This infantry veteran cycles to pay homage to 20,600 post-Independence martyrs
A personal homage to the martyrs. That is how Maj Gen Somnath Jha (retd) describes his 162-daylong journey on cycle so far. The sun is scorching and there is not a cloud in sight but Maj Gen Jha, with the handlebar moustache and infectious smile, pedals towards Pathankot.punjab Updated: Mar 31, 2017 17:59 IST
A personal homage to the martyrs. That is how Maj Gen Somnath Jha (retd) describes his 162-day long journey on cycle so far. The sun is scorching and there is not a cloud in sight but Maj Gen Jha, with the handlebar moustache and infectious smile, pedals towards Pathankot.
It was a few days before his retirement on September 30, 2016, that this infantry veteran from Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry decided to take on this mission. “I spent 37 years in the army and I’ve seen a lot of combat. As I was preparing to hang my boots, I was flooded with memories, both of battles won and friends lost. I lost many, many buddies in combat. Looking back I thought how it could have been me,” says Maj Gen Jha.
FOR 20,600 MARTYRS
It was then that the idea of this personal homage took root in his mind. While he was toying with the logistics, it struck him that he couldn’t possibly forget the rest of the bravehearts.
“Then I decided to extend my tribute to all 20,600 soldiers who have been martyred since Independence. I am cycling two minutes for each fallen hero, which means pedalling 42,000 minutes through all the 29 states because our heroes come from every corner of the country,” says Jha.
The veteran admits he was himself taken by surprise at his pace. “On Day 1, I clocked 85km and on Day 2, I went up to 125 without any aches or pains,” says the General.
It also helps to have a wife who decided to don the mantle of his tour manager. Chitra Jha, a life coach, insisted on accompanying her husband in a car. “She said she didn’t want to stay at home and fret about me,” chuckles Jha. “Now she arranges the logistics and ensures a home away from home for me,” he adds.
It’s been a long and arduous expedition through roads, good and bad, in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, thick jungles of the Northeast, undulating plains south of the Vindhyas and the dunes of Gujarat and Rajasthan, but the couple has stuck on. The General insists he’s not had any bad day. “People warned me against Maoists, wild elephants and rhinoceros, but I didn’t have a single unpleasant encounter,” says Jha, a third generation soldier. His meet-ups with locals everywhere, he says, have only reaffirmed his faith in the patriotism and generosity of an average Indian. “Every person I spoke to on the way could emotionally connect with my mission,” claims Jha.
Jha starts his day before the sun at 4am and tries to clock anywhere between 60km and 150km a day, depending on the terrain. After five months on the road, Jha says he is fitter than ever, having lost 12 kilos on the way. Easygoing in his diet, he grabs local fare by the roadside. By the way, he managed to dig into “makki di roti” and “saag” along with “kukkad” in Punjab.
The 26th state on his itinerary, Punjab, has been a homecoming of sorts for Jha who graduated from Government College for Men, Chandigarh, in 1978 and was part of the Panjab University cricket and swimming team.
THE HONOUR RIDERS
Though Jha likes cycling alone, he’s invariably joined by people eager to be part of the honour ride. And it’s not just men in olive who’ve been eagerly riding along, many others too get inspired. Fired by Jha’s mission, Balrajesh from Amritsar bought two cycles, one for himself and the other for his son Tanveer, a Class-9 student, so that they could pedal with Jha from Beas to Amritsar, and then from Amritsar to Gurdaspur.
Jha says he started his journey alone, but now he is joined by tens of thousands of Indians. “They may not be with me in person, but they are very much with me in spirit, I carry them in my heart,” says Jha, who is just 20 days away from his final destination, Amar Jawan Jyoti in Delhi, where he will pay his final homage on April 19.
Looking back, Jha says had someone asked him to undertake this journey a year back, he would have had his reservations. “But now I know if something seems daunting or even impossible, take the first step and it will get done.”