Thursday, January 1, 2009

INDIA SALUTES AND BOOTS ITS UNKNOWN SOLDIER

The Times of India annual survey to determine the Indian of the Year for 2008 was a close two-horse race. One horse was a distinguished police officer who laid down his life fighting terrorists who attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The second one was the silent protector of this nation donning the colours of one of the few institutions this nation still respects and admires.

As many as 26% of all respondents in an eight city poll chose the Unknown Soldier as the Indian that they looked up to above all others in 2008. 24% picked Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare who fell to the bullets of terrorists on November 26, 2008. In this telling statement, Indians overwhelmingly voted for the valour, patriotism and sacrifice of the man in uniform, and acknowledged his contribution to making them feel safe and secure in an India made vulnerable by its political leaders and the bureaucracy they run the country with, or vice versa. Equally significant was the fact that only two politicians, Narendra Modi and Dr Manmohan Singh, made it to the top 10 with just 6% and 5% of the votes respectively.

Will the Unknown Soldier feel happy that a grateful nation is not oblivious to his hard life and the ultimate sacrifice he makes for the country? This salute is all that ordinary citizens can give to him. They can give him no more. But is that all the recognition that a nation should give to him and then leave him at the mercy of an indifferent, uncaring and arrogant establishment? Should the nation keep watching as a mute spectator as he stoically suffers the insults and humiliations that have been heaped on him, ironically after India became a free country?

Enough has been written about the pittance that a soldier is paid. A lot has been said about how the generalist bureaucrats, with the help of politicians who know nothing about matters military and national security, have degraded the armed forces and pushed them out of the loop of decision making, to the detriment of the safety and security of the nation. Of late, there have been many reports in the papers about how bureaucrats have once again mischievously downgraded the military while finalising the Sixth Pay Commission Report, over and above what they had done maliciously over the years, destroying all known principles of command and control and functional parity.

This 13-nail boot that we have been giving to the living Unknown Soldier through our elected representatives and their secretarial support staff (babus) who have neither a constituency nor a command, has led to a great deal of resentment in the military, particularly at the lower levels. Worryingly, junior officers and men are beginning to blame their generals for meekly surrendering to generalists, the middle-men who have humiliatingly usurped the leadership role from those who lead men and are accountable, and become the real 'leaders' of this nation by deceit. They believe that the military top brass is culpable for allowing the huge erosion that has taken place in the relative standing of the military over the years. If and when their angers boils over, as it will if things continue like this, they will perhaps be the first ones to feel the unbearable heat.

This decline in the status of the military in comparison to the bureaucrats and lately even the cops does not auger well for the future. In this information age, everyone knows the standing that the military has in the US and elsewhere. It can no longer be hidden that what is being done to the military in India is quite disgraceful for a nation. It is no longer possible to keep conning the disciplined soldier and riding rough over him. Just because he does not threaten dire consequences and does not bring the nation to a grinding halt by organising crippling strikes and bandhs to get his genuine grievances heard, just because his training and his leaders make him remain quiet does not mean that the resentment is not there and growing rapidly.

Unfortunately, none of our politicians have even the foggiest of ideas about the dynamics that go into making a soldier and keeping him motivated to willingly die when required. His is not just another job, as many ignorantly believe it to be. It may be a voluntary military, but that is no excuse for taking what a soldier does for granted. It needs to be remembered that he is the Last Wall, the breech of which is not an option. Politicians may fail, bureaucrats may not deliver, the police may be ineffective; the nation will still pull through the mess. But, God forbid, if the leaders of the military fail to deliver due to a killing de-motivation that is beginning to attain alarming proportions or if the ordinary soldier stops responding to them the way he has till now, the scenario that will develop is unthinkable.

Worse than what the nation has done to the living Unknown Soldier is what it has done to the one who laid down his life fighting for a Free India. 61 years after Independence, India's politico-bureaucratic edifice has not cleared the building of a National War Memorial for him in Delhi. Even the existence of the imposing Imperial War Memorial built by the British to honour Indian soldiers who died fighting for them has not shamed them into building one for those who died for us. A rifle with a helmet on top of it, placed in the bowels of the British Memorial is the all that this country has done to honour and salute him.

Even as the dead Unknown Soldier silently suffers his nameless humiliation, mocked by those who died fighting for their colonial masters, India's civil servants are disgracefully heaping even abuse on him by building a grand All India Police Memorial in India's capital. When a nation can so nonchalantly honour its policemen and ignore its soldiers, one cannot help shake the feeling that its establishment is in the throes of a terminal illness.

The hostile attitude of India's bureaucrats to India's military and the indifference, even indulgence, of its political leaders to this dysfunctional, even destructive, systemic aberration, even corruption, is without parallel in the world. The way they have been and are booting India's Unknown Soldier is something that should shame all Indians. We need to realise that our symbolic saluting is not going to ease his pain.

India's citizens and its media houses need to do more than just give lip service by naming the Unknown Soldier as the Indian of the Year. They need to become the voice that he needs to get him his due. His own military leaders have failed him, thanks to the same training that makes him voiceless and capable of enduring great hardship and suffering without complaining. That is why we need to be the force that can publicly hold an informed mirror to the political leadership about where he needs to be and how he should be honoured by this nation. In life and in death.
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Readers may also read:
1. A war memorial for free India's forgotten soldiers.
2. Remembering India's Unknown Soldier
3. Military, bureaucracy and political leadership: Lessons from the US
4. 1000 times President's salary for India's babus!
5. Corrupt colonial India faces volcano
6. Making India safe: cosmetic changes will not stem rot.