National days and even respective institutional days of celebration could always include a remembrance for martyrs and any other activities which focus on the sacrifices of the Armed Forces
Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
India has a rich martial tradition across its entire diversity. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and armed policemen from all over its length and breadth have sacrificed their lives for the cause they believed in. Well before the foundation of the Republic of India, its rich history of resistance against foreign invasion and the sacrifices of those in uniform laid the foundations of our martial traditions. Almost 72,000 Indian soldiers perished in the First World War and 89,000 in World War II, all in the service of colonial masters. The latter in no way militates against the ethos and spirit of sacrifice. The achievements of Indian servicemen ensured the survival of Britain and its eventual victory in both wars resulting in a far greater empathy towards India’s potential independence which finally arrived in 1947.
Setting the Standards
Since 1947 the Indian Armed Forces have fought five wars and been continuously involved in hybrid operations to control insurgencies and terror related activities. The engagement against Pakistan in the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield of the world, has itself taken over 850 lives since 1984 and left hundreds of others who lost their limbs or suffered other grievous injuries. A journey along the Line of Control in J&K or the border areas of Punjab will bring to light many small memorials dedicated to the valour and sacrifice of unsung heroes who gave their today for the tomorrow of generations of their countrymen. India’s Armed Forces reflect the highest standards of discipline and professionalism and the Indian society at large undoubtedly appreciates what servicemen do for the country. Yet considering the types of threats, the privations servicemen undergo and the societal impact arising out of the concept of keeping the armed forces young, there is much greater scope what needs to be done. It is seldom realised that the requirement of physical and mental fitness in the forces is of such an order that servicemen get enrolled as young as 16 years of age and shed the uniform at 34 unless
promoted (85 per cent are in this age criteria of retirement). In the latter case too with the highest rank of Subedar Major (or equivalent) most of few who achieve it retire at 48. Officers, who are as educated and qualified as any bureaucrat, corporate person or technocrat, serve up to 54 unless they get promoted up a steep pyramid where the chance of promotion, due to the structure of the organisation, remains extremely low. Less than 1.25 per cent of officers commissioned every year make it to three star rank through the steep ladder of selection based promotions. In comparison to all other central and state services, the career prospects of those who protect our borders or deliver in indeterminate circumstances are the worst. Thus servicemen are subjected to extreme physical and emotional privations, separation from families at crucial stages of life, poor career prospects, early retirement with little assurance of second careers and a society in which lip service is done in terms of empathy, recognition and motivation. Yet during crises the Armed Forces are always the high quality responders when all else fail. This paradox is not peculiar to India alone. It’s a phenomenon universally prevalent because the hum drum of fast paced life leaves little time to focus on what many consider as banalities and responsibility of the state alone. That is not a truism because unless societies take ownership of their people in uniform the delivery of security and all other responsibilities will remain transactional and never transcend to the level of becoming transformational.
Respect for Armed Forces
The official stance of government, bureaucracy and officialdom must be to focus society towards respecting its Armed Forces personnel. This is done through erection of symbols of sacrifice such as memorials, dedication of calendar days with appropriate labels in sync with important historical events and such like activities which act as reminders. December 16 is Vijay Diwas andJuly 26 is now Kargil Vijay Diwas. Ceremonies on these days must be well attended with public participation from different walks of life. Feting of veterans at state capitals introduced by the current government must go down to districts and even lower. I had the occasion to witness one of the most outstanding events at Nagpur in recent months—the Dharma Sanskruti Mahakumbh—War Widows Felicitation, organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The number of war widows feted that day was the highest I ever witnessed in a single event. National days and even respective institutional days of celebration could always include a remembrance for martyrs and any other activities which sensitise and focus on the sacrifice by the Armed Forces. University convocation days, annual school days and corporate motivational events must include an element of
corporate social responsibility towards buildup of patriotism and recognition of sacrifice by at least symbolic reference to people who have made the supreme sacrifice for the nation. The necessity of evoking sentiments for families, war widows and veterans must become instinctive to create a national ethos. Not the least among reasons for this is the fact that Armed Forces personnel are the only segment of Indians who swear an oath to willingly sacrifice their lives for the nation.
It is extremely encouraging to witness the practice adopted by some airlines to invite personnel from the Armed Forces at airports to board before anyone else, at all times. Announcements at airports in this regard are sending a
positive message. However, one is also witness to some comments as to why Armed Forces personnel need to be placed on a pedestal when all they are doing is a job for which they have volunteered and are paid. This is an unfortunate and misplaced understanding. The profession of arms may be a voluntary one in our nation but historically has always been considered one in which the level of sacrifice is the highest. Nationalist and patriotic people in any nation do not consider this profession in terms of a commercial contract involving delivery of results for a sum of money. The strength of security comes from the quality of manpower fielded as servicemen; that responsibility has no price attached to it; in fact it is virtually priceless. What India needs is to develop this understanding across its people so that sustainable and balanced patriotism accrues as the benefit for all.
It will only be appropriate to mention here that the larger community of Armed Forces people has minimal expectations from both the Government and society. The most important aspect is sensitivity. Relevant military veteran representation in decision-making positions dealing with welfare and other affairs will go a far in creating this sensitivity. Perhaps it may be a good beginning in the integration of the Ministry of Defence that first its
Ex-Sevicemen’s department is integrated by having uniformed personnel serving with civil bureaucracy. Among a host of issues which can be suggested for better management of veteran community of the Armed Forces there are two which probably the government may already be looking at. First is the setting up of a Veterans Commission as a constitutional body; that will become the highest consultative body on these issues. Second is the construction of a National War Memorial. This already stands approved by the Government along with a National War Museum. The Russian model of encouraging many of its young people to visit the National War Memorial at the time of their wedding is such an outstanding one that one is tempted to suggest something similar for the promotion of recognition and empathy for our Armed Forces personnel, their sacrifice and their way of life.
In the modern networked world perhaps an additional way of enhancing public awareness about the sacrifice of the Armed Forces and imbibing some their culture can also be promoted by making it compulsory for all Indian institutional websites to carry a prominent displayed link to the web site of the Additional Directorate General of the Indian Army and corresponding websites of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force.
(The writer is former Commander of Srinagar-based 15 Corps)