Their lives on the line
Tragedy-driven rhetoric comes easy to us; it's far tougher to create and sustain genuine respect for our soldiers, writes Barkha Dutt.india Updated: Jan 18, 2013 23:28 IST
In the last few days the sound and fury that has amplified public anger over the killing and mutilation of two Indian jawans at the Line of Control (LoC) would have us believe that we are a country that cares deeply about our soldiers. The enthusiastic ferocity with which our leaders have plunged themselves into the debate would suggest that our military traditions are seamlessly woven into the fabric of our body politic.
I wish this were the case. Instead of thrusting the mercilessness of war upon young men and their families, if only we were evolved enough to build a genuine culture of respect for our soldiers. By definition, the easily expressed emotionalism of our rage - 140 characters on Twitter, the mechanical press of a click on Facebook or a forwarded chain mail - is designed to diminish in synchronicity with the fading of the headline. But the loneliness of loss in military families and the unimaginable burden that an obligatory stoicism places on them only registers once everyone else has moved on with their lives. And it is then that honour and a rightful place in the collective consciousness of a country can help make some sense of youth being snuffed out by violent death.
War-by-teleprompter or sabre-rattling from the long-distance comfort of a studio must not to be confused with giving our soldiers the value they deserve. But then it is much easier to whip up cosmetic concern than to actually tackle questions of attitudinal and institutional change. Former Army Chief General VP Malik, who was at the helm during the 1999 war in Kargil, has rightfully argued that the military must be given some space to provide inputs in sensitive areas of policy-making. That the ultimate authority will always belong to the government of the day should not exclude the legitimacy of the military's concerns, especially since it's their lives that are on the line.
In the initial aftermath of the eruption along the LoC, it was, for instance, not clear whether the government and the army were speaking in one voice or whether our politicos had any keen understanding of what it means for a 'paltan' to lose one of its own at the frontlines of conflict. There is a reason that the first priority for local commanders was to ensure that the cauldron of simmering anger and grief did not boil over; regimental honour is as primal a trigger in the fauj as family loyalty could be in the civilian universe.
The gaps in understanding are partially because almost none of our politicians has a military background or any visible and regular engagement with the troops. Contrast this with the US where 24 presidents have had roots in the military; where US President Barack Obama will routinely be on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan to meet US combat soldiers or where every family who loses someone in battle will get a personal letter from the president in tribute.
Here the fact that a hunger strike by the mother of a slain soldier was what it took to get political attention for her family says something about us. But while media focus was intense in this instance, there were more than 90 other army funerals last year that remained on the margins of public attention.
The psychological disconnect between a military and civilian mindset is also to do with how power is structured in India. Nothing offends soldiers more than the fact that bureaucrats who have never been in a conflict zone long enough to see a bullet fly get to have the final say in different aspects of military life - from procurement to pensions. This is despite a sustained street agitation by ex-servicemen to demand one rank, one pension.
Even something as basic as a national memorial for soldiers - a perfect way to make a nation's relationship with the idea of valour more organic - has been tangled and tripped by years of red tape.
First mooted in the 1960s, the proposal has never got off the ground because of political wrangling. It's at present stuck on a disagreement over whether India Gate - built by the British for soldiers who died in World War I - is an appropriate venue, ensuring more delays in an embarrassingly over-due debt to the Fallen Soldier. Despite shrill news headlines, we have failed to make military tales part of the popular imagination or our oral history. Where is a single state-of-the art, multi-media museum where we can take our children to reconstruct, for example, the Battle of Tiger Hill?
I owe my life to a soldier who pulled me away from a hailstorm of ammunition into the safety of an underground bunker in 1999. Since then - more times than I can count - I have seen the warmth, generosity, humility and humour of our men (and I hope one day more women) in uniform. They did not complain when they fought to reclaim Indian territory without snow boots, night-vision goggles, or even bullet-proof jackets. They didn't complain when their day's work was only to spend hours guarding eternal stretches of road in militancy-hit areas for explosives and mines, declaring it 'open' for safe travel. And they don't complain when they are called upon to do the work of the civil administration - build bridges during floods, rescue toddlers from open manholes and lead flag marches to calm hostilities in riot-hit neighbourhoods. They don't even complain that we barely remember them in peacetime.
It's far too easy - also lazy and destructive - to sit back and talk loosely about conflict. Before the 2003 ceasefire, firing along the LoC could claim as many as 100 lives every year. Why would we wish that again on any soldier? Tragedy-driven rhetoric comes easy; it's far tougher to create and sustain genuine respect.
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