Ypres, Somme, Flanders, Borneo, Singapore, Marseille, Mesopotamia, Baghdad, Somalia, Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone. This long – and incomplete – list of far flung and obscure names has one thing in common. Soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces have fought and shed blood in each of these places and several dozen more.
It would behove politicians, commentators and TV anchors, who seem to have discovered (and by some claims, even unleashed), the prowess of the Indian Army after the surgical strikes, to realise that the Indian army has been doing its job well before they were born. Indeed, before any TV channel, political institution, think-tank or even our republic was born. With due respect, the Indian armed forces don’t need lessons in delivering retribution, strategising or conducting its operations.
Ironically, our Army has always been perfectly capable of handling challenges on the other side of the border. It is the home front where it needs help.
The home front
Those going ballistic about the death of 18 soldiers in Uri might want to know that the Indian Army loses over 50 times that many soldiers every year because of accidents. Our troops operate outdated equipment in suicidal conditions for years on end. The nation might be surprised to know that the Indian Army suffered staggering casualties of 1,874 soldiers, dead and wounded, during Operation Parakaram, the mobilisation following the Parliament attack on December 13, 2001. That was more than the losses during the Kargil conflict and most of the casualties were because of the poor state of equipment and inadequate training due to heavy commitment of troops.
Our soldiers experience extremes of temperature – from minus 45 degrees in Siachen to plus 48 in the deserts. A soldier’s life span is much less than his civilian counterparts because of this physical and mental trauma. And the nation might also want to know that the soldiers pay for their life insurance out of their own salaries.
Those wanting to take the war across the border might want to know that our disabled soldiers have to battle their own government to get pension that is rightfully theirs. Their disability is contested by their own ministry in courts for years, haggling over the broken body of a soldier to supposedly save a few thousand rupees for the exchequer.
Those drawing comparisons with the United States or Israeli forces might want to ask why equipment acquisition plans, recommended after the Kargil conflict more than a decade ago, are still languishing. Those yearning to see footage of their Army’s strikes on the other side of the Line of Control might also want to ask their TV channels for a report on the status of the One Rank One Pay impasse or why the inefficient Defence Research and Development Organisation holds the establishment to ransom.
What stops Indian companies from adopting regiments in their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes and rehabilitating ex-servicemen in roles other than just security? Every retired soldier has at least two decades of operational and man management experience. Just a few weeks of orientation training can unlock their potential as supervisors, project managers and entrepreneurs. Let us remember, it is these very soldiers whom the nation calls for assistance in floods, fires, train accidents, earthquakes and nation building initiatives.
It is ironic that we seek our troops when bridges have to be built during commonwealth games, to reconstruct war-torn countries that seek India’s help, when railways go on strike, to run hospitals during epidemics and to administer cities when the civil administration fails. And yet, when it comes to rehabilitation after retirement, we relegate them to the ignominy of security guards who have to open doors and check the underbelly of cars. Yes, there are organisations such as the resettlement directorate, which are supposed to train and teach new skills to ex-servicemen, but unless the corporate sector takes an active interest in their rehabilitation, most of our soldiers will continue to be under-leveraged and under-compensated.
Many ex-servicemen are unable to avail of free medical facilities of major army hospitals because they don’t have the means to survive in that city during their treatment. Why can’t companies dedicate a few of their guest houses in every city for ex-servicemen?
Similarly, why can’t financial institutions come up with loan products specially designed for ex-servicemen? After all, which other profession guarantees a service record of two decades with a bona fide character certificate at the end of it? Why must a soldier pay the same rates as those whose financial risk is calculated on the basis of just 6 to 12 months of service?
These days, it is common for many professionals to shuttle between cities during the working week to avoid disturbing their children’s education – especially in the critical years. Now, consider the children of soldiers who are disturbed every two years because of their father’s postings. We need to appreciate that a soldier’s child, by definition, has a single parent upbringing, deprived of her father’s presence for 10 months a year during her entire childhood. Why can’t schools appreciate these constraints and provide some leeway to them during admissions? Or take pride in providing guaranteed seats to them?
And if we can’t do any of this, why can’t we just thank our soldiers for their service to the country? Not just when Uri or Kargil remind us of them, but as an ongoing gesture, whenever we come across them in our routine lives. Just a dignified conversation, asking them about their postings, their challenges and, even if we can’t help them, just acknowledging their service.
The next time you see a slick, action-packed advertisement on television inviting our youth to join the Army, be aware of an ultimate irony. That this is the only government job our country has to advertise for.
Patriotism is a contact sport. It can’t be played in social media or TV debates. A nation of 1.2 billion people cannot outsource patriotism to 1.2 million soldiers. If we genuinely want to support and strengthen our Armed Forces, let us begin by ensuring they have the wherewithal to do what our nation asks them to do. And assuring the soldier who goes to safeguard our frontiers that he doesn’t have to worry also about watching his back.
Raghu Raman is founding CEO of NATGRID and President in Reliance Industries. He tweets @captraman. All views are personal.