THE SOLDIER, THE MARTYR AND THE MAN WHO HUNG HIS BOOTS
“There’s was not to reason why,
There’s was but to do and die …”
(The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
Sepoy Gurtej Singh, a 23 year old from Mansa in Punjab went down fighting at the Galwan river as only a Sikh soldier could, using his Kirpan to dispatch his opponents to the other world. For the family, their world came crashing down with his death. A grateful nation bade a tearful goodbye with full honours to the martyr. The state government promised financial assistance to the family. The media brought the story to our homes and then moved on to the next bit of breaking news. The village may possibly erect a memorial or a gate or name a road after him. The family will live to recount the saga of honour of their brave son/brother as the only salve to an otherwise unbearable grief.
One thing, however, is certain. In the days to come, the family of the martyr will be helped to pick up the pieces by none other than the Unit to which he belonged. The Commanding Officer will ensure that his family receives all the benefits that are due and help them tide over the trauma so that they can get on with their lives. The fallen soldier will not be forgotten by the Unit, ever. His name will be on the Roll of Honour along with his photograph in the Quarter Guard of the Unit for generations to come and for all his comrades to see.
On the icy heights of Ladakh, in the mountains and forests of Kashmir and also in the scalding heat of the desert, the soldier stands guard, protecting his country against its enemies. He is fully aware that a fate similar to Gurtej Singh might befall him someday and is proud to face it. This is what after all he had sworn to do when he wore his uniform for the first time.
What are his thoughts as he sees the crisis looming in front of him today and the happenings back home? Does he think about his family, Yes very often! Does he think about his country, Oh yes, often! Does he think about the job at hand, well, all the time! After all there is so much to be done! The weapon must be cleaned, the magazines must not jam in the middle of a fight, rounds of machine guns must be belted, tank and artillery ammunition as well as the guns cleaned, the ropes must be checked, the personal equipment and boots must fit well and be repaired if need be. On top of it there are the radio set batteries to be charged, the first aid kits to be refilled and of course emergency rations to be kept ready. Then there are the briefings, rehearsals and patrolling…. pray who has the time to even think about dying!!!
In the mofussil towns and villages of India there are thousands upon thousands of men who once served in the army. Most of them retired as Sepoys, Non Commissioned Officers and Junior Commissioned Officers. All of them proudly prefix their name with only one word that is universally respected, “Fauji”. The roadside eatery on the highway run by a retired soldier will invariably be called the “Fauji Dhaba”; the driver of the truck, if he happens to be one of them, will write in bold ‘Fauji” on the windscreen.
They are the silent majority of veterans, dignified, least vocal, proud and respected in their community. They are the connection between the serving soldiers and the common man. Countless young boys throng military recruitment rallies every month with a hope of becoming one of them someday.
Among the veteran officers there are some who left the army early, others left midway while many superannuated after completing the full length of service. All of them contribute in their own way towards the society and are generally venerated by the citizens. All of them have perspectives, have better access to information and are knowledgeable as well as articulate. Some of them appear in the media and give their valuable views.
“Old soldiers never die,
Never die, never die,
Old soldiers never die,
They simply fade away”
(British army soldiers’ folklore song)
…BUT SOME PREFER TO TREAD IN POLITICS
To the common citizen, the veterans appearing in the media or postulating in gatherings as subject matter experts represent the military itself as he does not get to hear from the serving officers’ fraternity for obvious reasons. The word of the veterans therefore has immense significance for the citizens who are not so much aware of matters military and taken for what it is.
However, seeing some of them taking sides in openly politically partisan or communally charged debates is disconcerting to the public at large, to say the least and does not show the military establishment in good light. Frequent sniping to score points and vicious personal attacks on each other in full media glare must be giving a sense of dismay to those in service at the frontline. Some of them frequently trip over each other trying to prove how much more they know than the others, unwittingly revealing militarily sensitive information which should be best kept with the military and no one else.
Some very senior veterans who were highly respected while in service by their colleagues and juniors alike at times seem to lose their sense of balance in a desperate attempt to win an argument. Otherwise why on earth would someone take to abusive or derogatory language on public fora? Aren’t they the same people who once mentored ‘Gentlemen Cadets’ so that they could become “Officers and Gentlemen’?
Many have chosen politics as their second calling like so many other veterans who select varied professions after retirement from the service. The least one expects from these worthies is that they remember that the only religion of the soldier whom they once proudly led, is his Uniform and the only colour that soldier recognises is the colour of Blood. The soldier respected him for that, was proud to call him his Boss and was ready to walk to his death on his orders. Let not political or any other expediency play riot with this sacred sentiment of the soldier.
After all, “discretion should remain the better part of valour”.
The men at the helm of affairs as well as those at the front have a job to do. Let them do it. Such unseemly distractions are the last thing they need. They need all the support the country can give them.
When the storm is looming on the horizon, the wise brace for it together and stand united. Let good sense prevail.