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Know the unknown soldier

india Updated: Apr 19, 2008 11:48 IST
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Ask us increasingly cynical and notoriously fickle Indians to name something or someone we still have deep and abiding respect for and chances are we will all have the same answer: the Indian Solider. We may have lazy scorn for our politicians, historic resentment of our bureaucrats and deep-seated envy of our industrialists. But show us those landscaped images of a lone jawan stoically standing guard on an icy, barren, mountaintop, throw in a few strains of AR Rahman’s Vande Mataram and watch our tears turn into a flood of empathy.

We push our military into duties that were never really part of its job description. So, apart from and in addition to fighting wars and terrorism, we count on our soldiers to play roles as varied as building bridges when the tsunami hits, keeping the peace during religious riots and even managing the now-epidemic condition of saving children who mysteriously end up at the bottom of borewells.

But if we are a country that really cares so deeply for its military, why is it that a monster called apathy is in serious danger of devouring the future of the Armed Forces?

This week, while we were all consumed by whether the Olympic torch would make its way safely past India Gate (built by Edwin Lutyens to honour the 84,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I), the Army Chief was making a trip down the same road. He was on his way to meet the Urban Development Minister, probably wondering — as many of his predecessors had before him— whether he would have any luck convincing this government to do, what the British had already done as far back as 1921. He was carrying a file that has now travelled through multiple ministries for seven years: the plans and architectural designs for a National War Memorial.

For the last two years, different government bodies including the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Heritage Conservation Committee have squabbled like recalcitrant children over whether the designs for the memorial are tenable. Could anything be a more shocking illustration of the stranglehold of red-tape around what should have been a flagship project for any government?

The designs for the memorial (the proposal is to build the structure around the canopy at India Gate) have been created by Charles Correa, easily one of India’s most venerable architects. Yet ask officials what has held up the green signal, and they will tell you it is a “lack of consensus” over how high the walls of the memorial should be. Have you heard of anything more ludicrous?

Admittedly, India Gate is a heritage building, and any new construction within its circumference would have to be aesthetically sensitive. But that is not even the point. Surely the question to ask instead is why military chiefs should have to implore different mantrijis to sign on the dotted line for something that should be a matter of intuitive national pride. We like to think of ourselves as self-confident nation, a global powerhouse that is hard to beat. And yet, a file to create a national memorial for soldiers who die in conflict has gathered cobwebs and dust for seven long years, and we aren’t even angry enough to ask why.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that cocooned in the embrace of the new economy and the surging sensex, we may like to be believe that we care about the ordinary Indian soldier, but at best, our solidarity is notional and feeble. We have passionate opinions on whether India is a ‘soft state’ or whether our governments are ‘tough on terror’. But beyond the sound and fury of drawing room debate, soldiering is something that happens to other people. We respond to stories of valour and tragedy with applause and tears but as the moment passes, so does our interest and engagement. It’s almost like watching a movie — for those three hours we are transported enough for celluloid emotion to tug at our hearts, but as the popcorn winds down and the lights beam up again — we know that our lives are elsewhere. Our engagement with the plight of the Indian Soldier is similar — ephemeral and maudlin, but essentially indifferent.

The PLU (People like us) brigade would no longer consider the military as a career option and many of those who did are now lining up and pleading for the freedom to leave. Ask the Generals and Admirals unofficially, and they will concede that they have to reject resignations, because the shortfall would be too dire to deal with. In Kashmir, there are already reports of ordinance and artillery units doubling up for infantry duty, because of the numbers crunch. And for the first time in years, the Army is actually considering a one-time emergency, short-service commissioning of officers to fill the ever widening gap. That’s how serious and morale weakening the situation is.

Like any other wing of the government, the military knows it can’t compete with the big bucks of the private sector. But, no matter, what your view is on the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, can you think of a single reason why the military has never had a representative on any pay board? Or why the military shouldn’t just have its own wage board?

The carpers will ask where it will all end. Tomorrow, the police and the paramilitary, they say, will ask for the same. The liberals will hurl phrases like ‘jingoism’ at you and say far too much fuss is made about soldiers. But chances are that they have never had to stand upright and tearless to salute a coffin draped in a flag. And the rest will say we are on the side of the soldier and forget all about it with the turn of this page.

In the meantime, the old school soldier will try and tell a generation that doesn’t care that everything is not about money. He will say that there are such things as romance and respect for which there is no other substitute. He will then open the newspaper and read about a country that has been debating whether we need a war memorial since the 1960s. And he will be silent.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7