The plaque at the Headquarters of the US Department of Veteran Affairs has a quote from President Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural address, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan”. A brief quote, but the powerful message it conveys is possibly one of the drivers for USA being the dominant nation that it is today. Simply put, it calls upon the nation to value and respect its soldiers.
Most nations recognise and share the same sentiment – respecting the men who have sworn to defend its borders. A nation can only progress when there is peace, and peace is guaranteed by the men in uniform. Thus, respecting the soldier is an ingrained fundamental value in most countries.
An exception is our neighbouring state of Pakistan. The country was created on a platform of hate and assumption that the ‘pure’ cannot coexist with the ímpure’ aka infidels. Independent Pakistan started its existence with treachery when it unleased Pashtun marauders on the Kashmir Valley in 1948. This proxy war has continued since then, with Pakistan using all means – often foul – to foment trouble in India. Since then it has focused so much on ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’ that it appears to have embedded hatred, deceit and duplicity as its core values. So much so, that it appears to have turned on this hatred and deceit even upon its own soldiers.
As is well known, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF) planes were engaged in a skirmish on 27th Feb 2019. In the ensuing dogfight an IAF Mig 21 Bison fired a R73 air-to-air missile and shot down a PAF Lockheed Martin F16. However, the Mig 21 Bison was also shot down by Pakistani surface-to-air gunfire. Both the pilots ejected mid air and landed in PoK.
One of these pilots is back home. He is a hero. The other pilot is dead. He lies un-sung.
The difference between the fate of these two pilots starkly shows the difference between a responsible nation that values its fighters and a rogue nation that does not care about its brave.
IAF’s Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman landed in PoK and was kept in captivity by the Pakistan Army for 60 hours. But since Pakistan is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, it had no option other than to release him. Abhinandan came home to a hero’s well-deserved welcome. His soldier-like demeanour and composure were applauded by his countrymen. When he walked across the Wagah-Atari border, the relief and pride could be seen on all faces on the Indian side. The President, the Prime Minister and all the other leaders praised his courage. Various non-state players announced awards for his bravery. A Wikipedia page is dedicated to Abhinandan. Even his unique moustache has become a trend among the youth. Today, Indians acknowledge Abhinandan as their real-life superhero!
Abhinandan’s parents were given a standing ovation when they flew in from Chennai to Delhi.
Strangers came up to them, touched their feet and applauded them. India erupted in a spontaneous show of solidarity with them in their moments of anxiety.
This outpouring of affection and respect was the collective gratitude that the nation was showing one of its brave sons and his family. It was the heartfelt recognition for a soldier who epitomized the best of human spirit.
Contrast this outpouring of love to the deception that surrounded the fate of the second pilot. Initial media reports from Pakistan alleged that he was also an Indian. Pakistan Army’s Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said at a press conference, that “Our ground forces arrested two pilots; one of them was injured and shifted to (CMH) Combined Military Hospital”, however no further information was shared.
Subsequent reports showed that one of the fallen planes was a PAF F16 and queries were raised on the status of the missing pilot. A Pakistani-origin UK-based lawyer Khalid Umar, claiming to have strong sources in the PAF, revealed that the dogfight led to the crash, injuries and subsequent death of a Pakistani fighter pilot, identified as Wg Cdr Shahzaz Ud Din of No. 19 Squadron.
Pakistan has refuted this assertion and denied the existence of any such pilot.
However, India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman confirmed that the Indian military knew the identity of the second pilot. “The truth is that the F16 pilot was beaten by locals, probably by mistake, assuming that he is an Indian pilot. He was admitted in a hospital, but I don’t think he survived,” she said on 12th March 2019.
Pakistan has refused to even acknowledge that one of their pilots was martyred in the dogfight. Perhaps the establishment is ashamed that 24 PAF planes were chased away by 8 IAF ones. Perhaps it is embarrassed that a 4th generation F16 was shot down by a 3rd generation Mig 21 Bison. Or perhaps, it treats its troops as expendable commodities, given that it has never ever fought a fair war.
What could be more heart wrenching for a soldier than the realisation that his country even refuses to acknowledge him?
Most soldiers are idealists. They live and die for the idea of a nation, even defying the primal instinct of self-preservation. What makes them do so? It is not arrogance or bravado. It is not recklessness. When a soldier is involved in a conflict, he is aware of the risks – not only to him, but also to the wife who will become a widow and the children who will lose a father. Yet, he subordinates his personal interests to that of the nation and the organization.
Soldiers like IAF’s Abhinandan and PAF’s Shahzaz are ready to make the supreme sacrifice for their nation. Irrespective of their planes, their families, their personal ideologies …when they were engaged in a mid-air dogfight, they were discharging their duty towards their nation. This is the code of honour that is ingrained in every soldier – to die for his comrades, his unit and his country. A soldier’s war is not a personal war, but he risks his all, in the hope of earning the love and respect of his countrymen. The strongest motivator for him is the recognition of his contribution by the grateful nation.
Most nations recognize a martyr by publicly acknowledging his sacrifice, which includes but is not limited to a ceremonial military funeral. The country’s flag draped on the coffin, a ceremonial salute, the playing of the ‘Last Post’ ( a bugle/trumpet call used in military funerals in Commonwealth countries, symbolising the fact that the duty of the dead soldier is over and that he can rest in peace), presence of senior leaders and military officials – these are some of the ways in which a nation attempts to show its gratitude.
Acknowledging the martyrs does not bring them back. But when a nation expresses its gratitude to the bereaved family, it is a sign of respect for the fallen soldier. It symbolizes solidarity with the family and conveys that the country values his sacrifice and that he will always remain a hero to his people and the country is eternally indebted to him.
But it seems that Pakistan has adopted deceit as a state policy and does not recognize the debt it owes to Wing Cdr Shahzaz. His motherland has neither acknowledged his existence nor expressed gratitude for his supreme sacrifice. He was possibly denied a ceremonial military funeral as should have been due to him. His family may have been denied the right to publicly mourn and cry for a son who died in the line of duty. He died unknown and unsung.
It is possible that nobody will know the complete truth about the PAF pilot, but it is certain that there is a grieving family somewhere in Pakistan, who lost a brave son.
This is not the first time that Pakistan has refused to acknowledge its dead soldiers. Even in the Kargil war in 1999, Pakistan had refused to take back the bodies of its slain troops. The dead Pakistani soldiers were buried with respect on Indian soil, by the Indian troops. In keeping with its track record of deception and blatant disregard for its soldiers, Pakistan officially and belatedly acknowledged its war casualties, eleven years later in 2010.
One wonders – what ideal did Shahzaz die for? What does one say about a nation that refuses to acknowledge one of its bravest and its finest? Does the bereaved mother rue the day when she granted permission to her teenaged son to join an ungrateful organization like the Pakistan Armed Forces? Does the distraught father feel cheated by his indifferent country? Do his comrades wonder that if they too fall at the hands of IAF, their existence will also be denied by their organization and country? Do his brother officers’ question if they too will someday share the same fate- die in the line of duty, and then be buried in some grave somewhere, unsung and un-honoured?
Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta. Currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.
Note: The views expressed in the article are of the author's and not of Sify.com.
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