Many cannons have been fired from the shoulders of our soldiers by unscrupulous politicians and news anchors under the protective argument that ‘soldiers are dying at the border and you refuse to sacrifice a little’
It has been nearly nine months that I have been working on the news desk of a national daily. One of the many advantages of my job is that I am exposed to a range of developments everyday. In return, my job demands active engagement with them i.e. to edit reports, fact check, and conceptualise and execute the page layout.
Not all days are the same, neither are news reports that come to the desk. Some are lively, some engaging and some…well…quite boring. However, at times there are certain reports that affect us in a manner that triggers emotions, which generally remain suppressed in the mundane routine that we are otherwise positioned in.
Over the course of my present job so far, some reports about our armed forces did the same to me. These were reports that travelled beyond the action on the border, the sanitised parades and ceremonies, the self-congratulatory debates of our politicians or the war mongering by a section of ex servicemen who are paraded in news channels as ‘veterans’ and ‘defence experts’.
Far from these, the reports that I am talking about are the ones that document the oft-overlooked human face of a soldier’s life which seldom finds space in popular media. They peep deep into issues like the conditions under which the soldiers are serving, how do they cope up with the trauma, what is their financial security, do they have any emotional support at work, is there any rehabilitation mechanism, what happens to their families after they die defending the country, does anyone care about the trauma the family members of a soldier go through, what does it feel like to protest on streets for your dues after serving the uniform for decades, to name a few.
The gripping image clicked in Gurgaon of an old ex-serviceman in tears because someone had moved him out of the queue he was standing in outside a bank, in many ways became the defining image of the Modi government’s demonetisation policy. It evoked widespread emotional response not only because he was old, but perhaps more importantly because after serving the country in uniform through his prime, he was brought to tears while trying to withdraw his own hard-earned money.
Similar scenes were witnessed during the one rank one pension (OROP) protests in New Delhi when handful of overzealous cops manhandled retired personnel .
Somewhere towards the end of last year when I was on the Haryana news desk I came across the story of Subedar (retd) Ram Kishan Grewal of Bhiwani district, Haryana. His name was in the news in November after he reportedly committed suicide in New Delhi for reportedly being denied an audience with the defence minister to air his grievance with the OROP.
His death had triggered a political storm with the Opposition slamming the government for its failure to address the concerns of the veterans. Likes of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’ Brein and others attended his funeral. Tall promises of ex gratia to his family were announced. Kejriwal said his government will give Rs 1 crore to Grewal’s family and a job to a family member.
Three months later, my colleague from Rohtak reported that these towering promises have withered away like the effervescence in a Himalayan river. Forget about the ex gratia, his aged wife and five children were struggling to even get the pension that the government owes them.
As if this was not enough, in came the videos of jawans exposing the inhuman treatment they are accorded with in the forces. Whether it be about the pathetic food they are served, ill-treatment by officers (more often by their wives) or the step-motherly attitude accorded to paramilitary forces despite facing the same hardships as soldiers in the army do, the message of helplessness was the same.
It is unfortunate that amid the din of blind nationalism (read as jingoism) that of late has started raising its ugly tentacles in our public discourse, the armed forces are often opportunistically exploited. Many cannons have been fired from the shoulders of our soldiers by unscrupulous politicians and news anchors under the protective argument that ‘soldiers are dying at the border and you refuse to sacrifice a little’.
Be it demonetisation, surgical strikes, the JNU controversy, award wapasi, et all, the armed forces have been dragged into the narrative with the sole objective to silence critical questioning. Not only are there attempts to silence critics by employing the nationalism hyperbole, but even soldiers who expose the glaring shortcomings of the government and the armed forces are ridiculed, name-called and dealt with a heavy hand.
This increasing tendency to reduce our soldiers only to their combat identity is undoubtedly the biggest disservice towards them.
Apart from a being a soldier, they are also sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings and friends. We are ready to swear by their name and use them as a shield to deflect criticism, but reluctant in addressing the everyday problem they and their families face.
The other side of a soldier’s life is often buried under the sound of bullet shots, the commands at the parade, and the noise that our politicians and their hanger-on’s create in the media.
When they are on an operation, in addition to overpowering their opponent, they are constantly thinking about their families back home. Because they know that there will be few to look after it, in case they fail to return. Periodic reports on the conditions of war-widows and their children running from pillar-to-post to make ends meet are a stark reminder.
Amid all this, am I misplaced in asking if we are slowly turning into a country that refuses to view its soldiers beyond wars, weapons and operations? Is it preposterous to ask if we are slowly being made to erase the human face of a soldier from our minds and replace it with an image that navigates only around guns and bullet proofs?
Hope my fears are unfounded.