Our army's past is not that of our politicians

  • Karan Thapar
  • |
  • Updated: Mar 30, 2014 08:12 IST

Last Sunday Vikram Singh returned home a full-fledged soldier of the 5th Kumaon. After completing his 'kasam' parade he had been granted two weeks leave before joining his 'paltan' in Jammu and moving on to Kupwara. His enormous pride and excitement in belonging to the army were visible and palpable.

I've known him since he was a boy of seven but the handsome soldier in his smart uniform who greeted me with a cracking salute was a new individual altogether. A year at the Kumaon regimental centre at Ranikhet, undergoing training after his recruitment, had transformed a shy teenager into a confident young man.

Vikram spoke of the Kumaon Regiment as his new family. This was clear from the subtle but significant changes in his Hindi. "Hum" was now his 'paltan', regiment or the army. "Ustaad" his instructors, for whom his loyalty is obvious. "Bahut tough" a challenge, not a difficulty, and "izzat" a code of honour shared by his new comrades, which excludes the rest of us.

Vikram recalled his daunting training, which often began at 4.00 am and included 50-kilometre treks with 15 kilos on his back, with evident satisfaction. He said it had taught him "discipline", a word he used with pride. "Ek fauji ki life civilian life se bilkul different hai", he said, and he knew this set him apart and made him special.

He's barely 21 and he's only been a 'fauji' for a year but Vikram now belongs to a world that's far removed from that of his family and friends. You can see it in the way he conducts himself, the unflinching look in his eyes, his crisp, starched clothes and, yes, even in the frequent use of the word 'Sir', not deferentially but out of polite habit.

Alas, Vikram's world is one our politicians don't understand and, I fear, never will. Their refusal to mark and honour the Indian Army's enormous contribution to World War I is telling proof. They see it as service to a colonial cause. What they cannot recognise is the complete commitment and incredible bravery that make the Indian Army the greatest in the world.

About 1.2 million Indian soldiers fought in WWI; 74,000 died, and 11 won the Victoria Cross. They helped turn the tide at Ypres and the Somme, at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, in Palestine and East Africa. Their victories created a new world and ushered in the age of modern democracy. Without them the war could have been lost.

The truth is our army is one of our greatest institutions and very possibly the oldest. In fact, our foolish politicians forget the Indian Army predates our democracy. Its modern roots go back to 1857 if not 1757. The history and pride of its regiments encompass valour and victories that occurred often a century before 1947.

This means the Indian Army is a lot older than independent India. Consequently, its relationship with the past is very different to that of our netas. Politicians try to forget history and rarely learn from it. Soldiers honour, remember and have taught themselves to benefit from it.

When he finds out, I'm certain Vikram will be instinctively grateful to the British for commemorating India's contribution as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War. But I wonder what he will think of our politicians who couldn't care less. Perhaps it will reinforce the difference between his new life in the army and the civilian culture he's left behind.

The views expressed by the author are personal


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