It will never fail to astound the unfamiliar just how easily India as a nation digests the deaths of its soldiers. A Lebanese friend of mine from Wales (where we went to grad school together) wrote to me recently. He said he was hoping to make a visit to India soon, but that he did not wish to impose on my time. Why? Let me quote him here: "You must be endlessly busy covering last rites of your valiant soldiers in Mumbai and Kashmir. I could not possibly pull you away from that
." I've written back to him urging him to take the next flight to India. You see he's Lebanese, and is used to a phenomenal amount of public respect for his country's armed forces personnel, when they are brought back to Beirut in flag-draped wooden coffins. India and Lebanon are two nations that are as different as they come, in every possible way -- historically, governmentally, economically, socially. And yet, how different really?
Well for starters, in India we are so deeply desensitized to the death of a soldier that it has completely lost its power to make us stop and grieve. Completely. The martyr's day ceremony at Amar Jawan Jyoti is a pipsqueak affair that the average Joe doesn't give two shits about. What should be a sobre day filled with memory and unstinted adulation for the sacrificial lives, is a non-event attended by the three chiefs and a handful of uniformed hangers on. A fauji
kid I know recently argued passionately with me about what Vijay Diwas really commemmorated -- it turns out that not only was she patently wrong, but that also hadn't a clue about what her decorated Colonel father received an Ashok Chakra in 1972 for. What I'm trying to say, simply, is that the person on the street has none of the mindspace for the soldier that he or she damn well should.
The commodification of the soldier is deep rooted. As a nation, we'd hate to admit it, but we consider the personnel of our armed forces far more expendable than others simply because somewhere deep down inside, we rationalise that the forces carry their worlds with them, and have the depth of numbers to cushion a handful of fatalities every now and then. And that, hey, it's a dangerous job but someone's gotta do it. The point is all of this applies to every other country and every other armed force in the world as well.
A seeringly simple example would be the "bhavpoorna shraddhanjali" banners that mushroomed across Mumbai during the terrorist seige, paying homage to the trio of senior police officers (Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte, Vijay Salaskar -- let's find someone who doesn't recognise those names) who were killed. It took at least five more days before someone noticed that this was brutally narrow. And so up came a banner, almost as an afterthought, at Churchgate, adding Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan's name to the trinity. There's no picking at straws here. I was in the city. It was an afterthought
. Thank heavens for afterthoughts.
The faintly disturbing thing about all this is that even systemic
insensitivity, which was long recognised as a snake coiled up within the innards of South Block, streaked naked across the Indian public conscience this year. Of course, I'm talking about Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw's funeral in Wellington (let's have anyone remember the date). The government's audacity in even allowing its real sentiments about the forces to show, sent the goodwill of mourners reeling. What a time they chose to do it!
I'm always reminded of a line from A Few Good Men
. And even though the officer saying it in the film is the antagonist, the sentiment holds just fine:
"We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use them as the backbone of a life spent trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said 'thank you', and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post.