady media attention ensured that the soldiers’ story was not pushed to the margins of political and public attention. But, while violence in the Kashmir Valley draws in the energies of the mainstream media, it is the interiors of India’s Maoist-dominated belts — states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar — that have become the major theatre of operation for the paramilitary forces. And yet, trapped by an instinctive urban elitism, the media doesn’t give adequate space to either the stories of the exploited tribal or the plight of the jawan in the forests of central India. Not so long ago the massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in Dantewada forced us to look at their dismal living conditions in these areas. Torn tents that allowed in both the heat and the rain; dilapidated police stations still unrepaired from previous Maoist strikes and eight hundred structures identified in an official report as “tactically unsafe.” Add paltry salaries (equivalent to those of a government clerk, with a couple of thousand rupees added for ‘hardship’ postings) and a depleting morale to the mix and you have an alarmingly high number of men seeking voluntary retirement from the seven lakh strong paramilitary forces. Government data released right after the Dantewada massacre shows that 14, 422 men applied for premature retirement in 2009, up 112% from 2007. In fact, while the CRPF and BSF don’t get to enjoy the stature that is accorded to other armed forces, for instance the army, in recent years their attrition rates and losses in action have been significantly higher.
The tragedy is that between flawed policy-making and public complacency, not much is likely to change any time soon. The absence of sustainable negotiated solutions and dialogue initiatives — whether in J&K or in India’s Naxal tracts — means that the jawan will continue to be cannon fodder for political failures. And it will take the next crisis or the next militant strike to bring back the focus on the foot soldier. The empty tokenism of our collective hand-wringing is just that. Unlike in America, there’s no official censorship policy to blame for placing an emotional distance between us and the death of our soldiers. Even worse, we just don’t care enough.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative. The views expressed by the author are personal