On the eve of the 70th Independence Day of our country, I would like to share a story with the readers. This story is not about a person or an event. The story is about a solitary dining place at the Cadets Mess at the National Defence Academy (NDA) at Khadakwasla. Set up in December 1954, NDA is the first tri-services academy in the world. It trains cadets for permanent commission in the three services (Army, Navy and Air Force) and its alumni have fought valiantly in every major conflict.
Cadets live on the campus and develop strong bonds with their course mates. However, NDA is singularly different from other campus in one way – not only do the cadets forge bonds with each other, an equally strong bond is formed with all those who would have graduated from NDA , even if many years ago. A kinship is developed and the ethos of never letting down a fellow comrade-in-arms is strongly ingrained.
Nowhere is this symbolized as poignantly as in the Cadets Mess at NDA. Apart from the regular dining tables, the dining hall has an empty table near the entrance with a forlorn chair. It is laid out for a solitary diner with complete crockery and cutlery. However, it is never ever occupied: the chair is tilted forward and the crockery is upturned. The table has a vase with a red rose and a red ribbon, an empty glass, an unlit candle, a slice of lemon and salt on the bread plate. A casual visitor may be pardoned for wondering – whom is this place for? Why the upturned chair, the empty glass, a rose and ribbon?
This ‘Table for One’ is in remembrance of all those soldiers who fought in various wars but never returned – neither alive nor dead. They were either taken as Prisoners of War (PoW) or declared as Missing in Action.
In the wake of the Shimla Agreement after the Indo-Pak War of 1971, India repatriated over 90,000 Pakistani PoWs but shamefully failed to secure the release of 54 Indian PoWs. As per the Third Geneva Convention (both India and Pakistan are signatories to the same), every PoW must be treated humanely, be allowed to inform his next of kin and International Committee of the Red Cross of his capture, given adequate food, clothing, housing and medical aid, and released quickly after cessation of conflict. However, in complete defiance of these terms, there has been no information about the 54 soldiers – even though it has been long wait of 45 years for their families and comrades since the war ended.
Despite proof of Indian soldiers languishing in Pakistani jails and sustained efforts by their families to secure their release, nothing tangible has happened. Bureaucratic files moved, papers were pushed – but to no avail. 54 young men were condemned to rot in jails for having committed the sin of fighting bravely in a war that was not created by them. The trauma and torture that would have been inflicted on them cannot even be imagined.
Their families were doomed to spend the rest of their lives doing the rounds of different Government offices and persuading, requesting and begging an indifferent politico-bureaucracy to bring back their loved ones. Aged parents went to their graves with broken hearts and children grew up without their fathers. Many of these soldiers were as young as 25 years old, married for not more than a year or two. Imagine the plight of a 23 year old girl – who lived with her husband for 1 year and led the rest of her life fighting a callous government for securing her husband’s release. Life passed both her and her soldier husband by – she was neither a wife, nor a widow; could not experience motherhood; doomed to decades of uncertainty, seeking only clarity or closure – but getting neither.
Subsequent petitions by children who grew up without fathers led to the ministers flippantly asking them, “Do you think they are still alive?” I wonder if any minister would have thought the same if his father/brother/son were languishing in the Pakistan jails. Even if one of the soldiers (who may have been alive) can be brought back, it would mean closure for at least one brave family. Numbers are not important here, what is important is how a nation can willfully and shamelessly forget its own people.
But while the nation has forgotten these men, their fellow soldiers haven’t. ‘The Table for One’ is a poignant reminder to the cadets that the missing men were carefree youngsters like them, who roamed the same halls and whose boisterous laughter would have resonated within the same walls.
Every item of ‘The Table for One’ symbolizes something poignant. The forlorn single chair is symbolic of the overwhelming odds that the conquered prisoner must have faced. The unlit candle speaks about the insurmountable spirit that would not have broken despite capture, and possible extreme torture. The upturned plate and the empty glass acknowledge the fact that these PoW may never return, the red rose is reminiscent of the patience of the families that are still waiting to embrace a loved son, a beloved husband, a younger brother and an indulgent father. The lemon and salt symbolize the bitter fate, heartbreak and tears that are left for the families who deal with uncertainty. The red ribbon is reminiscent of the red ribbon worn on the lapel of all their supporters who bear witness to their determination to get a proper accounting of these missing soldiers.
It is in the honour of these men, that the armed forces have kept the tradition alive for the last 45 years. However these men did not belong only to an institution called the Indian Armed Forces. They belonged to a nation called India.
As we celebrate the Independence Day wearing the obligatory tricolour clothes and listening to patriotic speeches and songs, perhaps it would be fitting to spend a minute or two in reflection. Reflect on what is it that makes a young man risk all for his country – a fairly tenuous ideal in these days when everything is defined by material success or in the ability to create anarchy in the name of freedom of expression? What is it that makes a 30 year old man leave his beautiful wife and young kids behind and serve for 2 years at the inhospitable terrain of Siachen? What is it that makes a 25 year old jump into a raging river to rescue civilians during floods, knowing well that the same set of people may pelt him with stones a year later?
As we enjoy our country’s Independence Day along with our loved ones, spare a thought for a family where a son has been missing for decades, for children who don’t even know what their father would be looking like now and for men who are still waiting for their comrades to come back. Let us at least remember their sacrifices and sympathise with those who are still clinging to the ever-fading hope of reuniting with their loved ones. ‘The Table for One’ waits wistfully for them to return.