Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD, commanded an Engineer Regiment on the Siachen Glacier, the most hostile battlefield in the world. A highly qualified officer (B Tech, MA (Public Administration), MSc (Defence Studies) and a Doctorate in Public Administration) he was also the Task Force Commander at Pokhran and was responsible for designing and sinking shafts for the nuclear tests of May 1998.
As India celebrates 62 years of Independence, one tends to wonder: what makes nations great? Why is the US an undisputed world power? Why has Britain remained undefeated for centuries? Why has India succumbed to foreign rule so often? Why is India still struggling with internal dissensions and fissiparous forces? What does India lack?
A chance meeting with a British army veteran in a train from Edinburgh to London proved highly revealing. According to him, the secret of British success lies in the public support and respect extended to the soldiers.
`Soldiers` loyalty to the nation and readiness for the supreme sacrifice are driven less by material considerations and more by an overwhelming urge to earn love and respect of their countrymen. A grateful nation`s recognition of their contribution to national security acts as the strongest motivator,` he declared.
`Britain never forgets its war heroes. Every major landmark in London is named after distinguished soldiers and not politicians,` he pointed out proudly. To prove his point further, he recalled, `Before World War II, it was not uncommon to see placards hanging outside some restaurants in Paris which read `Dogs, lackeys and soldiers not allowed`. On the other hand, even pregnant women used to get up and offer seats to soldiers in London buses. When the war broke out, France capitulated in no time while Britain remained undefeated.`
In an article written two days before the swearing-in of US President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle devoted 515 out of 863 words to the soldiers and their families. `So as I watch Barack take that oath, I`ll be thinking especially about those members of our American family who stand guard across the world and the loved ones who await their safe return... My husband and I are deeply grateful for the sacrifices that these families make to protect all American families. And we join them -- today and every day -- in praying for their loved ones and their safety. They don`t ask a lot in return, just a Washington that understands the challenges they face as part of their extraordinary commitment to our country... My husband understands that commitment, and he will ensure America lives up to its end,` she wrote.
`On Tuesday night, my husband and I will tuck in our daughters like we always do. Their bedrooms will be different, their home unfamiliar. But they will drift off to sleep protected by that same sacrifice that has kept all of our families safe and safeguarded our freedom for generations -- the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and their families...For that, we could not be more grateful -- or more proud,` she added.
Now let us compare the above with the state of affairs in India. Can anyone recall a similar expression of sentiments by a national figure? Except for perfunctory platitudes on Independence Day, the Government has singularly failed to show compassion for the soldiers or tried to redress their genuine grievances. Apathetic political leadership and bureaucracy have made no attempt to understand the intensity of sense of hurt of the soldiers at their continued neglect and deliberate degradation.
Despite repeated representations, India still does not have a war memorial in the capital to honour independent India`s martyrs. India wants to ape the West in all sundry aspects, but not in matters that affect the well-being and morale of the armed forces. The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington in Washington, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Cenotaph in London are admired by all Indian visitors. Yet the absence of a suitable war memorial in New Delhi does not appear odd to them. Surprisingly, it does not even hurt the conscience of the nation. There is no other country that can be so apathetic to the memory of thousands of soldiers who have laid down their lives for its security.
Our Urban Development Ministry is more concerned with the vestiges of the British rule, and opposes a war memorial near India Gate in the name of preserving heritage. India Gate was built in the memory of soldiers who died in World War I during the British rule. India has fought five wars since Independence and over 40,000 soldiers have made the supreme sacrifice. Opposition to a war memorial on frivolous grounds is an affront to the memory of martyrs and displays shameless insensitivity to the feelings of those who have lost their family members. But then, no political leader or bureaucrat can be faulted for their inability to appreciate these issues as they never send their progeny to the military.
Look at the treatment meted out to India`s tallest military leader, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the architect of India`s greatest victory ever. It took the Government decades to determine and release his dues. India has not found him worthy of its highest national honour, the `Bharat Ratna`. No political leader thought it necessary to attend his funeral.
In Britain and the US, heads of the State with full national leadership would have made it a point to be present to pay a nation`s grateful respects.
Nelson`s Column at Trafalgar Square occupies the pride of place in London. London boasts of numerous statues of military heroes. No statues of political leaders are seen in the developed countries. India, on the contrary, has not found it necessary to honour Field Marshal Manekshaw`s memory whereas statues of political leaders (many with dubious credentials) dot New Delhi.
It will not be out of place here to recall the speech of President Obama at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention at the Phoenix Convention Center on 17 August 2009. He said, `You have fulfilled your responsibilities. And now a grateful nation must fulfill ours. Whether you've left the service in 2009 or 1949, we will fulfill our responsibility to deliver the benefits and care that you earned.` He described America`s commitment to its veterans as sacred bonds and a sacred trust Americans are honour bound to uphold.
`You have done your duty - to your fallen comrades, to your communities, to your country. You have always fulfilled your responsibilities to America. And so long as I am President of the United States, America will always fulfill its responsibilities to you`, he declared.
Contrast the above pledge and assurance with the apathetic treatment meted out to the ex-servicemen in India. In the recent past, India was witness to the most unfortunate sight of numerous military veterans returning their medals to the President to register their protest against the Government`s indifference to their pleas. Medals earned during active service are the proudest possession of soldiers, and their being driven to surrender them should have made the Government sit up and take note.
But true to its wont, it remained totally unconcerned and unmoved. Not a single Government leader or official has considered it necessary to talk to the protesting veterans to resolve the issues. This episode will certainly go down as a dark chapter in the history of Independent India.
India won the Kargil War of 1999 at a huge cost -- 527 officers and soldiers sacrificed their lives while over a 1,000 sustained battle injuries, many maimed forever. Yet, a senior Congress leader, Mr Rashid Alvi, had the impudence to state that commemoration was not warranted as the war took place due to an intelligence failure of the BJP Government. Every Indian soldier, both serving and retired, was aghast at the brazenness of the logic.
A notion has been deliberately perpetuated that the military must be kept under control through the bureaucracy lest it acquires political ambitions. Examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh are quoted to implant the fear of a military takeover in the minds of gullible and ignorant political leadership. A systematic and well planned strategy has been orchestrated to downgrade the military`s standing. The Sixth Central Pay Commission was the latest master stroke.
Although the public at large still holds the military in high esteem, a deliberate media campaign is being orchestrated by some elements with vested interests to show the military in a poor light. Instead of appreciating the military for initiating prompt disciplinary action against defaulters -- handful acts of misdemeanor and indiscretion in a 1.3 million strong organisation -- such cases are sensationalised to paint a negative picture of the services.
Historically, India does not have a culture of valuing its military. That is the reason that every invader succeeded in defeating and enslaving the sub-continent. If India survives today despite inept political leadership and the self-serving bureaucracy, it is only due to the unquestioned loyalty of the military and enormous sacrifices made by the soldiers.
Denigration of the military always proves fatal in the long run. Any country that discredits the status of its soldiers loses the moral right to expect them to die for its security. Great nations are distinguished by the esteem in which they hold their military.
No nation that stubbornly declines to honour the martyrs, respect the soldiers and care for the veterans can ever aspire to be counted amongst the great nations, slogans like `Mera Bharat Mahan` not withstanding.
Where have all our heroes gone? | More articles by General Suman
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