In the midst of the grim bleakness that seems to suffuse every facet of our national existence today, a tiny ray of sunshine seems to have emanated from South Block. The stoic ministry of defence issued a statement Friday morning that the defence minister and three service chiefs would honour the memory of Indian soldiers who had fallen on the battlefield during the 1962 Sino-Indian clash.
When this wreath is laid on Oct 20, it could be a gesture of epic significance, not just to a million-and-a-half Indian men and women bearing arms for the nation, but even more so for the two to three million-strong fraternity of armed forces veterans, including many war-wounded, as well as the kin of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen who "gave their today for our tomorrow".
For a politico-bureaucratic establishment that has stubbornly refused to acknowledge, by word or deed, the sterling contribution of the soldier to India's freedom struggle, its post-partition consolidation and to combating the repeated assaults on its territorial integrity, this initiative is a belated, but nevertheless a welcome gesture of gratitude.
Whichever country I visited in my official capacity, one of the first events on the itinerary was invariably a tribute to their fallen soldiers at the national war memorial or memorial-cum-museum. Whether it was the Arlington Memorial in Washington, the Cenotaph in London, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the impressive Jatiyo Sriti Soudho in Dhaka, the pride of my hosts was palpable as we stood before these imposing monuments to pay solemn homage to their national heroes.
Receiving distinguished visitors back home in New Delhi, one had to suppress deep embarrassment that we were paying homage at a monument erected by the British in memory of soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. It was obvious to the distinguished guests that the sole contribution of the government of free India was the 7.62 mm rifle with a helmet perched on it - recognised worldwide as a temporary battlefield marker for a soldier's grave. The world's capitals are replete with heroic statues of soldiers, and avenues named after generals and famous battles. In India, we celebrate politicians, saints, poets, musicians and even filmstars - but not soldiers.
It is difficult to discern whether it is political disdain or bureaucratic chicanery that underpins the attitude of the Indian state towards its soldiery. This is inexplicable because the armed forces have, since independence, remained the most loyal, patriotic and steadfast pillars of India's democracy and secularism. These are the very young men and women whose gallantry and patriotism has repeatedly saved the nation from disintegration and dishonour as our glaring strategic naiveté repeatedly led to adventurism by our neighbours in 1947, 1962, 1965 and 1999.
The refusal to pay homage to fallen soldiers on the anniversaries of the Bangladesh and Kargil wars or the Sri Lanka Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) operations on specious political grounds is completely incomprehensible and inexcusable because Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka celebrate these events in their own ways. The crowning ignominy is the fact that the Sri Lankan government has been gracious enough to erect an impressive monument to the IPKF dead, while these fallen Indian soldiers remain unsung in their motherland.
Our elected representatives are repeatedly heard agonising over officer shortages in the armed forces, and often go to the extent of saying that the standards be lowered, if necessary, to enhance intake. A little reflection would inform these worthies that young men, today are loath to join the armed forces because, amongst other reasons, the profession of arms in India has been steadily denuded of status, prestige and respect due to many politico-bureaucratic acts of omission and commission. If the shabby and discriminatory treatment meted out by successive pay commissions was not bad enough, the litigation pursued by the union of India against its own soldiers, right up to the Supreme Court - whose verdicts it implements selectively and with tardiness - has deeply hurt and upset them.
Every officer of the armed forces swears allegiance which ends with the following words: "...I will observe and obey all the commands of the President of the Union of India... even to the peril of my life." One wonders if a recent president of India realised that the men whom she repeatedly and thoughtlessly turned away from the portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan were battle-scarred veterans who had responded to their nation's call and the Supreme Commander's commands...even to the peril of their lives.
Against this dismal background, one fervently hopes that Defence Minister A.K. Antony's pathbreaking gesture will mark the beginning of a new era of mutual respect and regard between the civil and military domains in India.
(Admiral Arun Prakash is a former Chief of the Naval Staff and former chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)